Illustration of clothing rack inside library bookshelf

The spotlight

At a library in Dover, New Hampshire, earlier this year, the shelves of books and CDs typically available for lending were accompanied by something else — racks of clothes. Every Sunday and Monday from December through mid-January, community members could visit a lecture hall in the Dover Public Library to participate in the pilot of a new type of lending project: a clothing library. Visitors could check out up to five garments for two weeks at a time. The collection focused on “occasion wear,” the types of things people might buy for the purpose of wearing once: a holiday party dress, a wedding outfit, a ski trip ensemble.

But more than displacing those types of purchases, and the resulting waste, the real idea behind the project was to facilitate a shift in behavior, said Stella Martinez McShera, the clothing library’s creator. “How can we bridge the gap between people buying, whether that’s new or secondhand, to borrowing?”

A woman sits at a table in a large meeting room, surrounded by racks of clothes on hangers

McShera with the clothing library setup. Courtesy of Stella Martinez McShera

I met McShera while reporting another newsletter story on the world’s first degrowth master’s program, run by a university in Barcelona. She’s a recent graduate of the online master’s, and the clothing library was her thesis project. In that story, we explored what happens when the philosophical ideas of a new economic system meet the realities of the one we have. McShera’s project is one example of what that looks like in practice.

. . .

McShera started her career in fashion. In 2000, she launched the first fashion incubator in the U.S. But as much as she loved the essence of fashion, she knew that the industry was guilty of horrifying human rights abuses, pollution, and waste. She had long been interested in circular fashion, but she came to feel that even a circular approach was not enough to get to the root of all the ills associated with fast fashion. When she discovered degrowth and the master’s program, it became a proving ground for her ideas about replacing fast fashion and extraction with borrowing and being resourceful with what already exists.

McShera started building her clothing library pilot by collecting surplus garments from local thrift and vintage stores. It’s estimated that thrift stores sell only about 20 percent of the donated clothing they receive. Even vintage boutiques and curated consignment shops will end up getting rid of some garments they weren’t able to sell in a set time. “They have to cycle stuff in,” she said. “So even if it’s something really cute, maybe they overpriced it at the thrift store, or maybe it just didn’t sell in two weeks because it’s a sweater and it’s unseasonably warm.”

Just from local secondhand shops, McShera quickly gathered over 5,000 garments — even more than she could take, she said. She donated her own surplus to a housing shelter, winnowing the library collection down to about 1,500 items.

McShera kicked off the launch with a fashion show in the stacks. Professionally coiffed librarians modeled items from the collection for photographers and a crowd of over 160 attendees. “It was so much fun,” said Denise LaFrance, the Dover library’s director. The fashion show was the biggest indoor event at the library in her 25-year tenure. “I mean, seriously, people still are talking about it.”

Two side-by-side photos show models walking down the aisle of a library dressed in fun outfits and each carrying a book

Models walk the runway during the fashion show at the Dover Public Library. Jason Shamesman

During the pilot, McShera also hosted an eco-fashion panel and three workshops on mending and styling, intended to help people think differently about their relationship to their wardrobes. “Because it’s free, people were more willing to experiment with their style,” McShera said. There was no guilt or shame associated with returning something, because returning was an understood part of the process.

LaFrance borrowed, among other things, a pair of gray silk pants that she remembered loving, even though they weren’t the type of thing she would typically shop for. When she checked them out, they still had their original price tag attached. They retailed for about $400. “I would never buy $400 pants,” she said. “But they were fabulous.”

Over just 12 days of being open, McShera said, the library saw over a hundred people come through, and 65 borrowed something. And of the more than 100 garments that were checked out during the library’s pilot, all of them came back clean and in good condition.

“It’s the commoning of clothing,” McShera said. “It’s free access versus ownership.”

. . .

With the pilot concluded, and McShera’s thesis complete, she’s now looking toward the next steps of bringing clothing libraries to fruition in her community and beyond. She presented the concept at the 10th International Degrowth Conference last week in Spain, and plans to publish a manual that will empower community members all over the world to start their own projects, in partnership with their local libraries. Someday, she’d like to see a network of clothing libraries — sharing resources and knowledge, advocating for policy change, and possibly even swapping clothes to help keep their collections fresh.

Although she feels there’s more testing to be done, a few more local libraries in her area have already expressed interest in hosting a pilot, she noted.

“The most difficult thing about this was space and time,” said LaFrance. The library is in an old building, she said, “and we’re kind of bursting at the seams.” She suspects that most libraries would be similarly pressed to carve out space for a small shop’s worth of clothing racks. One thing she suggested to McShera was a setup more like a traveling bus.

But McShera’s ultimate vision is to integrate clothing into the normal functioning of a library. “The reason I wanted the model to be in partnership with the public libraries is because the behavior’s normal. People already know, I go in and I borrow,” she said. She added that libraries tend to be centrally located in cities and neighborhoods, highly visible and easily reachable by foot or transit. And many libraries — including Dover’s — already branch out from books, lending things like tools, games, and music.

“This just seems like a logical next step,” she said.

Rather than a pop-up in an event room, she envisions a future where clothing racks could find a permanent home in the library. There could even be regular staff members with fashion expertise who could steward the collections. “Just like if someone needs help using the photocopier or help researching something, you ask the librarian for help,” McShera said. “So if you wanted some help styling, you could say, ‘Hey, is there a clothing librarian on shift today?’”

— Claire Elise Thompson

More exposure

A parting shot

It has become increasingly common for public libraries and other community-serving organizations to offer “libraries of things” — collections of functional stuff that people might want to borrow for a short time, like toys, gear, musical instruments, and more. Here’s a photo of one such offering in the corner of a library in Frankfurt, Germany.

Mounted shelves on a wall display items like a picnic basket, several sports balls, and a juicer