Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends-Stealing-Boyfriends’-Clothes Paradigm

Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends-Stealing-Boyfriends’-Clothes Paradigm
Photo: Shutterstock/Lindsey Lanquist.

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Every winter, a certain epidemic sweeps over social media: Thousands of dismayed boyfriends take to Twitter to report that, once again, cuffing season means losing all their hoodies, flannels and anything else that’s remotely comfy to their girlfriends. From these modern heists all the way back to boys giving their letterman jackets to their “best girl” before going out for egg creams and sockhops (or whatever), it’s always been a universal truth that a girl in possession of a boyfriend will end up with all of his comfiest clothes.

I, on the other hand, have almost exclusively experienced the opposite as far as couples clothes swaps go. My boyfriend, Danny, has been swiping my clothes pretty much from the beginning of our relationship. Actually, it was precisely at the beginning, when he asked if he could try on my bright red floral sneakers and we figured out we were the same shoe size. Ever since, I’ve been the victim of dozens of thefts, from shoes to hats to jackets to my super-soft T-shirt with a Pusheen cat on it that my best friend Shelby gave me for Christmas one year. Danny’s hunger for clothes knows no bounds, and to add insult to injury, he always gets compliments on my stuff—from my vintage aviator boots to pretty much all of my sweaters. I get maybe one compliment every six months on something that, when usurped by Danny, suddenly becomes the most remarkable fashion piece of all time.

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While I watched him pillage my wardrobe one day a few months ago, I wondered what it’d be like if we had only each other’s clothes to choose from for a few days. Would it make any difference to our day-to-day if Danny had to go to his office in my flashy lady threads, or if I were limited to clothes not designed to do my curves any favors?

Then, I wondered if any other couples would be down for the same couples clothes swap experiment—to be locked into each others’ outfits for a little while. Danny and I have pretty much achieved parity in terms of how much of each others’ clothes we’ve stolen, but what about another couple? Were other partners as comfortable in each others’ stuff as we were?

I was also interested in what the boys’ experience would be, applying the kind of progressiveness to their dress that mainstream men’s fashion has been resisting for generations. From pants to suits to button-ups, female fashion has always tended to absorb and expand on male trends, while things rarely go the other way. If I were a betting woman, I’d put a crisp fiver on this being due to the overall patriarchal fear and loathing of the feminine (super healthy!), but I digress. (On that note, I think it’s important to acknowledge that I, as well as the other subjects in this piece, are cis, white people in heterosexual relationships, and that while it is in an attempt to examine the way gender is constructed in clothing, it unfortunately does involve discussing gender in a kind of binary way. If you and your partner want to take part in a similar couples clothes swap experiment, let me know—I’d love to expand the piece further.)

Becca & Danny

When I started this challenge on Monday, I really didn’t anticipate any trouble. I’d already mentally selected a few pieces I was always trying to swipe anyway—a light blue dress shirt and a blue sweater, in particular. I was less enthusiastic about having to choose pants. I had a lot of trepidation about what level of grace skinny-boy pants were going to have on my curves. But I managed to grab a few pairs of joggers that fit surprisingly well and called it a day, choosing to sidestep the process of trying my luck in Danny’s jeans.

clothing swap14 Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends Stealing Boyfriends Clothes Paradigm

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Danny seemed to have only one objective when going through my clothes, and I confirmed this in our post-clothes swap experiment interview: He was all about the comfort. The first outfit he assembled was basically pajamas. Right off the bat, he asked about a pair of sweatpants I hadn’t seen in a year and a half. He had, like, instant comfort recall. Danny didn’t have to think when I asked him what the worst part of the swap was for him: “Your jeans had no pockets! I had to wear a jacket all the time because I’m not just gonna hold my phone in my hand like an idiot.” When I pointed out the jeans did have back pockets, he scoffed and told me keeping things in your back pockets was bad for your back. So it goes.

Danny’s other favorite thing about my wardrobe (obviously a second distant to its pajama-like quality) was the variety of color he had. “They weren’t brown or blue like everything else I own.” He said it was fun to try styles and pieces he wouldn’t find in a standard men’s section—stuff like my peach bomber jacket or my long plaid shawl. He thought my closet had some flair to it, and wearing it made him feel like he looked “how celebrities or basketball players dress—edgy, but not pushing it too far.” He was able to find some freedom of expression in my more versatile wardrobe while still remaining in a space that was comfortable for him.

clothing swap15 Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends Stealing Boyfriends Clothes Paradigm

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We both expected to get more reactions than we did while couples-clothes-swapping. I don’t think I got any, but I guess since I work from home a lot, it’d have been hard to have gotten feedback from anyone I see regularly. Not to mention, Danny and I live in Los Angeles—which he aptly noted is one of the easiest places to experiment with fashion.

Danny definitely expected at least his (mostly female) coworkers to comment on his wardrobe shift, but all they really said was: “Looks like Danny’s getting some style!” This did not surprise me at all, because as I noted above, Danny has been poaching compliments off my clothes for years. Apparently one of his coworkers tried to buy my bomber jacket off of him. Nice try.

clothing swap13 Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends Stealing Boyfriends Clothes Paradigm

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Danny and I have very distinct styles—I’ve always put a lot of thought into my look, and I’ve always appreciated Danny’s fashion sense—so the clothes swap felt less like us dressing in differently gendered clothing, and more like us dressing in costumes of each other. It was such a novelty to see Danny in what was essentially a Becca costume (and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t pretty cute, too).Danny agreed—up to a point. “The joggers went too far,” he said. Apparently, seeing me in his pants crossed the uncanny valley.

The biggest challenge for him, he said, wasn’t in any of the actual clothes he had to wear, but just the constraining nature of the exercise. “It was stressful that I couldn’t wear any of my clothes—it’s weird to be limited like that.”

clothing swap9a Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends Stealing Boyfriends Clothes Paradigm

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In a different way, I kind of agreed. What I didn’t expect, and what I didn’t really know how to articulate until I was interviewing Danny, was how different it is to be constrained entirely to a different wardrobe and style, rather than just dabbling in it to accent your own. This would probably be true to a certain extent with anyone’s wardrobe, but it felt especially notable with masculine clothes like Danny’s.

I realized there was a difference between wearing a men’s dress shirt over a crop top and leggings and wearing a full man’s outfit. I wasn’t masculinizing my wardrobe—I was dressing masculine. I couldn’t help noticing how square I looked in the mirror. I will say it made me feel stronger—I often feel safer the less of my actual body you can see or even infer, so these boxy clothes honestly made me feel pretty damn secure. And I can’t state enough: All that pocket room changed my life.

Lauren & Daniel

I got cappuccinos one afternoon with Lauren and Daniel, who had immediately agreed to do my couples clothes swap challenge when asked a week earlier. While we ordered, Daniel said the swap hadn’t been that daunting of a challenge because the pair is already “used to commandeering each other’s stuff in general.” Lauren made a slight correction: He was used to commandeering her clothes. “He’ll take over my clothing, but he’s sensitive about sharing his own.”

clothing swap3 Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends Stealing Boyfriends Clothes Paradigm

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During the course of our conversation (which Lauren jokingly called couples’ therapy), they came to the conclusion that Daniel has had low-key anxiety about anything happening to his clothes—a stressor he suspects originated in his young adulthood, when he used to blow all his money on band shirts. “My first thought when anyone asks to borrow my clothes is, ‘Oh no, what if something happens?'”

They had experienced this exact phenomenon two Halloweens ago, when Lauren borrowed some of her boyfriend’s clothes to dress up as her coworker Brock. “Those pants were vintage,” he said, like maybe he was still a little nervous about it a year and a half later. Lauren says she avoided borrowing one of Daniel’s oldest shirts for this swap because she didn’t want to be anxious about him being anxious.  “The orange one?” Daniel asked, “You should have taken that one, it’s on its last legs anyway, and it’d look cute on you.”

clothing swap2 Couples Clothes Swap: Challenging the Girlfriends Stealing Boyfriends Clothes Paradigm

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Daniel mirrored what Danny had said about L.A. not really being a place people were likely to even notice this kind of couples clothes swaps. “Sure, we looked eccentric, but in this area? Look around,” he said, gesturing around the coffee shop. “There are at least five people in here who could be doing the same challenge as us right now.”  He has a point.

Daniel also shared Danny’s frustration with lady pockets. He didn’t have almost any other qualms about doing the swap. “It felt a little silly, but mostly it was just the pocket situation. Some of the pockets on her pants are fake!” he declared with incredulity.

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In general, the couple felt blessed to work from home and not have to bare the scrutiny of any coworkers, with one glaring exception. The first day of their clothes swap, Daniel, a musician, had to attend a financial meeting in a bright patterned blouse and tight pants. “I felt like I was trying to look like a rockstar.” Daniel said wearing Lauren’s tighter clothes made him feel flashier, like he was peacocking a bit. “Like I was flaunting.” Lauren nodded contemplatively. “He was looking hot, and I was looking boxy.” Lauren’s favorite part about the challenge was getting to dress Daniel every day. “It was pure fun.”

Wearing women’s clothes made Daniel feel, if not self-conscious, then at least aware that he was wearing stuff that “didn’t really belong on me.” He said he also got a compliment every day. Lauren said she didn’t get any. I felt her pain. Lauren said that wearing big, shapeless men’s clothing made her feel less attractive and that she worked hard to pair them with makeup and accessories to make the overall look better. Daniel said Lauren didn’t look bad in his clothes, just comfy. “I like it when you’re wearing bigger clothes,” he said. “Is it the same reason you like when I’m not wearing makeup?” she asked. “Yeah,” he said, reaching toward her. “It’s easier to touch you.”