Carrie Johnson may be a Marmite figure, but one thing winning her unanimous praise is her penchant for hiring clothes – a champion of sustainable fashion. For her Cotswolds ‘second’ wedding celebration party with Boris last weekend she rented a Savannah Miller gown. It would have cost her an eye-watering £3,500 to buy, but instead she paid £25 a day to rent it. And in May 2021, for her downsized Covid-secure nuptials, she rocked the boho bride look in a rented lace dress from Christos Costarellos for a similar fee.
Let’s be clear. I think renting dresses is a genius planet-friendly idea. And just as Carrie is making headlines for hiring her wardrobe this week, my boyfriend invites me to the Cowes Week Royal Yacht Squadron ball. I’m suddenly in the market for a “wow” number.
While I’m used to fashion parties where invitations are dished out according to the number of Instagram followers, this is next-level exclusive: think royalty, lords and knights.
I want to look as chic in the garden as I do in the great room. I want to be able to drink and dance. And breathe.
Being a fashion magazine alumna I’ve handled designer gowns and I know what makes them different: quality fabric, considered construction, clever design. The best dresses flatter and wow, they hold you in without making you feel constricted and do not require constant adjusting or reveal your VPL. But they also cost thousands. Enter rental sites.
I have to admit there are various factors that make rental fashion a bit unnerving. Especially if the event in question is a big deal. What if the dress arrives damaged? What if I damage it? What if it doesn't fit? What if it doesn’t flatter? Or look remotely like it does on the website?
Since I first clicked on rental sites a couple of years back there have been some improvements. More stock. Easier to work filters. And you can now try on some of the clothes if you go and visit the department stores.
In the name of investigative journalism, I throw myself into testing different sites. I identify the following as suitable: By Rotation, My Wardrobe HQ, Front Row, Selfridges Rental and Rotaro. I discard Rotaro as it looks too cool and edgy for me. Overall, my first impressions are positive – there are definitely some gorgeous frocks out there that I can afford. Tick.
First conundrum. What size will I be? I like a dress to fit snugly but am I an 8 or a 10? I don’t know until I’ve tried them on. Tricksy.
I book appointments at the places offering “trying on” services (Front Row, Harrods and Selfridges) and let them know which dresses I would like to road test.
Rosie wears: Azure Floral Gown La Metamorphose
Cost: from £30 to rent, to buy pre-loved £1,861, to buy new £3,000 plus, MyWardrobeHQ
At the My Wardrobe HQ pop up concession at Harrods, although the manager was friendly and helpful, disappointingly only one of the four pieces I had requested was there. Then the dress I had loved on screen wouldn’t do up. Hmm.
Thankfully I found another wonderful gown by the same designer which fits beautifully (the same size weirdly). But at £1,861 to buy and with a long train that looked perfect for stepping on I was worried about incurring damage. Another dress I loved had a broken zip. While I’m there I look at the beautiful wedding dresses on display and wonder why would anyone buy one when you could rent?
I leave for my next appointment at Front Row to meet one of its founders and to try on a selection of dresses, but when I arrive at the showroom she is not there and the doors are locked. I am stumped. I can’t get through on the phone. I later discovered she had her handbag snatched by a man on a motorbike. Front Row confirms they’ll send the dresses to my home instead. In the meantime, I get a message from Selfridges saying my requested dress (the only one on the website I found suitable) is not available as it is being repaired. Hmm.
Rosie wears: Nailah Green San Sloane Dress
Cost: from £31 to rent, buy new £170, Selfridges Rental
I head home to Oxfordshire a little dispirited. So I start delving deeper into By Rotation and discover that they act as a middle man between the renter and the owner. This means the clothes are kept by their owners and so effectively you are reliant on Sandra from Surrey or Carla from Cheshire posting you their gown. This makes me very nervous.
I request the dresses to arrive the day before the ball. Front Row is due to be delivered on time. An email from Selfridges states a replacement dress is being sent.
Ironically the By Rotation dress I was most worried about arrives in good time. A wonderful strapless Oscar De Renta. I try it on. It fits beautifully.
Rosie wears: Oscar de la Renta sequin strapless gown
Cost: from £167 to rent, buy pre-loved £1,042, to purchase similar new circa £6,000, By Rotation
Finally the dress from Selfridges arrives just (only just) within the requested time frame. It is quite fabulous but definitely not a replacement. It’s knitted and clings to every curve and would have the lords choking on their canapés. If I was relying on this I would be stymied.
Then, on the day I’m expecting the My Wardrobe dress to arrive, I’m told I have to pick it up from Harrods. I have a minor heart attack. I tell them I live in Oxfordshire and not only is it impractical but the cost of the return train ticket to London would be more than the rental. They arrange for it to be couriered and it arrives the morning of the event.
According to UPS the Front Row dresses are stuck at the depot. Then they are officially AWOL. Renting has not been stress free. Buying my dress is now feeling like a much more attractive proposition.
None of this is as easy as Carrie makes it look. So, what’s my verdict?
The black Oscar de la Renta I chose looked incredible and is something I could never afford (a similar design currently retails at £6,500). But my advice if you’re planning to rent would be to get your choices a few days before you need them. Try them on first, and always have a back-up plan.
Would I hire a wedding dress this way, like Carrie did? No way. My nerves couldn’t take it.
The five most-rented frocks in the UK
1. The Vampire’s Wife Falconetti dress
Worn by the Duchess of Cambridge on several occasions
Real price: £1,595. Rental price: from £115 for two days, By Rotation
2. Self-Portrait blue tiered guipure lace midi dress
Real price: £420. Rental price: from £53 for four days, Selfridges
3. M&S x Ghost satin v-neck midi dress
Real price: £79. Rental price: from £10 for four days, Hirestreet
4. Dolce & Gabbana printed cotton-poplin midi dress
Real price: £1,450. Rental price: from £28 a day, My Wardrobe HQ
5. Rixo Gio Micro Tulip dress
Real price: £355. Rental price: from £44 for three days, By Rotation