Dress for Less: Where to Rent Party Clothes

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Ugly sweater parties aside, the holidays are filled with social outings that demand formal attire. But with wish lists in one hand and travel bills in the other, few people have much left in the budget for new duds. The solution may lie in a rental. Renting designer clothing for a special evening is an easy way to save a buck and still dress like a million. Here are pros and cons to renting eveningwear. On the plus side, renters get to wear something they otherwise wouldn't be able to afford, be a little "green" by reusing clothing, and avoid cluttering a closet with items worn just once or twice. Dresses arrive cleaned and pressed, and renters in a hurry can usually choose one- or two-day shipping. But getting starry-eyed over high-end labels can lead to overspending, and the available clothing may not be sufficiently on-trend. Moreover, sizing varies by designer, making the number on the label somewhat unreliable.

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Rent the Runway is one of the better-known online rental services for clothing and accessories. Dresses in a variety of colors, styles, and sizes range from $30 to $800 for four days (or eight days for 1.6 times the four-day rate). The high end may seem like a lot for a short-term rental, but those gowns typically retail for more than $5,000. Rent the Runway provides a little wiggle room by offering a back-up size free of charge, or a dress in a second style for $32.50. It also gives store credit (minus the cost of shipping) for dresses that do not fit.

The site also rents jewelry ($5 to $225), handbags, and other accessories to complement the outfit. Insurance for minor damage or spills is included with every purchase for a required $5 fee per item. A relatively new subscription service ($99 a month) lets members borrow up to three items at a time. For $29.95 a year, members get free shipping, a $50 coupon code during their birthday month, and free insurance. The site currently offers 20 percent off for first-time renters.

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Lending Luxury follows a business model similar to Rent the Runway but generally charges lower fees. Garments can be sorted by size, length, price, occasion, color, or designer and are priced from $50 to $425 for five-day rentals, although there are also options for 10- and 15-day rentals.

Lending Luxury carries dresses, rompers, tops, and bottoms. The site also sells its inventory, as well as new versions of the available items, if shoppers prefer to buy rather than rent. This site charges renters for return shipping and does not include a second item in a different size. It will ship a second garment of equal or lesser value if the first does not fit, but renters are responsible for shipping fees.

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This newer site offers a solution to the problem commonly known as "the bridesmaid's dress." Vow to be Chic carries a variety of styles and colors for bridesmaids, priced at $65 to $95, but many are suitable for any formal event. "Little white dresses" intended as less-formal wedding dresses are also available to rent, for $50 to $125. After submitting measurements and picking a dress, renters receive two sizes to try on. Return the one that does not fit right away and return the one that does after the event, using prepaid shipping labels.

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Gwynnie Bee is similar to the other rental services but distinguishes itself by catering to sizes 10 to 32. It is a subscription service with dresses, tops, and bottoms rather than a one-time rental arrangement. Members can wear an item for as long as they want and then return it to get the next item -- shipping is free both ways. The site offers a 30-day free trial and members can cancel the subscription at any time. The service costs $35, $59, or $79 a month for one, two, or three items, respectively. Additional plans for five, seven, or 10 items are also available.

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Frugal fashionistas looking for a designer bag to match a borrowed dress can turn to Bag Borrow or Steal of "Sex and the City" fame. The bags are rented by the month, with fees ranging from $45 to $600 per month and most falling in the $100 to $250 bucket. Bag Borrow or Steal also cleans and repairs handbags, sells used merchandise and new jewelry, and buys handbags.

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Men seeking online rental options for the big night out can turn to The Black Tux, which rents entire outfits head-to-toe -- tuxedos and suits, vests, shirts, ties, cuff links, shoes, and more. The guys can also visit one of the many brick-and-mortar retailers that rent suits and tuxedos, such as Men's Wearhouse, and check their own closets. Except for the most fashion-forward or those who've changed sizes, most will find that a good suit rarely goes out of style.