Renting a dress sounds like a great idea—until you’re faced with the logistics

In the name of investigative journalism, Rosie Green threw herself into testing different rental sites

In the name of investigative journalism, Rosie Green threw herself into testing different rental sites

Carrie Johnson may be a Marmite figure, but one thing that wins her unanimous praise is her penchant for hiring clothes – a champion of sustainable fashion. For Cotswold’s ‘second’ wedding party with Boris last weekend, she hired a Savannah Miller dress. 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 reduced Covid-proof wedding, she rocked the boho bridal look in a rented lace dress from Christos Costarellos for a similar fee.

Let’s be clear. I think renting dresses is a brilliant planet-friendly idea. And just as Carrie is making headlines for employing her wardrobe this week, my boyfriend invites me to the Cowes Week Royal Yacht Squadron ball. I’m suddenly looking for a “wow” number.

While I’m used to fashion parties where invites are handed out according to the number of Instagram followers, this is next-level exclusive: think royalty, gentlemen and knights.

I want to look as elegant in the garden as I do in the great room. I want to be able to drink and dance. And breathe.

As a fashion magazine alumna, I’ve handled designer dresses and I know what makes them different: quality fabric, thoughtful construction, smart design. The best dresses flatter and wow, they hold you in without making you feel constricted and don’t require constant adjustment or reveal your VPL. But they also cost thousands. Go to rental sites.

Carrie Johnson often chooses to rent outfits

Carrie Johnson often chooses to rent outfits

I have to admit that there are various factors that make rental fashion a little nervous. 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 does it 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 with 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 various sides. I identify the following as suitable: By Rotation, My Wardrobe HQ, Front Row, Selfridges Rental and Rotaro. I reject the Rotaro as it looks too cool and edgy for me. Overall, my first impression is positive – there are definitely some gorgeous dresses out there that I can afford. Tick.

First puzzle. What size do I want? I like a dress to fit, but am I an 8 or a 10? I won’t know until I try them. Difficult.

I book appointments at the places that offer ‘try on’ services (Front Row, Harrods and Selfridges) and let them know which dresses I want to try on.

Azure floral dress La Metamorphose

Azure floral dress La Metamorphose

  • Rosie is wearing: Azure Floral Gown La Metamorphose

  • Price: 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 the screen wouldn’t do. Hmm.

Luckily I found another amazing dress by the same designer that fits beautifully (same size oddly). But at £1,861 to buy and with a long train that looked perfect for stepping on, I was worried about sustaining an injury. Another dress I loved had a broken zipper. While there, I look at the beautiful wedding dresses on display and wonder why anyone would buy one when you could rent?

I go to my next appointment at Front Row to meet one of the founders and try on a selection of dresses, but when I get to the showroom she’s not there and the doors are locked. I’m stumped. I can’t get through on the phone. I later discovered that she had her handbag grabbed by a man on a motorcycle. Front Row confirms that they will send the dresses to my home instead. Meanwhile, I get a message from Selfridges that my requested dress (the only one on the website I found suitable) is not available as it is being repaired. Hmm.

Nailah Green San Sloane dress

Nailah Green San Sloane dress

  • Rosie is wearing: Nailah Green San Sloane Dress

  • Price: from £31 to rent, buy new £170, Selfridges rental

I go home to Oxfordshire a little dejected. So I start to delve deeper into By Rotation and discover that they act as an intermediary between the tenant and the owner. This means that the clothes are kept by the owners, so effectively you are relying on Sandra from Surrey or Carla from Cheshire to post their dress. This makes me very nervous.

I ask that the dresses arrive the day before the ball. Front Row must be delivered on time. An email from Selfridges says a replacement dress is being sent.

Ironically, the By Rotation dress I was most worried about arrives in good time. A lovely strapless Oscar De Renta. I’ll try it. It fits beautifully.

Oscar de la Renta strapless dress with sequins

Oscar de la Renta strapless dress with sequins

  • Rosie is wearing: Oscar de la Renta Strapless Sequin Dress

  • Price: from £167 to rent, buy loved £1,042, to buy similar new around £6,000, By rotation

Finally the dress from Selfridges arrives just (just) within the requested timeframe. It’s pretty fabulous, but definitely not a replacement. It’s knitted and clings to every curve and would make the gentlemen choke on canapés. If I trusted this, I would be stopped.

Then, on the day I expect the My Wardrobe dress to arrive, I’m told I have to pick it up at Harrods. I have a minor heart attack. I tell them that I live in Oxfordshire and that not only is it inconvenient but the cost of the return train ticket to London will be more than the rent. They arrange for it to be sent by courier 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 now feels like a much more attractive proposition.

None of this is as simple as Carrie makes it seem. So, what is my verdict?

The black Oscar de la Renta I chose looked incredible and is something I could never afford (a similar design currently costs £6,500). But my advice if you plan to rent would be to get your selections a few days before you need them. Try them first, and always have a backup plan.

Would I hire a wedding dress this way, like Carrie did? Never. My nerves couldn’t take it.

The five most rented dresses in the UK

1. The Vampire's Wife Falconetti Dress 2. Self Portrait Blue Layered Guipure Midi Dress 3. M&S x Ghost Satin V Neck Midi Dress 4. Dolce & Gabbana Printed Cotton Poplin Midi Dress 5. Rixo Gio Micro Tulip Dress

1. The Vampire’s Wife Falconetti Dress 2. Self Portrait Blue Layered Guipure Midi Dress 3. M&S x Ghost V Neck Satin Midi Dress 4. Dolce & Gabbana Printed Cotton Poplin Midi Dress 5. Rixo Gio Micro Tulip Dress

1. The Vampire’s Wife Falconetti Dress

  • Worn by the Duchess of Cambridge on several occasions

  • Actual price: £1,595. Rental price: from £115 for two days, on rotation

2. Self-portrait blue layered midi dress in guipure lace

3. M&S x Ghost v-neck satin midi dress

4. Midi dress in cotton and poplin with Dolce & Gabbana print

5. Rixo Gio Micro Tulip dress

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