Betty Lin checks out a dress in the mirror at Georgetown’s new Rent the Runway outpost. (Kate Patterson/For The Washington Post)
Fashion critic

The main entrance to the new Rent the Runway boutique, which opened just in time for New Year’s Eve celebrations, faces M Street NW in the middle of old Establishment Georgetown. Despite the high-tech, data-driven, proudly disruptive business model of the company, which was founded on the premise that it makes more sense for a woman to rent her special-occasion clothes than buy them, the store recalls those intimate, personal shopping salons of yore that were filled with slimming mirrors, makeup tables and discerning saleswomen ready to cast a sober eye on the emotional process of getting dressed.

On the one hand, Rent the Runway believes the future of shopping will be based on a noncommittal, virtual experience in which clothes pass through our lives like so many generic Zipcars. But on the other, the company is well aware that shoppers remain haunted by old-fashioned insecurities, a paralysis of plenty and a fear of the unknown. And so Rent the Runway has provided its customers with the equivalent of a bricks-and-mortar security blanket.

“Even though 99 percent of our business is online, there’s still psychological anxiety,” says co-founder Jennifer Hyman. Customers wonder: “Is this stuff going to fit me? Will it arrive on time?”

“It was a major comfort for customers — in major cities — to know there’s a retail store if anything goes wrong.” In addition to Georgetown, the company has two shops in New York and another in Las Vegas.

Rent the Runway was launched in 2009 by Hyman and her business school classmate Jennifer Fleiss. The two believed they had an idea with the potential to redefine what it means to get dressed, with the ultimate vision of women someday renting 50 percent of their wardrobe, accessories and outerwear included.

Although the womenswear company is only five years old and not yet profitable, it has captured the imagination of a broad swath of consumers, from millennials to baby boomers, who are all seeking convenience, a good deal and a streamlined, clutter-free life.

But the underlying motivation for regular rentals may be the shoppers’ high, the pressure of cultural expectations and the curious and inexplicable belief in the certain social calamity of re-wearing party clothes.

“When do you feel the best in a piece of clothing? When you pull off the tags and you’re wearing it the first time,” Hyman says. “There’s emotional depreciation every time you put on an article of clothing.”

“The average American buys 64 new articles of clothing per year,” Hyman says. “Why? She’s doing it because it feels great — to feel that high of self-confidence.”

A loopy high that is arguably irrational.

Merrill Bankston has resisted using Rent the Runway because she likes to be able to try on a dress before wearing it in public. She is a bargain shopper who doesn’t think it makes sense to rent a dress for $100 when “I could go to Marshalls and get a Nicole Miller.” But there is the Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest problem. “It’s one of the main reasons that Rent the Runway is becoming a little bit more appealing,” says Bankston, a 26-year-old event planner in Washington.

Up until . . . well, now, she had figured out a way to hide the — the what, exactly? The shame? The embarrassment? The inappropriateness of double-dipping? “I went to two weddings back-to-back and I wore the same dress and I waited to post the photos,” Bankston explains. “I posted them all at the same time. The background looked a little different but you couldn’t really tell unless you were there.”

The twice- or thrice-worn cocktail dress. The horror, the horror. “I don’t know that other people realize it. I think it’s our fear of what other people think,” Bankston suggests.

Singer Taylor Swift lamented to Harper’s Bazaar a couple years ago that she “can’t” — can’t! — wear a dress twice because of social media mockery, a comment that was immediately mocked on social media. Still, her point was valid. Celebrities are publicly scolded for all sorts of imaginary offenses.

But how did we — reasonable people who do not sell millions of records and are not the stars of our own movie premieres — get here? What’s gotten into us?

An appetite for applause

The fashion industry encourages people to buy more than we need; brands such as Zara and Forever 21 make it financially bearable. Seventh Avenue thrives on our short attention span and cravings for newness. But is no one paying attention to all those fashion magazine stories about wardrobe essentials, finding a personal style and wearing a single dress in umpteen different ways? Even Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue and fashion’s own Zeus, re-wears her clothes. A lot. In front of photographers. First Lady Michelle Obama wears dresses more than once. So does Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. And yet, we panic over wearing the same dress to multiple family weddings or business parties.

Rent the Runway has thrived, in part, because clothes — at least for special occasions — have become costumes. We don’t consider them part of a reliable wardrobe that reflects who we are and that may, over time, be infused with warm, golden memories.

Folks go to a wedding, gala or a charity ball “and we’re performing for the visual pleasure of others instead of living in the moment.” says Kit Yarrow, author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind: How and Why We Shop and Buy.”

Social media has only exacerbated that sense of performance, with likes and retweets serving as applause. “My life is not the point; it’s how my life looks to others,” Yarrow observes.

Rent the Runway focuses on what Hyman describes as “editorial” dresses — frocks that a fashion magazine might photograph for its pages. “They’re the sort of dresses when you walk into a room, you will be noticed and remembered,” Hyman says.

The Web site opens this world to women who would not ordinarily have access to thousand-dollar dresses. But it can also lead to a kind of fashion exceptionalism. Suddenly, clothes no longer have to be comfortable. They don’t have to fit properly. They no longer have to be respectful of a woman’s need to perform basic bodily functions.

Consider a Bibhu Mohapatra dress with a retail price of $2,060 but a $35 rental fee. It received raves from customers despite serious flaws: “It is extremely difficult to put on as the zipper doesn’t go down far enough below the waist and there is no slit in the skirt. . . . I opted to step into it and with the assistance of someone else managed to get it up over my butt. . . . You have to take very small steps because the fabric has zero stretch,” wrote one reviewer, who nonetheless gave it four out of five stars.

There was a second, even more significant problem with the dress: “I had to wear Spanx and had to unzip to use the restroom,” wrote another reviewer, who also gave it a four-star rating.

It raises a question: Will the guests remember the fascinating woman in the shimmering pearl-colored dress, or the chick who couldn’t walk in her clothes?

At its best, Rent the Runway allows boldness with their clothes without the risk of a forever purchase. It introduces them to a new level of luxury that could become a habit. It makes the connection between appearance and confidence ever more plain.

An economical option

The process is simple. Customers go to the site to browse an assortment of dresses and other clothing and accessories. They can then rent a dress for four days or eight at rates ranging from $30 to about $700.

At 39, Noelle Sieradzki of Ohio is part of the Rent the Runway demographic that has swelled the most since women in their 20s embraced the company early on. She is a pragmatic, time-pressed mother of three and a full-time executive at a label manufacturing firm who doesn’t want to cram more stuff into her closet.

For a corporate awards dinner in 2013, she rented a black, knee-length dress with long sleeves and gold lace embellishment that would have retailed for about $2,000. Since then, “I’ve rented more dresses and more expensive ones,” Sieradzki says. “I have rented stuff I’d [otherwise] never be caught dead in.”

Some women proclaim their use of the service proudly, as though it is a badge of financial common sense. For others, Rent the Runway is a secret. “I don’t really tell people,” says Mallory Crandall, who estimates she’s rented about 15 times since 2011. “What’s the point? To me that would take away from the experience.”

Crandall lives in Shreveport, La., but is moving to New York, where her fiance has been relocated for a job. Her social calendar isn’t filled with galas, but she has no small number of weddings.

Crandall describes herself as “frugal.” She is not inclined to risk a $50 dress rental on a style that is outside her comfort zone. So, one could argue, for 15 rentals, at an average of $50 each, that’s $750 that could have been used to shop Neiman Marcus Last Call, Bluefly, eBayMarshalls, consignment shops or vintage stores. She could have purchased, say, three dresses that could have been worn multiple times with varying accessories. And she’d have those dresses in her closet for future events. Wouldn’t that be the most frugal choice?

It would. But Crandall does not want to wear the same dress again. And again. “There’s a high you get from wearing something new,” Crandall says, echoing Hyman’s sales pitch. “There’s a whole different level of confidence you get from wearing something new.”

Hyman can imagine a time when clothes are like other products that we choose to rent instead of own: apartments, cars, movies, music, bowling shoes. The company, she says, is “ushering in an entirely new behavior.”

But Rent the Runway also exploits the cultural shift that has us all so anxious, so self-absorbed, that we believe all eyes await our entry and that a crowd of friends or strangers is not only assessing our wardrobe choice but also cross-referencing it with pictures from other occasions.

“If you’re very self-conscious, you’re not focused on others. You have less bandwidth to be focused on other people,” Yarrow says. “One of the tragedies of adult life is we see these wonderful parties on TV all the time and in the movies. And we get there and it’s not really an [evening] of genuine connections. . . . The meaning of the event is sacrificed.”