Thursday, September 22, 2011

Giving away those 'Dress for Success' suits, doing good works in the process

Let's begin with quotes from a few famous women:
"Adornment is never anything except a reflection of the heart." -- Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
"Remember that always dressing in understated good taste is the same as playing dead." -- Susan Catherine
"If men can run the world, why can't they stop wearing neckties? How intelligent is it to start the day by tying a little noose around your neck?" --Linda Ellerbee
"Dress is at all times a frivolous distinction, and excessive solicitude about it often destroys its own aim." --Jane Austen

Now an update on my life in semi-retirement:
It has been 18 months since I "retired" and stopped wearing business suits to work every day as part of my full-time job as a newspaper business editor. That move, however, did not mean that I was ready to literally give up my suits. Who knows, I thought, maybe I just might need them because I’m just semi-retired, right, and still working as a freelance journalist. I still have meetings to go to, people to meet, events to host.
As I’ve mentioned before...adjusting to my new life has been a gradual process, not to be rushed. But here’s the story on my suits.
More than a year later, they have mostly gone unworn as I find myself working out of a home office, doing phone interviews while drinking coffee and wearing my bathrobe. Then I may throw on jeans and a t-shirt and go outside and garden before returning to my desk.
The suits with clever flared skirts and tailored jacket and their “I-mean-business” message have become a memorial to my former work life. The reality is that I wear a suit once or twice a month, sometimes (out of a sense of obligation) to a Rotary Club meeting.
Meanwhile, my sense of style has evolved. That semi-retired look is more confident but less business-y, a bit less formal. This style that I'm inventing is more diverse with more dresses, mix and match skirts and jackets with a funkier feel. My retired readers know what I’m talking about. It’s time for me to let go of the suits, this shrine of mine to the dress code of work.
Options for letting go
But where do I take them? Where will my beloved suits have the biggest impact and do the most good? My options include Goodwill, an American Cancer Society thrift store, the Salvation Army, a for-profit upscale used clothing store called Dolly's that's run by a young Russian woman in Portland, or something called Dress for Success.
Women my age -- 60-plus -- may remember (and some of us still have) the book from the 1980s called "Dress for Success." It was all about the power suit. It was about how women needed to dress in clothing similar to men to gain credibility at the business conference table. Remember those suits over blouses with a ribbon neck tie?
Men could put on the “uniform” of suit, white shirt and tie to look like a member of the club, said author John Malloy. Women needed to send the same message. This was a time when women rapidly were moving out of the secretarial pool into the ranks of middle management. There were plenty of do’s and don’t’s. We were so ready to learn.
Mallory's book went into the dust bin along with a lot of other ideas from that time of change. Wearing a suit might help women climb the corporate ladder, but it wasn’t the secret formula. That’s a topic for another posting.
A New Dress for Success
There’s a new version of Dress for Success, which has nothing to do with the original book but still is about women making a positive impact when applying for a job and while on the job.
The nonprofit Dress for Success program was established in New York in 1997 by Nancy Lublin who wanted to help lower-income women “find jobs and remain employed.”
Dress for Success Oregon has operated in Portland since 1998 and now serves about 2,200 women a year through its career center, coaching program and professional clothing assistance, Carol Wire, acting executive director told me in a recent interview.
“Our mission is to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, by giving them a network of support and the career development tools to help them thrive in work and in life,” Wire said.
The program serves women throughout the Portland-Vancouver metro area who are referred to Dress for Success by some 170 nonprofit and government agencies such women’s shelters, social service agencies, prisons. The idea is to help women do the work they need to do to get a job.
“They may be getting through personal issues such as abuse, they may be dealing with addiction,” Wire said.
Through all of its programs nationwide and internationally, Dress for Success is helping 50,000 women a year.
Volunteers and Dress for Success staff assist low-income women referred to the program in polishing a resume, developing interview skills and learning how to dress appropriately for the workplace. The program also provides a follow-up support network with monthly meetings to help clients keep their jobs, once hired.
It all sounds good to me, especially for an organization that does not rely on government funding but instead seeks donations from businesses and individuals.
How to give away a suit
As part of all this, Dress for Success takes clothing donations, particularly suits such as the ones I’m interested in giving away. Personal shoppers assist clients in selecting five clothing items from the Dress for Success shop at 1532 N.E. 37th Ave. (at Sandy Boulevard) in Portland.
To locate other sites around the country, click here.
“When they get the job, they get to choose another five pieces of clothing and join a professional women’s support group,” Wire said. “Many of these women have no one to talk to about work or a professional network.”
If you are giving clothing to Dress for Success, leave your suits on hangers and tuck a $10 in the pocket. More than clothes, the program needs money to support its work, Wire said.
The tax deductible donations go to support the training and network programs and to buy such items as shoes and underwear for clients, Wire said. Funding comes primarily from foundations, generous individuals and fundraisers such as a spring fashion show.
Wire mentioned several major sponsors including the Walmart Foundaton, the Allstate Foundation, U.S. Bank, The Hasson Co., a Portland-based realty firm and others. The Community Foundation of Southwest Washington and the Vancouver (Wash.) Housing Authority, to name a few.
“If our clients don’t get the job, we invite them back to work with the career center on their resume and their communication skills,” Wire said.
I am feeling good about the idea of finally letting go of my suits through the Dress for Success program for the simple reason that I’m a woman helping other women. I dressed for success throughout my full-time working life and enjoyed every minute of it. That’s what is all about...helping other women.
Thanks for listening.
PS If you would like more information about Oregon Dress for Success send email to or call 503-249-7300.

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