Thursday, November 30, 2006

Dress For Success

In this post, No Credit Needed asks personal finance bloggers to talk about their favorite charities.

A favorite charity of mine is Dress for Success. It combines a lot of things I think are important: encouraging financial self-sufficiency in lower-income women, a focus on the real power of clothing & appearance in a way that feels almost academic in nature, and shopping.

Dress for Success helps women who have been out of the workforce for an extended period of time or never in it at all. Participants are referred by social services agencies--they can't just walk in off the street. (This is both a positive point and a negative one for me--I understand why it needs to work this way, and it makes sure that services go to the people who will reap their maximum benefit, but it's a shame that those services aren't accessible to anyone who wants and needs them.) Dress for Success deals with that most ephemeral of job qualifications: the First Impression. Women with little disposable cash often can't afford the things that go into that first impression: haircuts and haircare, braces, tooth whitening (or, in some cases, extensive cosmetic dentistry), skincare, makeup, professional shoes, and, perhaps most importantly, a quality suit. When they walk into the interviewers' offices, they make an immediate impression of other (alterity, the academics would say) that is, shall we say, not particularly conducive to coming out on top in the interview process. Not someone who belongs at this company, the interviewer mentally notes. Who is she kidding? It's a slightly creepy facet of American financial instinct that we are less inclined to give money to people who look like they need it. I've noticed this just based on the way I'm dressed--it's way easier to negotiate a deal if you're not in sweats. (A good friend of mine and I used to get all dolled up for our junk-store shopping trips, and found it paid off big-time.) The point is that I can hide my lack of experience in a college degree, shiny hair, and an expensive smile, while a woman who hasn't had my advantages (like parents willing and able to pay for orthodontics) sits in her interviewer's office feeling exposed as someone who doesn't belong. The interview is more likely to think that she is slovenly (thus, that she won't be meticulous in her work) and she is more likely to project a lack of confidence. Welcome to social immobility.

Women at Dress for Success don't just get professional makeovers. The organization also gives them interview coaching, resume editing, and training in a limited set of job skills (mostly computer competency). The idea is not only to improve their skills, but to give them confidence enough to compete on a more level playing field with candidates who've had more advantages in life. With a professional-level job comes a shot at financial self-sufficiency.

Dress for Success accepts donations of very gently used business clothing as well as cash, and they appraise clothing generously for tax purposes. They know the value of a good suit.

In December, I will be making two donations: one to my (deeply underfunded) high school, and one to Dress for Success. I also hope to volunteer with Dress for Success in the upcoming year.

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