Clothes, Styling & Job Prep Help Disadvantaged Women

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Interviewing for a job is unnerving at the best of times, even for qualified candidates with snappy threads and resumes without timeline or experience gaps. For those re-entering the work force after time away — or for newcomers making initial steps — the whole process can be worse than scary. It can be impenetrable. 

That’s why the non-profit Dress for Success program is often the difference between successful career advancement and no career advancement for marginalized women emerging from shelters or prisons, for new Canadians or for those sidelined by the vagaries of life.

The mission of Dress for Success couldn’t be plainer: “to promote the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire, a network of support and the career development tools to thrive in work and in life.”

That means providing free clothing suitable for going on job interviews, hair and makeup advice, opportunities to practice crafting resumes and interviewing for jobs, and a positive, ongoing support network to ensure continued success once a job has been bagged.

“This isn’t just about providing disadvantaged women with nice garments. It’s also about raising them up and treating them with dignity so they know they can meet whatever goals they aspire to,” Paige Souter, interim executive director of Dress for Success Toronto, tells Samaritanmag.

“So we are picky about clothing donations. Stuff must be gently used, no missing buttons, no stains. We say to people, ‘If something isn’t good enough for you to wear into a job interview, it’s not good enough for somebody else.’ We have a series of measures in place to weed out donations that just aren’t going to work. And funny enough we have found that if people bring their donations in nice shopping bags and not garbage bags, 90 percent of the time we get very good clothing donations.”

In Toronto alone, the estimated number of women assisted in this way each year totals around 1,200 with another 500 to 600 local men also annually outfitted with free workplace-appropriate attire under the Dress Your Best aegis, although the men’s program functions independently and begins and ends with the clothing.

With nine affiliates nationwide assisting roughly 5,000 women each year, the 12-year-old Canadian Dress for Success program is more than just a stepping stone to achievement. It’s a game-changer and a crucial confidence builder. And it’s hard to imagine anyone succeeding at anything without that.

As Souter explains, Dress for Success receives no government funding and is wholly reliant on private and corporate donors for its continued existence as well as the efforts of volunteers. In 2011, some 360 souls provided more than 10,000 hours of time. The fashion industry — and individuals such as shoe designer Ron White and fashion reporter Jeanne Beker — have also been supporters.

Dress for Success doesn’t function like a store. Clients must be referred by employment or government agencies or shelters already approved by Dress for Success. “That way we can be sure the clients coming to us are actually ready to work; that new Canadians have the language skills for instance,” Souter says. “We serve so many people and we need to be efficient.” In 2011, referrals came from more than 100 agencies.

Souter says 40 percent of the women entering their boutique are single moms and another 40 percent are new Canadians.

“They’ve all had their challenges and obstacles.  Picking out a suitable outfit for the job interview — whether it’s in the retail sector or the business sector — is the easy part. The challenging part is restoring the confidence,” Souter says. “Often, when clients come in, they are hunched over. But by the time they leave, they’re puffed up, shoulders back.

“We have stylists that work with clients for 90 minutes to two hours and they’re there to help empower the women. They’re trained to be non-judgmental. The thrust of their message is, ‘You have come this far, you can go the next step. You can do this and we’re here to support you.’ The stylists also offer hair and makeup and really address the entire professional image.”

One of the niftiest pre-employment support programs offered by Dress for Success is the aptly named Dress Rehearsal, whereby candidates get to participate in mock job interviews conducted in real offices by real HR personnel who offer guidance on things like deportment, manner and the like.

“Lots of government employment agencies do this,” Souter says, “but we have a whole host of corporate organizations — Telus, TD Canada Trust, Manulife Financial, Royal Bank, PricewaterhouseCoopers to name some — that help make the experience very real. Our clients have to go through the process of dressing for the interview, and they actually have to go to the location on their own, just like a real interview, and they’re interviewed for the position they’re applying for.

“We don’t coddle them,” Souter adds. “At the end of the interview, the corporate volunteer offers feedback — what worked, what didn’t, areas to improve. It’s amazing because in some cases clients have never been through this process or if they have, they were never told why they didn’t get a job. It’s a tremendous benefit.”

Also pre-employment, Dress for Success offers a series of workshops – “how to write a resume, how to rebrand yourself as you are transitioning back into the work force, conflict resolution, those types of things,” Souter says.

Once a client lands a job, she can come back for three more suits, enough attire for a full week of work. She also receives an invitation to join the Professional Women’s Group, the Dress for Success employment retention program, which provides a partnership of ongoing support and practical information, from understanding corporate culture to handling personal finances.

“These other programs help them keep the job and advance in their aspirations,” says Souter. 

Women meet once monthly. “We bring in speakers,” Souter adds, “and we talk a lot about personal finances. How do you run a budget and manage child care with work? How do you stay fit and maintain a certain level of wellness? Professional women have networks all over the place that they can access. Our clients don’t. This gives them the skills they need to access those other networks when the time comes.

“And here’s an interesting story. Through this mock interview program, one of our clients now works for Telus. They weren’t in the market for a new person but they saw her, brought her back for an actual interview and hired her. It’s a success story we love to tell because it shows the benefit of having a network.

“So yes, it’s about much more than the suits,” Souter says. “It’s about empowering women to move beyond the obstacles and challenges that keep them in poverty and move them to being independent and self-sustaining.”

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.