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A new dress for success.

Chicago

Conspicuously missing from this women's boutique on the edge of downtown Chicago is a cash register. All clothes and accessories are free. The clientele is select--by appointment only. You have to be a woman on welfare referred by one of twenty-five agencies. This is Bottomless Closet, where women who are ready for job interviews that could be the catalyst to a self-sufficient future find the clothes they'll need (but can't afford) to make that crucial good impression.

The operative word here is boutique. Bottomless Closet is intentionally designed to look that way, even though everything is second-hand. There are pink satin curtains on the dressing rooms. Outfits are displayed on mannequins rather than strewn about on tables, and accessories are aesthetically arranged in display cases. Volunteers give individual attention to each client.

"We treat them like buyers," says Bottomless Closet board member Lynda Wright. "We give them control of the situation."

Sometimes what happens to a woman at Bottomless Closet, Wright says, is literally "a transformation." It may sound like an exaggeration, but not to Wright, who used to find herself in the same position as the women who shop here. These days she works helping residents of public housing in Chicago start their own businesses. But when her seventeen-year marriage abruptly ended in divorce ten years ago, she found herself with four kids to support, no job, and no job skills. She squeaked by on public assistance during the years she went back to school. Then came time for job interviews.

"I knew I was qualified for the jobs," she says. But she also knew that her confidence was not coming through in the interviews. She felt her clothes were inadequate, which made her feel inadequate. "By the time I entered I already downgraded myself by ten points. I entered round-shouldered and head down."

At the interview for the job she finally landed, Wright was wearing an outfit from a women's services organization in her community. The difference not just in her appearance but in her whole demeanor was the key, she says.

One day in 1990, Wright was on a Chicago radio show talking about her former life on public assistance. Advertising consultant Laurel Baer, who today is president of Bottomless Closet, was listening in her car. It had never occurred to her that a little thing like clothing could be such an obstacle. But then she could see, "It's easy to fix."

Baer contacted Wright almost immediately, and after consulting with women on welfare, opened the Bottomless Closet boutique in June 1991. Today there are more than 100 Bottomless Closet volunteers. The stock of donated, high-quality used clothes keeps growing. And more than 600 women have been outfitted.

Baer figures that at least 400 of those women have gotten jobs, because that's how many have come back to get the second free outfit offered to the newly employed.

Obviously, say Baer and Wright, the first need and concern of most women caught in the welfare spiral isn't likely to be upgrading their wardrobes. But, Wright says, "When you're trying to get out of it, the first thing you think about is a job. And eventually you'll get to the point where this is very important. There's no way around it."
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Title Annotation:Bottomless Closet helps welfare recipients dress for job interviews
Author:Ervin, Mike
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:544
Previous Article:Women and taxes: crossing the line.
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