Charlotte Smith, author, curator and social commentator who was attracted to the cause.
Charlotte Smith, author, curator and social commentator who was attracted to the cause. Photo Contributed

Troubled women helped to dress for success

BELINDA is smiling again. Not that ghostly twitch that hesitates on the lips, but for a fleeting second, a real smile. One that prompts her lips to part revealing perfect teeth, one that cajoles the colour into her cheeks, one that puts the light back into her eyes.

Across the country Sophie is smiling too, laughing even, with that gay abandon she never thought possible.

They are not alone in their joy.

Some 15,000 kilometres away in Toronto Stephanie feels it too, that bubbling deep in the tummy when anticipation finally replaces fear.

And in Manchester, just a stone's throw from Old Trafford, for the first time in more than three years June can look in the mirror without wanting to smash it into a thousand tiny pieces. For these women - a mother-of-two with bipolar disorder, a high-powered CEO silenced by domestic violence, a child of poverty who grew up to be a crack addict and a homeless single mum with a disabled teenage son - smiling was once a luxury they could ill afford.

Yet, they, and tens of thousands of women in almost 150 cities around the world are learning to smile through the pain, thanks much in part to the work done by Dress for Success.

The not-for-profit organisation, born in New York City in 1997, has grown from a small concern that donated smart working clothes so that women in need could attend job interviews and secure employment, to one that has built a sustainable network of support and career development to help women thrive in work and in life.

While the premise of promoting the economic independence of disadvantaged women by providing professional attire remains, Dress for Success is also helping work towards self-sufficiency, job training and career advancement, empowering women with professional tools, guidance and skills they need to change their lives and that of their families.

"I have been able to spread my wings, to grow and learn to be the best me possible," says Belinda. "My happiness and well-being have soared because of the connections I have made with the help of Dress for Success."

Stephanie agrees. Like Belinda she was tottering on the edge with little self-esteem and no confidence to speak of when her social worker put her in touch with her local Dress for Success affiliate.

"Now, I've learned that you're allowed to be happy," she says. "You're allowed to experience joys. Sometimes, when you come from a tougher place, you have this feeling of unworthiness, that you're undeserving. But at the end of that day, you're allowed to be happy."

It was success stories of this ilk from Brisbane to Bahrain, Albania to Lisbon, Poland, Jamaica, Mexico, Israel and everywhere in between that attracted author, curator and social commentator Charlotte Smith to this cause.

In an ironic but beautiful twist Charlotte is using the timeless vintage Dior, Chanel and Valentino creations in her Darnell Collection to draw attention to, and raise much-needed funds for an organisation that celebrates the beauty within.

The 100 Years of Power Dressing runway event to be held in Sydney on Wednesday will feature fashion icons and celebrities in dresses left to Charlotte by her Quaker godmother, Doris, telling the story about the empowerment of women over the last century.

"As part of my ambassadorial role for Dress for Success I wanted to do a fashion event that would raise both funds and awareness," says Charlotte. "So this is a bit of fashion history and social history rolled into one and it gives us an opportunity to look at what women have been wearing in the last 100 years, what roles they were playing when they were wearing these pieces and what was happening around them.

"We have extraordinary women who have agreed to be models, successful, powerful, everyday women who are bringing that reality to the show. My whole collection is based around women's stories and Dress for Success is trying to create stories for women who are making a new life for themselves. For me, it is looking at the past and using it as an inspiration for women of the future."

The success of events of this nature is vital to the continuation of the work done by an organisation that may help thousands of people, but receives no government assistance to do so.

In fact, says Megan Etheridge, the founder of Sydney's Dress for Success branch, in that city alone some $500,000 is needed annually to ensure demand for the service is being met.

"This 100 Years of Power Dressing is an extremely important fundraising event for us and very generous on Charlotte's part," says Megan. "We have an amazing committee of volunteers working on the runway event and let me just say that without the volunteers that dress the clients, or run the career-focused programs or professional development mentoring programs, we would be lost.

"Aside from Sydney there are affiliate branches in Brisbane and the Mornington Peninsula with Adelaide opening next month with thousands of women using Dress for Success to get back on their feet. These are incredible women. They don't seek sympathy. They seek advice, support and assurance.

"It could be your nextdoor neighbour, it could be someone who has had illness, someone who has never worked or someone trying to get back in the workforce. It could be someone who has been a victim of domestic violence and has had to flee with nothing. Our 1000th client was an Oxford graduate in law who for eight years had experienced domestic violence and left with nothing. She would not be what most people would consider someone who would need these services, but these women come from all parts of society."

Research tells us that lookism certainly plays a large part in the employment process with physically attractive and better dressed people likely to be selected for jobs, promoted or given higher salaries. Your appearance and attitude account for almost 60% of your job success rate and to that end Dress for Success is helping some of the most marginalised members of society with both clothes and confidence.

Initiatives are tailored to the needs of the community and they also run a special mail-out program for women in isolated areas, dress women in prisons for court and release dates and help migrants with what is expected in an Australian workforce.

"The impact we make is very rewarding and very immediate," says Megan.

"Usually they come in, shoulders drooping, can't look at you. As soon as you dress them in a professional outfit, they come out of the change room, shoulders back and look you in the eye and are of a completely different demeanour."

It is this kind of hope, says Charlotte, that her godmother who passed on in 2004, would have been proud to be associated with.

"Doris always said she was a bit of a maverick," Charlotte recalls. "Quakers were not meant to be interested in fashion, but they are people who are happy to leave their comfort zone, be it religious or financial to help people.

"Doris would be thrilled to know that her collection is helping an organisation that is there to help women irrespective of what they have or where they have come from. It would be the ultimate compliment that the dresses she collected are helping in some way to rescue and empower women.

"The stories attached to the dresses remind us to appreciate the simple things that happen in life. They remind us that taking small steps to success are really big steps to applaud and that is something to be proud of."

Sometimes a smile can be the biggest step of all.

What is the Darnell Collection

For over 70 years Doris Darnell, a Quaker from Pennsylvania, pursued a passion for fashion by collecting vintage clothes and accessories. For Doris, the social history behind the items was as important as the items themselves and preserving them and their stories for future generations became an important part of her passion.

The Darnell Collection grew out of donations and gifts from her family's wide circle of friends and acquaintances around the world. Importantly, most of the items came with accompanying letters, photographs and stories which linked them to the original owners or donors and often to the occasions to which they were worn.

"Doris's collection began in 1937 when she saw a beautiful peach silk and satin dress in a shop window during the depression," says god-daughter Charlotte Smith. "The price of the dress was of course exorbitant, but she waited until it came on sale and begged and borrowed the necessary funds. She wore it to a party where she met her future husband to whom she was married to for 60 years. She realised something you wear can be life-changing, something you can treasure for the memories.

"That started it. She would wear pieces from her mother and grandmother and tell the stories associated with them and soon people were giving her beautiful items and she would wear them and pass on the extraordinary tales of ordinary women."

Charlotte, who was bequeathed the collection in 2004, has carried on the tradition and the 100 Years of Power Dressing event will feature beautiful creations made by renowned designers including Lucile, Vionnet, Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Pucci, Jean Muir, Westwood and Versace, Dolce & Gabana with the stories that made them so special.

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