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Urban Outfitters

The Bottomless Closet turns down-at-the-heel job seekers into smart-looking career women.

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By Ben Joravsky

When she puts on her black business suit and adds the silk scarf and designer purse, C. Jones looks like any other professional woman heading for her downtown office job.

Except Jones (not her real name) has no job and rarely goes downtown. She lives in a northwest-side transitional center, where she's trying to get her life together after a painful three-year slide of domestic abuse and homelessness.

The stylish clothes are courtesy of Bottomless Closet, a not-for-profit clothes pantry where down-on-their-luck women can find the dresses, blouses, skirts, shoes, and accessories they need for job interviews. "Part of getting back is looking right," says Jones. "Everyone knows it shouldn't matter how you look, but everyone also knows that it does."

Bottomless Closet was founded in 1989 by Laurel Baer, a radio marketing executive. "Laurel was listening to a radio show while driving to work and she heard some women on public aid talk about their transition problems," says Kathy Miller, Bottomless Closet's former executive director. "One woman said, 'I have skills, I'm motivated, I worked before, but I don't have the budget to buy an interview suit.' Laurel thought, 'I could take ten things out of my closet and outfit this woman.'"

Over the years Bottomless Closet has grown into an organization of some 300 volunteers and thousands of clients operating out of a converted loft at 445 N. Wells. The third-floor showroom has six racks of clothes and several counter cases of jewelry and accessories; there's 2,000 square feet of storage space in the basement. "In May we bring up the summer and spring clothes, and in the fall we bring up the winter and autumn clothes," says Miller. "Just like a department store."

On most days there are both fittings and drop-offs, meaning a constant commingling of women in vastly different situations. "Our clients come from various job-training programs and social service agencies throughout the area--we work with 135 different programs," says Miller. "We ask no questions, we make no judgments--this is not about who they were or where they're coming from. There are rules however. Clients have their fittings by themselves. This is, after all, about them. Besides, it's inappropriate to come with a friend. You wouldn't bring an entourage with you to a job interview. We tell them to think of this as a tryout for an interview. They're coming to a downtown office. It's a very easy place to practice and learn.

"The individual attention is often unique for our clients. They're used to being lumped into larger categories as 'those women.' When they come here they learn that there are other women who care about them. They're going to get undivided one-on-one attention from volunteers who know what's appropriate to wear and look like a million bucks."

It's ironic, notes Miller, that they teach women to dress according to convention while so many celebrities flout it. "I think everyone understands that celebrities have freedoms and privileges that most people don't have," says Miller. "There's a privilege to making so much money--you dress the way you want to. It's not just celebrities. Within companies you have a wide range of dress standards--one style for the sales force, for instance, another for 'creative.' Many corporations are going toward corporate casual. What's important is knowing how you're supposed to look in a work environment. Everyone has had the experience of going to a party dressed the wrong way. You spend the whole evening feeling self-conscious, as though everyone's looking at you. We want our clients to never feel that self-consciousness. We want them to walk into an office as though they belong there.

"Of course that means different things for different offices. Corporate casual doesn't mean the same for LaSalle Bank as it does for Leo Burnett. When I used to work for Apple I flew around the country. It was amazing to see the different styles in the midwest as opposed to the east or west coast. Part of being a good salesperson is wearing the appropriate 'uniform' for the audience you're trying to convince. They look at you and think, 'She's credible, she looks like me.' Then the issue fades away and we can deal. I know there's an attitude, 'Oh, isn't it cute those girls are dressing up over there!' But this is a sociological phenomenon. We're teaching women the language of clothes. We're getting them the uniforms they need to be taken seriously in the work world."

Most of the volunteers are professionals; their advice ranges from the practical to the philosophical. "I tell the clients that dress is important because it represents an inward attitude about how you think about yourself," says P.C. Gooden-Smiley, a model and actress. "I'm not just going to dress them in any old thing. I watch the clients as they come in. I allow them to go to the racks and make their picks. I look at their nails and hairstyles and body types. I can read at once how much care they put into themselves. Then I say, 'Let's find the suit that fits.'"

According to Gooden-Smiley, people generally fall into one of four categories of style: classic, romantic, dramatic, and natural. "A classic is someone who dresses precisely, very tailored from the head on down. That's like me. I spend an hour each day getting myself together. I'm not going out until I look just right.

"A dramatic is up on the latest styles, changing fashions to be with what's in and out. They're not afraid to be shocking and call attention to themselves. A romantic wears softer, more demure clothes with ruffles and lighter fabrics--nothing that says 'Look at me.' A natural--well, you couldn't care what your clothes are like."

Most people are easy to place, says Gooden-Smiley. "Michael Jordan used to be a dramatic, but he's evolved into classic. I'd say that Prince--or the Artist Formerly Known as Prince--is a romantic. And of course Dennis [Rodman] is dramatic. Some people are hard to categorize. Oprah doesn't have a style, really. She started out as a sort of classic-romantic. Then she tried that Lycra thing but it didn't look comfortable. I'm glad she's dropped it. I guess she shifts with her size."

Miller says the clients of Bottomless Closet have changed since new welfare laws were adopted a few years ago. "I see some disturbing trends," she says. "The focus has been taken off job readiness and job training. The priority is to just get a job, any job, it doesn't matter if it's a good job that's appropriate for you. Many of our clients are being steered toward jobs without any concern for their skills or long-term goals.

"Before welfare reform our clients tended to be women who were preparing for a very specific future. They'd say, 'I want to get off of welfare and here's what I plan to do.' Now the clients have less ownership over their futures. There tends to be more anger and resentment--occasionally they'll snap. And the volunteer will say, 'Hey, wait a minute--I want to help but I don't need an attitude.'"

Jones's story is similar to the ones that many women who come to Bottomless Closet can tell. Born in 1961, she grew up in downstate Illinois and moved to Chicago with her 11-year-old daughter in 1993 after her marriage fell apart. For a few years she worked as a nurse's assistant at a hospital. Then she started going out with a drug dealer who beat her. "I wound up homeless, living with my boyfriend in the back of his car," she says. "My daughter was made a ward of the state. It was a terrible collapse."

In August she moved to a transitional house, where's she's getting therapy and taking computer lessons. "I'm a lot stronger and smarter than I used to be," says Jones. "I'm here [at Bottomless Closet] because I'm getting ready for three job interviews for office positions. I know you have to dress properly. Some of the girls in the development office [of her transitional shelter] wear jeans and casual clothes. But I bet they dressed up for the interview, and now they're going with the flow.

"For me, my problems are bigger than clothes. But I think I can get it back together. I guess you could say I'm smart at some things and dumb at love. The other day I heard that [REO Speedwagon] song, 'Back on the Road Again.' It's the one where he's the rock 'n' roll superstar and he says to the girl, 'I'll see you next time around.' This lady said, 'How can you like that song? He killed her and just leaves?' I said, 'No, he didn't kill her.' She must have misunderstood the lyrics. But you know, it got me thinking. I still like the song, the beat and all. But I never thought about it that way, how the guy leaves the girl. You have girls always depending on the guy, waiting for him to come back. It made me think about my own life. I guess you can say I've got a lot to figure out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo Julie Flohr.

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