Chicago -- It's the first rule for job hunters: Dress for success.
But until a group of Chicago businesswomen opened Bottomless Closet last week, that simple formula had eluded thousands of poor women who were unable to afford to buy appropriate clothing for job interviews.
The Closet was established to increase the employment potential and marketability of women welfare recipients who want to work, by providing clothing, accessories and fashion guidance for job interviews at no charge.
"When you go out to get a job and you know that you look right for the position, you feel better about yourself, and you can more effectively tell people why you're qualified for the job," said Lynda Wright, a member of the Closet's board of directors. "As a society, it's first impressions that count."
The Closet, at 444 N. Wells St., accepts clothing donations and depends on volunteer staff. It has raised $190,000 in clothing, services, office space and funds from individuals and corporations. Its first-year goal is $350,000.
Not just anyone can walk in and get outfitted, however. All potential clients must be referred to the Closet by Project Chance, a program of the Illinois Department of Public Aid, or by Women for Economic Security, a public policy advocacy group.
Although the Closet can outfit 500 women in professional attire for any season, Closet president Laurel Baer said the organization still needs clothing in sizes above 16. She estimates the closet could serve 20,000 women in five years.
"Everybody wins here," she said. "The clients win because we're giving them that burst to their self-esteem and helping them out when they need it. The referral agencies win because we're helping them to achieve their goals. The community wins when people are self-sufficient. The corporate world wins because we're helping to expand the labor pool."
Closet workers select a variety of outfits they deem appropriate for the client to wear to an interview, then allow the woman to take her choice.
Volunteers will help women choose from suits, dresses, skirts, jackets, shoes, purses, briefcases, scarves and pantyhose at the shop.
"We want them to feel that there is support available. Without the help that I got in the beginning, I never would have gotten the jobs and opportunities that I've had," Ms. Wright said. "Our appearance means a great deal and our ability to achieve sometimes depends a great deal on that."