Chanell Simmons at the Dress for Success boutique

BOSTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Thirty minutes.

That’s how long Chanell Simmons, who is size 28, needed to choose her clothes at the Boston boutique of Dress for Success, an international nonprofit that provides professional attire to disadvantaged women for job interviews.

"Usually shopping takes more than four hours and is also embarrassing," she said.

But with the help of personal shoppers, Simmons walks out with a business suit, shoes, wallet, handbag, scarf and a surprise goodie bag.

"I am a happy woman," she said with a giggle.

Simmons is one of many job-ready women who have an interview scheduled and come to Dress for Success to get career attire. A woman can pick up clothing from the boutique with a referral from nonprofit or government agencies, such as homeless shelters, immigration services, job training programs, educational institutions and domestic violence shelters. If the woman then secures employment, she can receive additional suits to expand her wardrobe–much of which has been donated by other women.

Once a woman gets involved with Dress for Success, she can also become a member of its Professional Women’s Group, which offers various employment retention and mentoring programs.

In the dour economy, the boutique has enjoyed a surge in the number of women who arrive, not only needing clothes but also ready to volunteer.

This is directly related to the economic crisis, says Joanne Rollins, executive director of the boutique in Western Massachusetts.

Though corporate donations have decreased due to the weak economy, donations of professional apparel remain consistent, Rollins says.

‘A Big Change’

"I have noticed a big change, both in terms of the numbers and the types of women who are coming," Rollins said. "A lot of them are older women who have to be retrained and we have a lot of women coming in to get clothes to go to job fairs and internships, rather than a straight-out interview."

With an increase in layoffs and early retirement, more women are also eager to volunteer. There are 70 volunteers at the Boston boutique, which was named the best affiliate in 2009 among the 94 affiliates of Dress for Success worldwide.

Volunteers come from diverse backgrounds and include clients who return to help.

"Especially right now with the economy there are a lot of women who are in transition, who are laid off, retired or looking for something new," said Kimberly Todd, executive director of the Dress for Success boutique in Boston.

Kaly Sullivan, boutique coordinator at Dress for Success in Worcester, Mass., says that women who were previously employed are also getting involved. "More educated women who have been employed for a long time and are now themselves unemployed and are optimistic that they will be employed again" are offering to help out, she said. "While they have the free time they want to be giving back to the community."

A New Experience

Some women also choose to volunteer at Dress for Success because the experience of working as a personal shopper is new and different.

"I liked coordinating things, so I wanted to fill my time, to feel helpful and do something different from what I used to do," said one woman who has been volunteering as a personal shopper at the Boston boutique for over a year.

While most boutiques are well stocked, many are finding it hard to meet the increase in the demand for plus-size or small-size clothes that are also stylish.

"We have seen an increase in women over size 16 and above for the last six months, and for a few weeks in a row we’ve had women who are sizes 24, 28 and 30," said Todd.

This might be due to the stress caused by the economic crisis, Todd says. "We have a budget to buy plus-size clothes," she said. "We never let them go with nothing."

Bijoyeta Das, a freelance writer based in Boston.

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