These Dresses Save Lives

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Dressember raises awareness for human trafficking worldwide with month-long campaign.

A dress is composed of individual threads, woven together to create a stylish ensemble. You slip it on and embark on your day’s journey to work, to run errands or to a night out on the town. It’s an article of clothing, yes, but to some it’s much more—a glimmer of hope, a suit of armor, a uniform. It’s all of the above for people participating in the annual Dressember challenge, which asks advocates to wear a dress (or a tie for the fellas) every day in the month of December to raise awareness of human trafficking.

“What I love is that [a dress] means something different to different people,” CEO and Founder Blythe Hill says. The dress serves as a conversation starter; it’s a gateway to a real, genuine conversation about sex trafficking and how one can donate to the cause. Each person registers on the Dressember website, starting as early as October, to set a goal and aim to meet it. It’s peer-to-peer fundraising. Last year 8,000 women and men committed to wearing dresses and ties for the cause.

The nonprofit started out as a personal style challenge for Hill: wear a dress every day in December to maximize your closet as a creative outlet. Simultaneously, her awareness and knowledge of sex trafficking, specifically in India, heightened in 2005. During an eight-year period she wrestled with the idea of where she best fit into the anti-trafficking movement. Despite being in college at the time, she didn’t feel led to uproot her career path to becoming a lawyer, police officer or social worker. She had a passion for fashion and anti-trafficking, so she sought to merge the two together. With the movement buzzing, in 2013, Hill set a goal of raising $25,000 for the cause. She met her goal on the third day of the month. When the 31st came around, she raised $165,000 with help from 1,233 registered participants in 32 countries. Last year, the foundation raised over $2 million. This year? The goal is $3 million to fund anti-trafficking grants for partners like International Justice Mission (IJM) and A21 that make tangible impacts.

“We really try to lead with the fun and the hope,” Hill adds. “There’s a lot of darkness in this fight that we do, but there’s also a lot of hope.” The reason Hill is so interested in this issue, she says, is because she is someone who experienced sexual abuse as a child. “I feel like I had this glimpse into what it means to be exploited, and the effect on your worth, your identity, how you see yourself, and how you carry the responsibility for your abuse.”

Finding what you’re passionate about and finding your “why” serve as motivation to keep going, she says. “God doesn’t want to break our hearts for the sake of breaking them. He breaks them so that He can then use us.”

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Hill recommends allowing your heart to be broken and then diving into what has broken it. “That’s where passion begins; it’s where our hearts are breaking,” Hill says. She encourages breaking away from your comfort zone, exposing yourself to communities outside your bounds, traveling more, and leaning into injustice and pain because something bigger might be waiting for you there. She explains, “What really stirs a person’s heart is a clue to their passion. And I think it can be scary for people. It can be scary to care.”

Hill cared enough to bet on herself at the beginning of this journey over five years ago. “I remember thinking if I could even help maybe one person, then it’s worth looking like a fool to a thousand people,” she recalls.

This December, Hill is challenging herself to wear only four dresses—one every week. Each dress is from the 2018 Dressember collection, which encompasses designs by eight female powerhouses for the cause, including Hill. By incorporating conscious purchases, it shines a light on a clothing industry that is riddled with human trafficking incidences. The collection is hand-made by women rescued from trafficking in Nepal with currently 500 women on the waiting list.

A piece of fabric that is so often intertwined with double meanings, standards of beauty and sometimes not-so-great memories, a dress can serve a bigger purpose. “For some people, [wearing a dress] is really oppressive,” Hill adds. She says that for some women, dresses come with negative associations since these women may have been forced to wear a dress when they were younger. “They’d say, ‘I hate dresses, but I hate slavery more.’” Now, a dress can take on a new meaning. It’s a uniform and signifier that you’re an advocate and that you belong in the Dressember community. “Dressember really illustrates that no matter what phase of life you’re in, no matter your job or your role, you can have an impact,” Hill takes a beat. “What I love about Dressember is even the busiest person has to get dressed.”

Photo credit: Kara McFarlane (@photography.mcfarlane)