Dress for Dignity Founder Rochelle Courtenay: How Your Wardrobe Can Help Women in Need

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As Dress for Dignity launches, founder Rochelle Courtenay shares her journey breaking the cycle of over-consumption, and tells us how our wardrobes can help women in need.

There are some things that should happen fast — like changing society’s attitude towards menstruation, ensuring women and children are safe and hospitals getting on board with providing women with sanitary items. But fashion shouldn’t be. It damages the environment and contributes to the attitude that objects are infinitely replaceable, regardless of the impact it has on the world.

Every 10 minutes in Australia, 6,000kg of clothing is thrown in the bin. As a nation, Australia is the second largest consumer of textiles in the world. Only 10 to 20 percent of the clothes donated at the charity bins actually make it to the shelves for resale. The rest end up in landfill or are sent offshore. 

The Journey

As a keen shopper, I knew I was part of the problem. 

In 2018 I vowed I would not buy any new clothes for a year. I knew that if I was going to part of changing the world, I have to walk my talk. For the most part, I was successful! I only had one slip up… and it was not even a real slip up. I was in Darwin to install a Dignity Vending Machine at a homeless shelter. Being early, our team leader Lyn and I wandered into the local Vinnies next door.

I fell in love with a long duck egg blue vintage leather jacket that fitted me perfectly. Aside from trying to work out who would wear such a jacket in Darwin, I was tempted to buy it. It was only $50 but I remembered my vow and walked away, heading home without the divine jacket.

When I got home, there was the jacket, sent to me by Lyn and another volunteer. I gave Lyn the $50 so I ‘technically’ didn’t buy the jacket but I did. I’ve worn it to so many times and will be handing it down to my granddaughters one day, I’m sure.

I love looking and feeling amazing in a new outfit but I didn’t love being part of the problem. My experiment to not buy any clothes changed me. It changed how I spend my money. It changed how I look at the world and my role in it when it comes to making it a better place for all of us. 

Your Clothes Can Help Women in Need

There is a powerful scene in Maid, a Netflix series about Alex, a single mother who fled domestic violence. She seeks refuge in a DV shelter after leaving with nothing except herself and her daughter. The shelter has a showroom set up like a clothing store. Alex is given ‘money’ so she is afforded the dignity of picking for herself. 

But things are changing in the DV refuge space with many no longer taking clothing donations. Resources are too short in shelters for employees to spend sorting piles of clothes, many of which are not in wearable condition. At Dress for Dignity we address this issue by giving women in need a $100 gift voucher to go shopping. It’s empowering and it’s personal.

The concept for Dress for Dignity came to me during the COVID lockdowns. Like most retail, second hand shops were shut. I worried about the women we work with at Share the Dignity, who were losing access to support and resources, like affordable clothing.

I spent a day alphabetising everything in my home including my closet. Flicking through my abundance of dresses the idea for Dress For Dignity came to me.

Campaigns like #ItsInTheBag and Dress for Dignity are built on the premise that most of us have enough. Dress for Dignity is a simple concept. Go to your wardrobe, pick a dress that you just love but may have only worn once or twice. Take a picture in the dress, upload it and sell it, so another woman can love it.  

Rochelle Courtenay, founder dress for dignity and Share the dignity

How Dress for Dignity Works

No one else anywhere in the world has done something like this — I checked. 

Dress for Dignity gives “Dignity Dollars” to domestic violence refuges, who pass them on to women in need. These women can then shop online, with a wealth of choice, instead of having to take whatever is offered. When you upload clothes to Dress for Dignity, your dress could be bought by your next door neighbour, or a woman in a domestic violence refuge.

How to Accept the Dress for Dignity Challenge

Here is my challenge to you — go to your cupboard, choose one dress that is in top shape, load a picture with you in the dress and set your price. When it sells, you get a tax deduction receipt for that donation — that is so flipping cool. Then send it to the new owner. In less than 30 minutes you have made a difference in someone else’s life.  

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