January 10, 2011

Impressing with Smart Dressing

“Getting hired can really come down to your appearance. People are judging you before you even open your mouth and often do so within 30 seconds of meeting you.” -Sara Cole, Fashion Merchandising Major, Ball State University

When thinking about fashionable work attire, most people try to invest in the best brand name clothing available. However, for many American workers affected by the slow economy, these luxuries are often out of reach. In Muncie, Indiana the job market has suffered greatly from the economic recession, with unemployment reaching as high as 11.9 percent by mid 2009. With the rise in jobless claims, seeking fashionable clothing had been the last thing on the minds of the many out-of-work residents.

Concerned about the growing state of unemployment within their local community, Dr. Diana Saiki and Dr. Jinhee Nam of the Department of Family & Consumer Sciences at Ball State University decided to do something about it. Together they launched Smart Dressing: Learning Lessons from the Past to Make Wise Decisions in the Future, a program focusing on outreach to unemployed and low income groups within the Muncie community. Utilizing a three-phased approach, the researchers set out to help people learn how to look their best on a tight budget. 

“Initially the idea for the program came out of past research and presentations I did on workplace dress for low income groups” said Saiki, the program’s director. “For this project I wanted to make it more immersive and creative. I wanted to show that you don’t have to buy high-end only; you could use your imagination. I knew that an outreach program would be creative,” she said. Co-director Jinhee Nam further adds “When people normally shop, they tend to choose brands that they know and are accustomed to having. But those in the unemployed and low income community don’t have so much choice in selection.”

Determined to make a difference, Saiki and Nam partnered with  Muncie's TEAMwork for Quality Living, Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, and the Ball State Beeman Historic Costume Collection to bring their vision into fruition. Their partnership with these organizations, in addition to the aid of more than 150 student volunteers, allowed them to make presentations to community groups such as WorkForce One and Future Choices

Central to the partnership was funding from Discovery, an organization that supports innovative, educational projects at Ball State University. Founded in 2002, the woman's philanthropy has made awards to over two dozen projects focused on Ball State's priorities. Saiki recalls conducting a demonstration for the proposal committee: “I remember when we did a presentation to Discovery and were wearing clothes we purchased and tailored. At the end of the presentation it really surprised the committee when they found out we were all wearing clothes from Goodwill!”

Since receiving funding in 2009, the team has already progressed through the first and second stages of their plan by launching an online exhibit and hosting a fashion show in fall of 2010. Community participants were given the opportunity to model professional work attire and keep the clothing they modeled as part of the Smart Dressing program.

Now on the third phase of the initiative, the team is putting together the final touches on their plan to establish a better work-dress program in partnership with the Muncie community. “It was exciting working with people from Ball State, especially with the students,” said community participant Angelic Wood. “While working with them, I was able to learn the rules of how to dress for an interview and how to select clothing that was the best fit and style for me. I’m dressing better now thanks to the program.” 

However, as much as community members have benefited from this effort, students would be the first to tell you of the growth they have also experienced as well.  Just ask Sara Cole, a junior fashion merchandising major at Ball State University:  “You know, when students first think about doing community work they dread it—I was first dreading it because I was thinking I’m busy, I’m a college student, I don’t have time for that. But once you are out there and you see how much you are helping people, you really start to enjoy it. That, I think, is something everybody should do. Getting out there and belonging to your community. If we all try to make a difference in the world it would be a brighter place.”

If you would like further information about this program, please feel free to contact Dr. Diana Saiki at (765) 285-2293 or by email at desaiki@bsu.edu. You may also contact Dr. Jinhee Nam at (765) 285-2177 or by email at jnam@bsu.edu. For additional information on funding opportunities at Ball State University, please visit the Sponsored Programs Office at www.bsu.edu/spo.

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