Blythe Hill never set out to create a movement. As the Dressember founder recalls, back in 2009, it was just a love of puns and a desire to bring a little creativity into her life that led her to wear dresses during the last month of the year. For the first four years, it was just that — a styling challenge and a laugh among friends.
It wasn’t until a considerable number of girlfriends signed on that Hill realized she could use her fashion choices to raise money. Like Movember, a movement that encourages men not to shave during the month of November to raise money for charity, Dressember participants ask for donations from friends and family in exchange for wearing the titular garment all month long.
In 2013, she took the plunge, registering Dressember as a nonprofit and aligning the project with International Justice Mission, the world’s largest anti-slavery organization. To hear Hill tell it, it was an obvious partnership. “I’ve been passionate about human trafficking, especially sex trafficking, for a number of years,” the former photographer/accounts manager explains. “But I also felt like I was hitting a wall because I didn’t feel like I could reroute my whole career. It felt like there was nothing I could do unless I moved to India and became a social worker.”
Their goal with the inaugural year was to raise $25,000, which was exceeded in three days. Thanks to the event’s popularity and a steadily growing internet presence, the number of donations and participants grows yearly. (Hill speaks warmly of talking to self-organized Dressember teams across the United States.) In 2015, dress-clad women across the world raised $918,000 on behalf of Dressember. Hill estimates that over 10,000 people will participate this year, pulling in upwards of $1.5 million — a staggering number by any measure.
Ahead of what promises to be a very busy season, we caught up with Hill to discuss courage, change and — of course — what she’ll be wearing starting Dec. 1.
SheKnows: Have you met any of the people whose lives have been impacted by Dressember’s funds?
Blythe Hill: I’ve met a handful of International Justice Mission’s clients. One of my first field office visits was to IJM’s Guatemala office. There was a girl there who was 13 who had a 2-month-old baby. That was heartbreaking. They actually didn’t know the paternity of the child. She had been raped by her father, her grandfather and her uncle within the same week. Horrific abuse. I think of girls like that. It’s so daunting and it’s so dark.
But the whole reason I met her was because they had a pinning ceremony where they pin these “I am a hero” pins on children who have testified in court. You’d think that the room would be filled with a sad, somber tone. But it was the complete opposite. There was so much hope and light. I just looked at these kids and they were triumphant. Beaming. To be honored in that way — it was amazing. It was a good reminder that yes, this is a dark situation, but the work that they’re doing changes their story. It doesn’t stop at the abuse. There can be justice and healing and their stories can continue in a really positive direction.
SK: What kind of feedback are you getting from participants?
BH: Women will write in stories about how the act of putting on a dress every day is a physical reminder. It’s like putting on a uniform of advocacy. The routine of it, just to be thinking about what it’s all for and the dignity of all women. But also for yourself. I feel like there’s this thread of personal freedom and dignity that women step into. A lot of it is so abstract that I don’t understand, but it’s so powerful for so many women. We get emails from people saying, “I don’t totally understand it, but because of Dressember, I’ll never be the same again.” It’s super-beautiful. It’s a community of women who have different experiences with it, but as a whole, make so much of an impact together. It’s been amazing that something I’ve created out of my own passion has become so many things to different people. So many good things. A community and an opportunity for other women to advocate who were maybe feeling powerless in the same way that I was.
SK: Since this did start as a styling challenge—what are you planning on wearing in December?
BH: The last few years I’ve worn the same dress every day just to show that it can be done. You don’t need to go buy a bunch of dresses! Last year was the first year that we had an official Dressember dress in partnership with another organization that offers employment to women rescued out of sex trafficking in Nepal. Last year, I had the same dress in two colors. This year we have three different styles in two colors each. I feel like I’ll have a field day this year with the different options!
SK: If you could tell 2009 Blythe anything, would you give her a hint about what’s ahead?
BH: I would go back to 2012 and say, “You need to just go for this, it will be great.” It was just a personal style challenge for four years. I really could have done it a year earlier. But I was scared. Just being OK to fail. That was something I needed to grow past. Fear of failure.