Byline: Holly Haber

MESQUITE, Tex. — Is there anything that inspires more camaraderie among women than shopping?
The primal gathering instinct was in full force last week at Sears, Roebuck & Co. here when five fashion mavens helped five disadvantaged women select two outfits each for pursuing new careers. The morning of shopping was coordinated by Fashion Takes Action, a three-year-old charitable program started by Sears to help dress needy women returning to work or entering the workforce.
I was one of the stylists who worked with the women, along with Tracy Achor Hayes of the Dallas Morning News; Paula McClure, a former TV journalist who founded The Mood Spa here; Cindi Alsobrook, a systems analyst at Sprint and a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, and Kellie Raspberry, a local radio personality.
The women who came to be dressed made a 100-mile trip to Sears here from Northeast Texas Community College in Mount Pleasant, where they are all on full state scholarships and are nearing completion of their degrees. Four were single mothers. They were chosen for the day of shopping by Judy Jackson, director of special support services at the college.
Our assignment: to help the women choose two ensembles with coordinating shoes and handbags. Sears also gave the women watches and cosmetics and treatment products from its private label, Circle of Beauty.
We started the morning with a little coffee klatch and then we hit the main floor to shop. I think all the stylists were surprised by the offerings at Sears, especially the forward shoe department. Many of the season’s trends were well represented, and there were particularly fashionable looks in juniors. But the women we worked with were more interested in tailored career apparel.
I shopped with Patsy Hatten, a divorced mother of three boys who was preparing to go job hunting for a position in medical administration. Though shy and soft spoken, Patsy had specific ideas about what styles she liked.
“I need something for job interviews,” she told me. “I like long skirts and I like sleeves — nothing sleeveless or low-cut.”
We started in career clothes, where I suggested a long black jacket with Velcro closures by Sears’s Apostrophe label hanging with matching pants and skirts. Patsy, who had fairly conservative taste, was skeptical, but she agreed to try the jacket, insisting on pairing it with a long skirt. While in the dressing room, she requested the pants, and we were both happy with how hip she looked in the pantsuit.
I suggested a hot pink knit underpinning, but that was a little too outre for Patsy, so we found a khaki cotton knit crewneck sweater by Duvet for a sophisticated look.
Sears had cordoned off a block of fitting rooms for the occasion, and the scene was lively as women emerged from the dressing room to stand before a three-way mirror, garnering opinions and suggestions from personal shoppers. The women didn’t seem at all intimidated by the TV cameraman who recorded them as they emerged from the fitting rooms.
Having found the pantsuit, we headed to the dress department, where the racks were so jam-packed, it was a little overwhelming. We had to step back and try to focus.
Patsy rejected a pale blue pinstriped pantsuit with a long jacket, but liked a Miranda K khaki sheath dress with a bit of brown geometric embroidery and a matching jacket. It looked attractive on her and she thought it would be appropriate for interviews. Naturally, I gave her the fashion spiel about wearing the ensemble during the day and taking off the jacket to go out at night.
Then we ambled over to the shoe department, which was the highlight for me. Fashionable hair-calf sandals and square-toed molded-sole Prada knockoffs abounded. That was clearly not for Patsy, who headed for traditional pumps, but I urged her to try something more fun.
“Look at this!” I enthused, holding up a mini zebra-striped hair-calf high-heel sandal by Apostrophe. Who could resist? She tried them and liked them as a jazzy complement to the black pantsuit.
We had more trouble finding a shoe to wear with the khaki dress. How many zillion shades of khaki are there? And she wanted the shoes to match the dress. I finally found a cute open-toed mesh pump with a mini-leopard cognac print, also from Apostrophe, that she was drawn to and that was more lighthearted than the other selections.
On to handbags, where we quickly found a mini vinyl tote in a black-and-white spotted animal print — another by Apostrophe — that worked with the pantsuit and sandals, and a metallic brown vinyl Crossroads bag to wear with the dress.
Missions accomplished, each of the five put on her favorite outfit, had a makeup session in the cosmetics department and was given a cleanser, moisturizer and makeup. Then we all posed for lots of pictures at the mall entry of the store.
During lunch, the Sears manager stood up and said, “We have something we want to give you.”‘
“I think y’all have given us enough!” responded Amber Green, an irrepressible young mother of twin toddlers who was one of the beneficiaries.
He then presented each of the grateful women with a metal watch.
The makeovers seemed to have the desired effect.
“It brought a little more confidence to me when I was dressed up,” said Patsy. “It was fun.”
Sears started the program in New York, extended it to five cities last year and will have it in 10 this year. It kicked off April 18 in Chicago and arrived in this Dallas suburb last week. The schedule is for stops in New York, Los Angeles, Denver, Washington, Miami, Baltimore, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, Pa.
But the program has a broader reach than that. Sears is donating $100,000 and working with its vendors to donate about 3,000 ensembles to Women Work!, a Washington agency dedicated to helping women support themselves.
This year’s outreach will be the subject of a doctoral dissertation by Harriet McLeod on the impact of clothing on self esteem. With funding from Sears, McLeod will travel to nine of the 10 Fashion Takes Action shopping days and interview all the participating women. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in clothing and textiles at Iowa State University in Ames.
“There hasn’t been any research that looks specifically at what Sears is doing,” McLeod noted. “I’m looking at the whole package in terms of how you look and feel and think about yourself, and how all of those things interact.”
McLeod interviewed the five women here at the store just after they were finished with their makeovers.
“They all were quite overwhelmed by the whole program,” McLeod noted. “They had no idea that Sears would go to that extent to cater to them in terms of the number of people there to help them — the fashion editors and Sears personnel and media that came to cover it. They felt very special and happy that Sears did that for them.
“I asked them what advice they were being given and a lot of them said to build a basic wardrobe that you can mix and match and add pieces to,” she continued. “They all agreed that was really sound advice.”
“We’ve been very, very proud of the success of the program over the past two years and the number of women we’ve been able to help,” commented Diane Paccione, vice president and general merchandise manager for Sears ready-to-wear, in a telephone interview. “As these women are going through transformation, so is Sears. When you look at our apparel today versus three or four years ago, it is trend-right and priced right.”