June 16, 2016

The Open Closet

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:33 pm by historywardrobe

Where do your cast-off clothes go? Do you spare them a second thought when they go off to the second-hand market?

My travels in the American mid-West recently included several trawls in antique malls, where I found some delightful vintage frocks.  But what of the fate of more contemporary clothes? What happens to the garments culled from our wardrobes?  Let me invite you into the basement of St John’s Lutheran church, in the surprisingly lovely town of Dubuque, Iowa.  open closetHere, in The Open Closet, you’ll find a freshly-painted, neatly-ordered set of rooms laid out like a nice clothes store.  The stock is entirely made up of donations – roughly 150 bin bags of them a week (double this after a clothing drive).  A team of volunteers, under the expert aegis of Ruth Pugh, sort the clothes into female, male, girl & boy categories. There’s even a rather moving section of tiny garments for premature babies. Clothes are also sorted seasonally. So far, all pretty similar to any charity clothing shop.

Here’s the difference.  The clothes are all free.

Yes, for 27 years The Open Closet has been serving the needs of the community with not a price-tag in sight.  And the clients?  While I watched Ruth at work putting winter gear to one side, a young woman arrived. She seemed quite quiet.  She had just been released from prison and urgently needed a set of clothes. ‘How many items can I take?’ she asked shyly.  ‘Take whatever you need,’ Ruth said, leaving the woman to browse in peace.  Take whatever you need. A simple sentence, deep with generosity and significance for this young woman starting fresh.  Worth thinking about if you (like me) suspect that you have far, far more than you need.

IMG_1494 (2)The Open Closet is also there for people who’ve lost everything in a house fire or floods; for homeless people; for those who’ve sought refuge from violence in shelters, leaving troubled homes with literally only the clothes on their backs. Indeed, Ruth says The Open Closet is for anyone in the community who needs to be clothed.  Premature babies to prom dresses, in fact.

635937248770834705-Loras-College-Fire-6After lightening struck dorms of nearby Loras College, the young people burnt out of their rooms came to The Open Closet for new outfits.  By coincidence, one of the courageous citizens who spotted the fire, raised the alarm, then helped them escape safely (saving 45 lives) was honoured for his efforts at the same ceremony where Ruth herself was honoured for her tremendous contributions as a community volunteer.

We are not naked creatures in society. Clothes give us dignity, identity and confidence.

Ruth says she keeps a special section of work gear – overalls & ‘scrubs’ and such like – for people on low-wage jobs who need clothes that are fit for purpose. Also, she sets aside smart clothes for work-eager people going to job interviews.  Ruth recalled the story of a boot-less man due for a job interview. Without work-boots = no interview; no work.  He was referred to The Open Closet and kitted out. He got the job.

IMG_1493 (2)And this isn’t some shabby free-for-all, with any old stuff piled on tables to be picked over.  The clothes are only put out if they are clean and flawless. Clients can browse in a nice environment.  They respond by respecting the place and the stock… and perhaps themselves a bit more too.

The Open Closet works quite closely with the associated men’s shelter Almost Home.  As well as receiving much-needed clothes, the men have been known to donate clothes back to the Closet when they can, and some come to volunteer too.

Not all the clothes find new wearers, and here’s where the next level of re-use happens.  A company called St Vincent de Paul, which works to help those in poverty, collects items to sell on for shredding.  Another company, Remains collects unwanted items too.  Before the recession Remains were able to pay about $1 a sack for ‘rejects.’ Now they can’t pay, but the clothes are at least shredded, and the rags can be re-used… a tradition which has a long, long history.

As ever, The Open Closet is seeking more volunteers. Ruth isn’t above bribing helpers with candy.  “If you really want to make a difference and see that difference, volunteer here,” she says.  “You will make people happy.”

Dubuque, Iowa, may be too far for many of us to travel to.  Why not seek out local organisations and charities to find a second home for your clothes? They deserve the longest life possible.

The young woman choosing her out-of-prison outfit while I was in the Closet said as she left (holding her new clothes), “I hope to donate things back again when I can…”