CHICAGO — It's easy to dress for success when you have a closet the size of a shopping center.
So representatives from 900 North Michigan Shops on the Gold Coast brought two racks' worth of clothing from Bloomingdales, Karen Millen and DNA 2050 for a workshop on professional attire they led at the Young Women's Leadership Charter School of Chicago.
But a big part of their message was that you don't have to overhaul your wardrobe to put together a boardroom-worthy outfit.
"We have a station where we ask the girls to brainstorm an appropriate look for an office setting using the clothes in their closet right now," said Ryan Beshel, the director of public relations for the shopping center. "We're just outlining how to dress properly for casual, and formal [settings], what's appropriate when it comes to exposing too much of yourself, what that really says about you, and how it can help you in your career,"
Beshel and Sarah Burrows, 900 North Michigan Shops' marketing director, spent Friday at the Young Women's Leadership Charter School of Chicago talking hemlines, accessories and more for the school's new "Social Graces" program.
Social Graces was created to complement the thesis-like "promotion presentations" that all eighth-, 10th- and 12th-grade students must complete to advance to the next grade level at the 14-year-old public school.
Offered to students in seventh, ninth and 11th grades at the charter school, Social Graces emphasizes professionalism, public speaking and conversation skills, and culminates with a luncheon where the girls rub elbows with business and community leaders.
"We're learning how to dress formerly for the [promotion panel] judges, to show that we can dress properly without people telling us how to dress," said eighth-grader Jessie Thompkins, 14, who said she wants to advocate for children as a lawyer when she grows up.
"I think it will help me when I get older, cause they're teaching me how to dress when I'm out in public, not to wear a T-shirt and jeans," Thompkins said. "Nicely-dressed people have the right energy about them."
The style tutorial is one of many supplemental lessons offered to students at the city's only all-girls public school.
That includes year-round initiatives that span all grades, like their "code-switching" challenge, which emphasized the distinction between "home language" and "professional business language."
"They all had necklaces and it was a bead exchange," said Jessica Wetmore, the school's program and partnership coordinator. "If one student heard that another student was using improper English, she could correct her and get a bead. If a student stopped a classmate from saying 'ain't,' and replaced it with 'I am not,' she could add a bead to her necklace."
Wetmore said the success of alumni validates the expanded curriculum: women like Nicole Miles, a 2008 grad who just earned a bachelor's degree at Smith College and now sits on the Young Women's Leadership Charter School board.
Supplements like the Social Graces set the school and its students apart from other Chicago Public Schools programs, Principal Deniece Fields said.
"When someone meets them, we want people to know that they've been to Young Women's Leadership Charter School, [to say] 'you must be a Y-dub student,' based on how they carry themselves," Fields said.
There's also an emphasis in all grade levels on leadership, and fearlessness in "breaking into male-dominated industries," a spirit of competition Fields exemplifies herself.
"[Urban Prep] gets a lot of press about a hundred percent of their boys going to college. And I'm like, 'a hundred percent of our girls have been accepted, to multiple schools, with multiple scholarships!'" she joked. "Those are things that are important for our girls to know, not just the media and press and everything else, but we want them to know. So they can walk around and feel that confidence, live with that confidence."