When it comes to basic human needs, government programs that provide clothing are few and far between. While some Philly nonprofits have clothing closets or partner with other organizations to make clothes available, the nonprofit, donation-based social enterprise The Wardrobe is dedicated solely to providing clothing to communities in need. The Wardrobe’s mission is to “eliminate clothing insecurity” by providing clothes for all bodies, ranging from casual clothes to work-appropriate attire. Clothing is available for free for folks who are referred to The Wardrobe, but the general public is welcome to shop for a tag price.
“Our basic philosophy is [there are] programs for housing, programs for food, but we don’t really have any big government programs for clothing insecurity,” said Al Sharrock, program director for The Wardrobe. “But when you think about basic needs, you think about clothing as well — it’s food, clothing and shelter.”
The Wardrobe partners with roughly 150 organizations, including Prevention Point Philadelphia, GALAEI, The Attic and Action Wellness, who send or have sent their participants to The Wardrobe when they need clothes. Sharrock and their colleagues work with the fashion, advocacy and sexual health nonprofit Prevention Meets Fashion “a good amount,” they said. “When they have more people and more things going on, they will be referring people to us and us back to them.”
Sharrock came to The Wardrobe from the nonprofit world, where they worked as a domestic violence counselor in different recovery homes and exercise programs. When Sharrock’s former clients were reentering society after having been incarcerated or spending time in recovery and no longer had clothes that fit them, they would refer their clients to The Wardrobe.
“It was really cool to see how their demeanor changed when they got clothes that made them feel good,” Sharrock said. “Being able to meet that basic need of having clothing that fits, it made a huge difference in those clients’ lives.”
Sharrock said they also view clothing advocacy through the lens of being transgender and having had to replace their wardrobe in the course of their transition.
“I think some people, when they think about being trans if they haven’t lived it, maybe they think it’s like a light that switches on and off, and suddenly you are out as a trans person and you’re wearing these things,” Sharrock said. “At least for me, it took a really long process of figuring out – how do I buy men’s pants? It took me years and to be honest, I’m still working on it.”
On Thursday, May 26 from 11 a.m.-5 p.m. The Wardrobe will hold a free clothing and resource opportunity geared toward the LGBTQ community. Sharrock said that they hope to have a name-change clinic there with lawyers who can assist folks with the process of changing their name.
“We’re hoping to have other partners and other community organizations there to provide resources and things like that,” Sharrock said. “I just had a meeting with GALAEI; I think we’ll be having them come through. Really just trying to open our doors and tell LGBTQ people, especially trans people, that we are a safe place to shop.”
The Wardrobe team also collaborates with agencies who periodically provide their own clothing closets, but can’t necessarily sustain them year-round. “We want our organization to be there for all these partners who don’t have the time or energy to run their own closets,” Sharrock said.
In addition to operating physical stores, The Wardrobe hosts year-round events where folks can get free clothing, including an event for Afghan refugees, a returning wardrobe event for people who were formerly incarcerated, and a free prom attire event, which took place this past April.
All partners who work with The Wardrobe typically send their clients or participants to the clothing organization’s physical locations, barring a special agreement. Prevention Point Philadelphia is one of those partners with one such agreement. Instead of having people donate directly to Prevention Point, they have been rerouting donations to The Wardrobe. Every month or so, Prevention Point staff place an order of clothing to The Wardrobe, and their staff members clean, fold and organize the clothes.
“[The Wardrobe] is very flexible and have been working with us to find different ways that they can supply us with clothing that we can give to our participants that are asking for them,” said Nissa Gustafson, Drop-in Center co-coordinator at Prevention Point. The Drop-in Center is Prevention Point’s lowest barrier to entry, where folks can come in to escape the elements, have something to eat or get clothing.
As part of their deal, Prevention Point staffers can also go directly to The Wardrobe’s racks and shop for clothes for specific events. One such event is a weekly women’s night on Wednesdays, where non-cis men are invited to Prevention Point’s location to avail themselves of clothing from The Wardrobe.
Gustafson pointed out that having clean clothing options is vital for Prevention Point’s participants, many of whom experience homelessness and/or drug addiction, who may need to dress and conceal a wound or who experience withdrawal-related sickness and need a change of clothes.
“I think it just feels really important to have the option immediately accessible to get a change of clothes,” Gustafson said. “It can be really, really embarrassing and stigmatizing when you’re walking around with clothing and you feel ashamed and it’s obvious that something’s up. One of the highest and most daily needs is just a clean pair of socks or a change of clothing.”
The Wardrobe team is always looking for more community partnerships and are open to having people come in to shop. Community members are also encouraged to donate clothing, especially small menswear and women’s shoes size 10 and up. “That’s especially important for the LGBTQ community as well,” Sharrock said.