Story by James Pearson
"Blythe is a real name," writes Blythe Hill on Instagram, captioning a series of photos in which her name is butchered on Starbucks cups. Blike, Blthy, Blive, the cups say. One of them, zen-like, says Life.
The photos are stylish, well-snapped. When Blythe is in them she's deadpan, enjoying the drink and a wry moment with her followers. She is fashionable in a way that makes you think of Pinterest glazed with mid-1900s New York. Her style sense even landed her a position with a leading trend forecasting firm in Los Angeles, advising corporate clients on what's just over the fashion horizon.
"I get a kick out of getting dressed," she told me. "It's a small opportunity to express myself, to be creative." And it was a silly experiment in creative fashion that ended up inspiring thousands of women around the world and raising over $150,000 last year to fight sex trafficking.
"Dressember started, honestly, out of boredom," said Blythe. She was in graduate school, and the way that classes rolled into classes and semesters into semesters was feeling stale. "I thought a style challenge would be an easy way to spice things up, to practice creativity with a limited schedule."
Near the end of 2009, she came up with the idea to wear a dress every day for a month. And since December was the next full month, she started calling the experiment Dressember. "I love puns," she said, "so the deal was pretty much sealed at that point."
She had no intention of turning Dressember into a campaign, or even an annual challenge. But when her friends saw her wearing dresses all month they wanted to try it, too. "It wasn't until friends wanted to join, and then their friends wanted to join, and I saw its organic growth, that I started seeing potential for something bigger."
Every year the Dressember community grew, even expanding internationally. Blythe soon took notice of Movember, the November mustache-growing campaign that raises money for men's health organizations. "Maybe I can use Dressember to raise money for an anti-trafficking organization," she thought.
Last year, Blythe aligned Dressember with International Justice Mission (IJM), a nonprofit that rescues victims of human trafficking, and set what she called "the huge, scary goal" of raising $25,000 for the organization. The 31-day Dressember campaign hit that goal on day three. "I realized I needed to start dreaming bigger," said Blythe.
By December 31 last year, 1,200 women in 32 countries had raised over $165,000 for IJM—more than six times the original goal.
Just as donations started to surge in last year, Blythe noticed some criticism of Dressember trickling onto Twitter. "There were some valid points made," she said. "Someone said we ought to be careful what brands we wear, and there'd be an unfortunate irony if our dresses were produced by slave labor. I appreciated that."
She also received some emails from transgender people who were concerned that Dressember promoted gender binaries. Blythe changed some of the campaign's language. "I was not trying to say that only women can wear dresses," she said.
But others were less constructive. One person took issue with participants posting selfies, calling it vain. "Instead of offering some sort of solution," said Blythe, "they started an Instagram account to mock Dressember, with boys in dresses in suggestive poses and borderline lewd captions. They also started harassing Dressember participants, which is what made me the most upset.
Another person, a friend of one of her friends, took the time to find Blythe on Facebook and send her a message calling Dressember "stupid."
If Dressember as a fashion challenge was born out of boredom, Dressember as activism came from something much deeper.
"I was molested as a little girl," said Blythe, "and for years I carried the weight of questions of worthiness, value, and guilt." When she learned that millions of girls and women all around the world are trafficked from their homes to endure sexual abuse, she said it lit a fire inside her. "It took years for me to heal, forgive, and move forward, but hearing about women and girls who experience horrific things still fires me up."
Blythe wanted to do something to help. "But I kept hitting a wall," she said. "I'm not a social worker, I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a cop, I'm not a psychologist." The things she enjoyed and was good at—fashion, design, trend analysis, writing—felt like the wrong tools for pursuing what she was passionate about. While her heart strained towards human rights, her talents kept her working in Los Angeles. "My interests didn't seem to match up with making a difference," said Blythe.
Last year, when Blythe transformed Dressember into a fundraiser for IJM, she found a way to align her enjoyment of creative fashion with her passion to stop sex trafficking. And deeper still, she created a platform where femininity—the epicenter of some of her earliest, deepest wounds—is powerful, and supports the work of healing and wholeness for women around the world.
When critical voices began to attack Dressember, as they do with any successful venture, Blythe said that she mostly kept it to herself. "It was a lonely experience to process the negative feedback that came in," she said.
To fight through it she reminded herself that rescuing one person from trafficking was worth upsetting 1,000 people. And that for every Dressember critic there were probably 1,000 supporters. And she talked with her mentor about it. "I've learned a lot since then," said Blythe, "and feel more prepared to face the criticism that will likely come this year."
For one thing, she now has other people beside her. "Last year was pretty much a one-woman effort," she said. "My main strategy is to let others in on the journey, and try not to carry the weight of it again." Blythe is building a team to help her run the campaign. "I've learned how important it is to be a part of a team of people," she said.
And secondly, she said that she's learning to "guard the gate," to choose what feedback she believes is valuable. "I talked with my mentor a lot about deciphering between valid and useless feedback, and learning to put the feedback I'm not sure about on hold until I can take it to people I trust."
This year, the Dressember team set a huge goal. They hope to raise $500,000 for IJM—20 times last year's goal. "It's big, but I have a feeling the ripple effect growth that Dressember saw as a style challenge will carry over to the campaign," said Blythe.
Every person who joins the campaign ratifies the basic values Blythe brought to it: that personal creativity can make a difference, and that femininity is powerful."It's always really encouraging to see people get excited about Dressember," said Blythe, "to see their eyes light up with their own ideas within the campaign or beyond."
She said she got an email a couple weeks ago from the director of a safe house for women coming out of prostitution in the States. "She emailed to let me know some of her girls heard about Dressember and are thrilled about it, and can't wait to participate," said Blythe.
"That's the sort of feedback that puts the wind back in my sails."