Dress(ember)ing to impress: HighEdWeb member raises awareness, funds toward preventing human trafficking

Chris D'Orso looking absolutely fabulous in a dress

This month, Chris D’Orso — long-time HighEdWebber and associate director of admissions for SUNY Brockport — has turned a lot of heads and turned up awareness and funds for a serious cause. Chris is wearing a dress every day as part of the Dressember project to raise money for prevention of and awareness about the issue of human trafficking. Tim Nekritz, chief editor of Link, reached out to learn more from this #HEWebHero.

Q. First, can you tell us a little more about Dressember and why you decided to get involved?

A. I had a few friends who did Movember last month, growing mustaches to raise money for cancer charities. As the month came to a close, I decided to google around to see if there was anything similar for December. That’s how I stumbled across Dressember, which was created in 2013 to bring awareness of, and raise money to help fight, human trafficking. Dressember challenges participants to wear a dress (or a tie) every day for 31 days.

I wear ties for work when I have to; they’re horrifically boring, and nobody is going to donate money about a cause they might not know much about because I’m wearing a tie. But I had a few dresses and shoes in the closet from past Halloweens and a drag show I did, so I figured I’d give it a shot. I ran the idea past my wife, who said it sounded like fun, and decided to throw caution to the wind and go for it. I figured that because my friends have seen me in dresses before, nobody would be terribly surprised.

Q. Has the fundraising part of it exceeded your expectations?

A. Holy moley, yes. Trafficking isn’t the most heartwarming of causes on the surface, because you think it probably doesn’t affect you. So I set a goal at $500; I figured if I could get folks to throw me $5 or $10 each, I’d make my goal, have some fun, and that’d be that. But by day two, I’d already surpassed that goal, and by day four, I’d already had to raise it twice, to $2,000. Now I’m past $4,000 and as of this writing, in the top 20 in the country, which is incredible… and what’s most striking to me is that every one of the 19 people ahead of me have are either members of “teams” and/or have had at least one megadonor who’s given a huge amount. I have more individual donors than anyone ahead of me, which speaks very highly of all of YOU, my friends and family who have contributed.

And I’ve learned that it DOES affect us more than we realize — in our clothes, for example. Dressember is a strong supporter of ethical fashion, making sure the clothes you wear, whether they’re dresses or pants, are made humanely. We buy fair trade coffee, right? Why not fair trade clothing too? People should be paid fairly for the work they’re doing, and we should support businesses that do that.

Q. On social media, you’ve mentioned some of the ways people have reacted to seeing you in the community. Do you have any favorite stories?

A. The whole experience has been incredibly positive. I get a *ton* of the eye contact -> look down -> look back up confusedly thing, and every one of those gets greeted with a “hello” and as big of a smile as I can give from behind my mask. My wife and I got out of the car one day last week, and as we walked into the store, two young women with wildly dyed hair (one blue, one purple) did that, and then as we passed, one blurted out “I love your skirt!,” which was very pleasant. I think most folks are afraid to say something to what they see as “different” out in public. It’s easier to whisper behind someone’s back that “hey, I think that guy is wearing a dress.”

My absolute favorite so far, though, was the older lady in the frozen section of Wegmans who watched me for a minute, then finally came over to me and half-whispered “I really like your boots.” I’m pretty confident it was more “I need to say something to this young man who appears to be wearing a dress,” but still, the sentiment was nice and she seemed to appreciate why I was doing it. I tell myself she’s one of my anonymous donors.

Q. Have you learned anything noteworthy either from participating in drag shows or wearing clothing that is viewed as “women’s” that you think people should know? And how have you found 31 days’ worth of dresses?

A. That has been probably the most fascinating part. I mean, it should be obvious that clothing marketed as “women’s” is going to be different. But everything is different. The fabric is different. The cut is different. Length. Colors. It’s really been wild. As I said, I had a few things in my closet from previous adventures, but not enough to last 31 days. I swung through local thrift shops and found a few things, but then I reached out to friends for help. I asked them if they had anything that might be my size that they were going to purge from their closets anyway; I volunteered to take it off their hands, and then donate it at the end of the month. I’ve received about two dozen dresses from people, from literally all over the country. Some fit, some didn’t, some fit but looked terrible, but either way, our thrift shop is going to get a couple of giant bags of stuff in a few weeks. (I might hold a few back, though, just in case we decide to get on this train again.)

One thing that I’ve really been conscious about is that I am “a guy in a dress, and that really shouldn’t be a big deal.” I’m not thinking about this as “dressing like a woman,” because nobody who looks at me walking through Target thinks “wow, that woman looks like she hasn’t shaved in two days.” My point is just that it’s clothes, like any other clothes. Again, I’ve done full drag a few times, and that is a completely different experience than this. I’m not putting on hair and makeup every day. I have incredible respect for the drag community, and I could never do what they do. I’ve tried to do my own makeup and it’s hard as hell.

I picked up a pair of short women’s flat-heeled boots and a bunch of pairs of tights to wear every day, because I felt like I needed to respect the process; if this is what looks good with the dress, well then, that’s what I’m going to wear. I’m not going to wear jeans under a dress because that just felt fake to me. You look at a guy like Mark Bryan on Instagram, who is absolutely amazing; he’s a straight, married guy who wears heels and skirts every day. I don’t think dresses will become part of my permanent wardrobe, but at the same time, why not? They’re way more fun to wear than a shirt and tie.

Q. Anything else to add?

A. All in all, this has been a wonderfully positive experience. Everyone has been supportive, and I think it’s really indicative of the welcoming communities, like HighEdWeb, that I’ve surrounded myself with. I’m humbled by the support, honestly. More than I have been for anything else I’ve done. And if there’s a young person walking around Target, or who sees my picture online, and says “hey, if that guy can do it, then it’s okay for me to just be myself,” then that’s a win. And more so, my kids know that it’s okay to be themselves, and beyond that, they can be a resource for their friends who might need that kind of support as well.

Plus, I’ve been able to help donate more than four thousand dollars to help folks who really need it. And that’s what this is all about. 

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