An event symbolizing so much more than a dress swap.
The Association of United States Army’s (AUSA) headquarters transformed into a boutique showroom this weekend to support a special event designed for military spouses. Operation Deploy Your Dress held a popup venue full of camaraderie, accessories and hundreds of gowns waiting for a new owner. In one room sat resource vendors and sweet treats, and in the other were lines of military spouses sorting through racks of dresses for the one. The one that would be the perfect complement to their service member’s uniform.
Organizers received more than 1500 gowns from donors seeking a patriotic way to pay it forward. Nicole Curry traveled from Pennsylvania to the DC-area to volunteer at the event after donating her own dresses for the last few years. The lifelong-Army-brat-turned-wife beamed with a smile when describing what the day meant to her.
“As a lifetime (Army) person, I have watched how hard it is for people to find dresses, depending on where you are so I thought this was fantastic opportunity for everyone,” Curry said. “It’s (the event) as much as I thought it would be when I donated the dresses. I’ve actually seen people in my dresses and it’s just very touching to be able to share it.”
An idea comes to life
Operation Deploy Your Dress started as “a happy accident” at Fort Bliss, Texas in 2015, says co-founder Yvonne Coombes. A small group of military spouses came up with the idea to host a dress swap for local units. After sharing the concept during a Fox News appearance, the women received over 3000 dress donations from around the U.S. It quickly became apparent that this had the potential to be much more than a one- or two-day event isolated to their duty station.
“When I was moving, we thought let’s see if this can branch out someplace else,” Coombes, an Army wife of nearly 19 years, said. “We didn’t know if it was just lightning in a bottle at Fort Bliss or if it was really something that was going to work elsewhere. We knew that the need was not unique to Fort Bliss and that the desire for the American population to have a tangible way to support the troops was not unique to just them sending them (dresses) to Fort Bliss, but we just didn’t know if it would work at another installation.”
It did work. The Coombes family received PCS orders to Fort Eustis, Va. and the location offered a new opportunity – expansion to include other service branches.
“Fort Eustis was a sweet little post. … it was the perfect fit for our first branch out because it was a little bit slower paced so we could feel it out, the spouses’ club was so warm and welcoming and easy to work with … and the beauty of that location was that there was an Air Force base and a Naval installation within striking distance,” she explained.
She added that the second location allowed the group to become more of a purple organization, which continues to be a main focus of Operation Deploy Your Dress as it now has six physical spots.
[Read Say Yes to the Dress Military Edition to learn more about ODYD]
Every dress tells a story
Throughout the years, the stories emerging from the donated gowns – and fitting themselves – have given the dress swap a deeper meaning.
Co-founder Liz Mckenrick, of Fort Knox, Ky., displayed a vintage pink gown that the organizers received for this specific popup event. It included a letter stating it was worn in the 1960s.
Mckenrick also shared poignant moments from the day involving two attendees.
“This room today has had two individuals in tears because they couldn’t find a dress, so we started bringing in hundreds of dresses to do an individual fitting for them. One of them was a female soldier who had a TBI and she had a panic attack when she walked in, and we saw that … and we just brought in about 50 dresses for her to choose from and she found something gorgeous.
And we had a brand-new mom that was feeling bad about herself and she kind of broke down in tears,” she said. “The unexpected – that’s what it’s all about, is those moments. That’s the payback.”
[Here’s how you can donate a dress: Deploy your dress]
Joining forces for military spouses
Her organization’s relationship with AUSA has eased some of the financial burdens the founders faced in self-funding the entire operation. Patty Barron, director of the family readiness directorate at AUSA, says they will be supporting four additional events for the year but the real value is in the connections being made.
“We connect the local chapter to the local shop so now, when we leave, there’s a relationship built there and they can brainstorm new ideas for military spouses. It’s all about providing opportunities for our military families, our Army families to connect and be informed,” Barron said.
Barron, a longtime Army wife herself, says events like this are key for building those vital human interactions between spouses.
“I lived the life and my daughter now is a military spouse and knowing and understanding that you have to have physical connections with people – it’s not just about social media, it’s not just about a flyer in the wall. This provides us an opportunity to have those in person connections,” she said.
Visit Operation Deploy Your Dress to learn more about locations, volunteer opportunities and how to donate a dress.