Prom Plus

students selecting dresses from multiple racks of clothing

It was like a scene from “Yes to the Dress;” all it lacked was Randy Fenoli and wedding plans. It was, instead, all about proms—and it was taking place on the 8 th floor of Dubinsky on a Sunday afternoon in April. There were racks of gowns; stacks of dancing shoes; tables filled with sparkling jewelry and fancy beaded bags and a hair and make-up station, courtesy of Aveda. Then there were the young women—about 35 of them, seniors from the city’s public high schools. It was their day. They were here to find the dress of their dreams. They were here as part of a program called Prom Plus NYC, and as the program founder, Michelle Castro Douglass, told them, “ You deserve this.”

Michelle Douglass is a friend of mine and she told me all about Prom Plus, which she established in 2015. Designed to support underserved New York City students, it provides mentoring, life skill workshops—and finally, and especially, this special “boutique” day. And it is special: all of the gowns and accessories are gifts to the students. They are free. More than one student asked, “But can we really keep these?” The answer, of course, was yes.

The students come to Prom Plus through recommendations from its partner, Statement Arts, a long-established arts and college prep program that serves the same population. Its founder, Liza Politi, was also present. These were students whom she recruited: talented, hard working, high achieving young people with limited financial means, and she was proud of them. Indeed, all of the students whom I met that afternoon were college-bound—and the partnership with Statement Arts explained not only why they were college-bound, but also why so many of them were expecting to major in dance or media or drama programs.

The real drama took place at the racks and then behind screens set up by a team of FIT student Tiger volunteers under the supervision of Christie Graziano, FIT’s associate director of leadership and civic engagement who, when she learned about Prom Plus, thought it would be a perfect community service activity. The gowns were arranged by size, from 0 to 24. But there was palpable concern: would there be enough to choose from in my size? (There were.) Called up in groups of about eight, they rushed to the racks, grabbed their favorite gowns and went behind the screens to start trying them on. And as each emerged from behind the screens, dressed to kill in siren red jersey or pale grey satin or tiger printed taffeta, the looks on their faces told the whole story. Were they saying “yes to the dress?” Without a doubt!

Then they accessorized, selecting shoes and jewelry—the vast majority of which, by the way, was generously donated through the Accessories Council, and I have to say, the jewelry was beautiful.

It was utterly touching to witness how happy these young people were, the fun they were having, and .the joy they expressed at each step along the way. Not that there weren’t some moments of doubt: was the color right? Was it too revealing? Does it flatter? But in the end, they all seemed to have found a gown that was right for them. One curvy young woman was absolutely ecstatic at having found a gown in her size by her favorite designer (Tadashi Shoji) because, she said, “His designs are not usually inclusive.”

Did I mention that there were two young men in the group? Ms. Douglass said she opened the program up to males this year and had suits , shirts and ties available. The two young men were proud to learn how to knot a tie—and even enjoyed it.

male student chooses prom outfit

As much as the world has changed since I was a teenager, the symbolism of the senior prom has not. It remains even today a rite of passage, a big fancy party that marks the end of high school—a party that almost all teenagers want to attend. Yet the majority of students I spoke with made clear that had it not been for this program, they would not be going to their proms—they simply could not afford it.

I did meet some, however, whose families were saving and sacrificing , hoping they could put enough aside to purchase that coveted gown. One young woman, destined for the media program at Pace College, said that she can’t wait to surprise her mother—who didn’t know about Prom Plus and was working extra hours to be able to buy a gown for her daughter. The student had selected a crowd favorite: a soft yellow romantic chiffon gown with a spray of apricot flowers at the waist. “I feel like a princess when I wear it,” she said. She had expected to attend the prom alone, which I gather is a norm these days. But , she said, “Now that I have this princess look, I want to go with a prince…” and yes, she assured me, she had two “princes” to choose from.

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