Two major moments mark an American woman’s experience of “the dress”: prom and wedding.
The experience of saying “yes” to a gown can be triumphant, or feel poignantly out of reach. Will you find something you like, that makes you feel good? And then, could you ever afford it? With a lavish assist from the wedding industry, Princess Project volunteers invoke the spirit of the fairy godmother when local teens experience this for the first time.
The idea is simple: If a young woman wants to go to prom but doesn’t have resources to buy a dress, she can call on her fairy godmothers. The women of The Princess Project source dresses to flatter every shape and personality, and play matchmaker between girl and gown – at no cost to the girl. At this year’s event, more than 8,000 dresses, most of them donated brand new from local bridal and formal wear retailers, filled a rainbow of racks in Cupertino.
Los Altos native Amanda Jones, 23, was one of the volunteers most recently arrived from prom herself. The experience of volunteering, she said, “teaches you really early – love the skin you’re in, you’re going to find a dress that fits you, and makes you look beautiful. Yes. You are going to find a dress that fits.”
The Princess Project, an effort unique to California, hosts prom season dress fittings across four chapters – Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Sonoma and San Diego. Familiar local names in bridal and formal wear have become prolific supporters of the event. This year, Jovani, Azazie and Trudys donated thousands of dresses to the local event, and ModCloth became another source of varied sizes and silhouettes. The divides among prom, evening and wedding gowns can be conveniently blurry – especially in an era when bridesmaids dresses cover a huge range of colors and cuts, and brides don’t limit themselves to white. On-trend bridal tones of blue and blush champagne cross easily into the prom zone.
A legion of local volunteers works behind the scenes to give the gowns a place to shine. Los Altos resident Katie Matice helps The Princess Project pair with local groups like the Service League of Boys and the National Charity League, in addition to serving as a fairy godmother. Local dads spend a Saturday morning building dress racks, volunteers stage the space – this year at The Oaks Shopping Center in Cupertino – as a chic boutique, and girls arrive for appointments with their personal (fairy) shoppers.
“It’s such a transformative moment. The teens are lucky that they have this – but I get so much more out of it. It’s so fulfilling to see the looks on their faces,” Matice said. “You feel like they walk out a different person – they believe they’re beautiful.”
Dresses in action
Mountain View High senior Jayme Albritton picked a green silk gown with a halter neckline and an open back. Mountain View’s prom, scheduled May 18 at the Winchester Mystery House, has an “Old Hollywood” theme, and Albritton plans to stand out as an emerald in the sea of red, white and black.
School staff had been announcing The Princess Project’s availability, and Albritton attended a meeting where Matice brought sample dresses for students to examine. The opportunity raises natural questions for young women problem solving on a very tight budget: Will the dresses feel and look new? Will there be many options, or will I have to settle for something that only sort of works?
“I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into when I signed up. It seemed like a cool opportunity – prom is coming up quickly and getting a dress is the most stressful part of it. But she had such a variety, I was just, like, ‘Wow!’” Albritton said of Matice’s presentation.
On the day of dress selection, Albritton observed girls excited to get to pick and choose through rack after rack of luxurious variety. The girls get to keep the dresses they select.
“I thought it was the most empowering thing. When money is limited, you don’t always feel like you have options,” Albritton said. “A lot of the demographic coming to The Princess Project were girls of color, a lot of us were different sizes and shapes, a majority of us had not ever been fitted before.”
The fairy godmother volunteers, many of them from Los Altos and Mountain View, serve as personal shoppers and fitters for the girls, pulling dresses, helping search and sending the girls off at the end of each appointment with a treat at the door.
“It was just so wholesome,” Albritton said admiringly of the enthusiastic assistance from local women, capped with a chocolate cookie.
Maryanne Quiste, a senior at Los Altos High School, said it was like having your own cheerleaders as you shop.
“They were super friendly and were so patient and understanding,” she observed of the process that ended in a long white dress studded with crystals.
Quiste’s dress sweeps from a sweetheart neckline down to a mermaid skirt, fitted and then flowy. Quiste was expecting that she might reuse one of her sister’s formal dresses before The Princess Project came across her radar – but she had a pretty clear idea of what she’d pick for herself, given the option. She’ll be debuting that dream gown at Los Altos High’s prom, scheduled May 18 at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose.
The gowns trend long and formal, though the Project stocks something for everyone – from fully sleeved dresses to shorter options, two-piece ensembles and formal trousers for the fashion forward.
“We had the entire rainbow of colors, everything from red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple to burgundy and teal and gold,” Jones said.
Dresses for every body
The trends reflected in prom selections at The Princess Project – bold colors including yellows, empire waists, sweetheart necklines, beadwork – come straight from the world of on-trend weddings. But the fairy godmothers are particularly intrigued by the donor brands’ fidelity to fitting women’s bodies in all their diversity.
Emily Harborne, president of the Silicon Valley Princess Project Board of Directors, said donors such as Trudys and Azazie were consistently creating formal gowns in cuts that not only flatter many female shapes, but also come in a very wide range of sizes.
“A huge part of our mission is body positivity and also just letting these teens know how worth it they are,” Harborne said.
According to Harborne, The Princess Project served more teens this year than any previous year since its founding in 2002. Volunteers rally allies in local schools who can help girls who need a dress connect to the resource.
The Princess Project serves any girl who needs the service, knowing that financial need looks different across different circumstances. They have outreach to homeless teens, teens working to support their families and teens who just know that asking for a dress will put a burden on parents already struggling to support a family.
Want to get involved? In addition to welcoming volunteers and excellent-condition gown donations, The Princess Project welcomes “accessories drives” that gather jewelry and other dress-adjacent prom gear.
To volunteer, donate a dress and for more information, visit princessprojectsiliconvalley.org.