Raiding 'Catherine's Closet' for a prom dress

The line stretched from one end of a Newark hotel to the other. Three hundred and twenty-three teenage girls were waiting to try on prom dresses.

By lunchtime, 300 were leaving with gowns. Sandy Kessler couldn't have been more ecstatic.

"We had girls in wheelchairs, deaf girls, pregnant girls. We had girls that didn't even look like girls, who had never owned a piece of clothing that wasn't jeans," she recalls later. "But for at least one night, every single one of those girls is going to be a princess."

Offering high school students one unforgettable evening of elegance has become the driving force that causes Dr. Kessler – a financial adviser with a doctorate in educational psychology – to leap out of bed early every morning with a lengthy to-do list forming in her head.

So far this year she has collected 2,000 prom gowns for local girls, along with 60 tuxedos for boys. Her dream: ensuring that every teen who wants to – and particularly those in low-income areas – can attend his or her high school prom and feel wonderful doing so.

"This is about self-image," she says. "This is their opportunity to shine, to dress up and be in the world of glamour."

For many teenagers, the prom is the crowning moment of high school. And for kids in urban areas, the prom often looms as a particularly large event, almost the equivalent of a wedding or coming-of-age ceremony, sometimes involving a considerable family investment.

In Philadelphia, for example, Camille Grant and Kia Alston, seniors at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School, say they began planning for their prom dresses while still in ninth grade. Camille purchased her sparkly gold dress with the help of her grandmother, while one of Kia's aunts is making a black-and-white single-strap dress for her.

But not every teen has that kind of family backing, and many find the sky-high costs associated with proms almost impossible to handle.

That's why an East Orange, N.J., high school teacher – a client of Kessler's who helps teachers plan their retirement – suggested that she collect prom dresses for teens in need.

It was a project right up Kessler's alley. A self-confessed clothes horse, Kessler says she was accustomed to filling her car with her own used clothes and driving them to wherever they could be of use.

But the prom project appealed to her particularly. Not only did she love the idea of helping teenagers experience a bit of glamour, but she just plain loved prom dresses.

She immediately began calling friends, acquaintances, and potential corporate donors. Her standards, however, are very high. She does accept slightly used gowns, but prefers brand new ones still bearing price tags. Dresses that are "matronly" or un-stylish don't make the cut.

She is thrilled that some among the 2,000 gowns she has collected bear designer labels like Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Jessica McClintock.

Kessler has already organized a dress giveaway for Newark, N.J., students, which was held at a local high school. This second one, at a Newark hotel, was open to any teen who needed a dress.

The remaining gowns were color-coded and stored in Kessler's garage, and she's still collecting for and planning a third giveaway on New York City's lower East Side May 24. Next year she hopes to see the project expand to several other cities.

Dani Grubbs, a senior at Newark's Technology High School, says her first reaction was skeptical. "Who gives away dresses?" she asks.

But when she arrived at the giveaway and found the powder-blue sheath that she'll be wearing to her prom, she was very pleased.

"They should have done this other years," says her classmate Danielle Harrison, who glows in a simple yet sophisticated copper-colored gown she found at the giveaway. "There are people who don't go to the prom because of the dress."

The girls, who are college-bound in the fall, say that even without the cost of the gown, prom accessories and transportation – on top of other graduation-related expenses like a yearbook and class ring – give them serious cash-flow problems.

"I'm just stressing about money all the time now," says their friend Victoria Theodille.

Kessler calls the gown project Catherine's Closet, in honor of a teen from an East Orange high school recently killed in an automobile accident.

The girl – an outstanding student slated to go on to a premedical-studies program at a local college – was buried in the mauve dress she had purchased in December in anticipation of her June prom date.

Catherine's mother Renee says the gown giveaway is a fitting tribute to her daughter, a girl who not only loved dressing up but also yearned to make a difference in the world.

"Her whole character and nature were about giving," says Mrs. Johnson. "This would have really pleased her."

• For info., contact Ms. Kessler at (973)-616-2060

Out-of-proportion proms?

Dresses and suits whipped up by professional tailors. Expensive designer shoes and jewelry. Elaborate makeup, hairstyling, and photographic sessions. A competitive urge to arrive at the prom in the longest limo.

Somehow these have become the trappings of many urban high school proms. Teachers and parents report that it is not uncommon to see kids spend $2,000 or $3,000 to achieve a few hours of glory on prom night.

"It's unfortunate because often what the kid has to go through is really not affordable," says Carey Jenkins, who runs a mentoring program at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, N.J. "But they get caught up in an 'everybody's doing it' mentality."

Such stories often surprise others in more-affluent areas where, ironically, less may be spent on the prom. But, says Mr. Jenkins, the event takes on a different meaning in inner-city schools where sizable numbers of students are not continuing on to college. "If high school is the end of the line, then the prom takes on an added significance," he says.

"I have a problem with the money the kids spend," says Bernadette Wiggins, chair of the math department at Martin Luther King Jr. Senior High School in Philadelphia. "Parents make sacrifices for girls to get that gown. Boys don't even rent tuxes anymore. They have suits made."

Some students get jobs a year or more in advance to begin saving for the prom. "I get frustrated when they take three days off to shop for shoes," says Lynn Dixon, a colleague of Ms. Wiggins in the school's English department. And yet, she adds, "it's a really big thing for them, a day for them to absolutely glow. Especially for the ones who aren't going on to college, it's their one big day of fantasy."

A prom-dress giveaway in Philadelphia floundered because so many girls had their hearts set on specially made dresses. "They don't even want dresses off the rack," Wiggins says.

Jenkins says he doubts that adults' comments will persuade students to shift their perspective. "Discouraging the prom would be like pushing water uphill," he says.

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