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Out of the Closet

Give-away gowns get would-be princesses to the prom


Published April 27, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

Four high school-age girls sauntered into A Little Glamour, a cozy boutique on Burlington's Church Street Marketplace, last Sunday afternoon. They looked a little dazed from the weather's sudden brightening, and nearly as glum as the rain clouds that had just dispersed. The girls were in search of a prom dress -- a quest that can turn the spunkiest of sophomores into a scowling Scrooge, thanks to the cookie-cutter styles and hefty price tags.

But then something amazing happened: In less than 10 minutes, one of the girls, named Melissa, found a cornflower-blue dress that fit her perfectly. Her friends admired the ankle-length, empire-waist cut; Melissa's eyes sparkled with that eureka expression. What's also amazing is that she left the store with that dress and hadn't spent a dime. The gown, along with dozens of others on temporary display at A Little Glamour, was completely free, thanks to a growing movement that's turning past prom queens, and bridesmaids, into fairy godmothers.

The so-called "Cinderella Project" seems to have popped up across the U.S. and Canada in simultaneous spurts -- the websites for two separate nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles and Vancouver, B.C., claim to have founded the project in 1999. But unaffiliated programs have since spread throughout the two countries with essentially the same mission: to collect new or gently used dresses for girls who cannot -- or don't want to -- spend a fortune to attend their proms. The L.A. project specifically alludes to building self-esteem in inner-city girls, but in Vermont and elsewhere, supporters want to ensure that local teen belles get to go to the ball.

In the same way that official Cinderella Projects have been launched, the inspiration to gather and give away gowns hit Lisa Spagnoli when she overheard a couple of conversations in her store, A Little Glamour. "Girls were talking about how expensive prom dresses are," she says. "And I had nine bridesmaid's dresses hanging in my closet at home; I thought someone could benefit from that."

Spagnoli placed ads and posted flyers, and by mid-April, women aged twentysomething to fiftysomething had donated heaps of satin, silk, charmeuse and chiffon. Two turquoise thigh-grazers dangled alongside Nicole Miller creations, midnight blue and maroon numbers, and a "Lady in Red" sparkler. There was even a wedding dress -- a size 12 Jessica McClintock, with the tags still attached. "Her mother hated it," says Spagnoli. "So many of them wanted to tell me a story about the dress ... and I'm just happy to see them go to a big party again."

Though Spagnoli's free spree has ended, she's passed along the dresses to Beverly Hill, who's overseeing Lyric Theatre's own Cinderella collaboration with several Chittenden County high schools.

Sometime before Prom Night 2004, Annie Lajoie and Danielle Hanson, then juniors at Mount Mansfield Union, heard about the Cinderella Projects in New York City and started collecting dresses from their fellow students. Only a few trickled in, but word of the fairy-tale idea reached members of Lyric, who planned to stage the musical Cinderella this spring. They decided to help the girls reach more donors for 2005.

"Not everybody's going to have a big, fancy wedding or a big, fancy prom," says Hill, who's also helped Lyric partner with Good News Garage for Grease, collect coats for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and work with the King Street Youth Center for The King and I. "But I think all little girls grow up wanting to have that sort of Cinderella night," she adds.

Eleven students from eight high schools are now involved with the project and have supervised various drop-off days. "A lot of people are really interested," says Jen Leach of Champlain Valley Union. "Seniors and juniors are ready to part with their freshmen dresses; it takes a couple of years to realize, 'I'm really not going to wear that again.'"

In some cases, it may take a couple of decades. "A lot of older people have dropped off, actually," says Danielle Hartley of Milton, who can spot a bridesmaid's dress from a mile away -- thanks, no doubt, to the matching pumps. How will such styles fly among teens? "They're talking about how vintage is in," says Leach. "So a lot of these could work -- as long as they're not poufy."

While some of the dresses appeared to have arrived straight from Princess Di's closet, circa 1983, others smacked more of a Las Vegas revue. Or Tina Turner. "There was one, it was green, it was definitely a dress," says Lajoie. "But it wouldn't cover your butt! It was, um, exposing a lot."

Lest any "stories" of these gowns be lingering in the form of stains or smells, Gadue's is dry-cleaning each one in time for May 7, when a special boutique at the University Mall will allow prom-goers to make their picks.

Donations are ongoing at the high schools, and at the Flynn Center from April 28 to May 1, during Lyric's Cinderella run. With nearly 100 dresses on hand from initial "drop days" -- plus the leftovers from A Little Glamour -- there will be plenty of options: slinky, black, strapless dresses to baby-blue A-lines; citrus-colored confections to burgundy velvet. A sneak peak suggests there will be something for every taste, even those going for more of a Helen of Troy look. As Lajoie points out, "You never know what someone's going to take and turn into something beautiful."