Written by Hayley Krolik
Across the showroom, girls in prom dresses pose in front of mirrors and search racks for dresses. One girl rushes over to her friend to coordinate their dresses, while another writes a thank-you note to her fairy godmother for helping her find a dress. According to The Princess Project Community Leader Emily Harborne, these activities are typical at a Princess Project appointment. “It’s a neat atmosphere because there are so many ruffles and colors, which is really beautiful,” Harborne said.
The Princess Project was founded by Laney Whitcanack and Kristi Smith Knutson in 2002. Since then, they have been providing teenage girls who cannot afford extra prom expenses with thousands of free prom dresses to choose from. Harborne works with 140 schools in the Bay Area to connect their teens to prom dresses. “Dresses are expensive, and getting ready for prom is expensive,” Harborne said. “It’s a special part of being in a high school, but it’s something a lot of people stress out about. We wanted to make sure that teens that are not able to afford a dress are able to receive one.”
Gunn will cover the cost of a prom ticket for those who need it, but does not take care of any extra expenses. The school has participated in The Princess
Project for the past three years and this year, guidance counselor and Princess Project coordinator Myesha Compton sent out an email about the program. “If you want the service you can take advantage, so I felt it was appropriate to publicize it to every junior and senior,” Compton said. Twelve Gunn girls participated in the program this year, and the average has ranged from 12 to 17 for the last few years. “I had about four or five come back and show me pictures of the dresses that they got, and seemed really excited,” Compton said. “I know in a couple of the cases these were girls who would not have otherwise gone or considering even going to prom just because of the expense.”
After Compton received emails from girls who self-identified that they needed a dress through The Princess Project, she provided them with an entrance ticket and location. The Princess Project contracts with a store to do a showroom and fitting for the students to choose their dresses during a one-hour appointment slot. Female volunteers, called fairy godmothers, help students choose the right dresses for their taste and style. “It seemed to go really smoothly,” Compton said. “It sounded like a professional shopping experience—like you’re trying on wedding dresses!”
Both Compton and Harborne value the program immensely. “I think access to disposable income for prom dresses is not a luxury everyone has in this area,” Compton said. “I think especially for something like prom, especially senior year, I would hate for someone to miss out on that opportunity because they’re unable to afford the extra expenses.”
Harborne became involved in the program due to her passion for mentoring young women and promoting body-positive messaging among teenage girls. “It can be a really precious moment when picking out your prom dress because it’s something you’re going to remember for your whole life,” she said. “It’s a cool moment of becoming an adult.” The self-identification piece of the process is one that Gunn students seem to struggle with. Although it could seem like students would take advantage of the opportunity, Compton counters that Gunn students do not typically ask or aid unless they truly need it. “I was actually expecting more students to express interest,” she said. “For me, I want to figure out a way, other than just publicizing, to destigmatize it. People don’t like to feel like they’re getting a handout for free. I have to figure out how to break down that barrier.”
Harborne has seen many schools turn The Princess Project into school events, ordering busses and taking hundreds of students to an appointment together. She has high hopes for expanding the project at Gunn in the future. “Gunn is a great example of a school where there are probably more people that would benefit from attending; they just don’t necessarily know about it,” Harborne said.
Besides signing up to receive a dress, there are many other ways that the Gunn community can participate in the program. Many schools hold dress drives to collect dresses for The Princess Project. Compton received emails from parents asking to donate this year, but the donation season was ending at the time. “There seems like there are people in our community that want to be a part of it, so I’d like to bring that aspect into the school,” she said.
Harborne sees a huge opportunity for dress donations from Gunn. “It’s also really awesome if they want to participate as a donors so that other teens can enjoy the same dresses that have made them feel pretty at a dance before,” she said. “We’re all about making prom something that everybody can enjoy as a community.”