Most high schoolers approach prom night with a mix of anticipation and dread. Aside from the universal social pressures of planning parties and lining up an unembarrassing date, making the dance a “night to remember” often winds up being a rather costly affair. Teenagers—or, more often, their parents—can spend upward of $1,000 on tickets, formal attire, corsages, and a stretch limo. But if you’re one of the 30,000 kids in Los Angeles County’s foster care system, odds are you don’t have access to any of that.
That’s where CASA L.A. (Court Appointed Special Advocates) steps in. For the past 19 years the volunteer organization has been putting on its annual Glamour Gowns and Suit Up event, which mobilizes local fashion brands like Tadashi Shoji and Chinese Laundry along with area businesses such as the April Love Makeup Academy to donate prom-appropriate garments and beauty services for a daylong giveaway. Members from motion picture wardrobe and costume designer unions offer their time gratis to tailor each outfit for the perfect confidence-boosting fit.
This year more than 500 eligible kids (who are 15 or older and able to get themselves to the event) descended on the Los Angeles Convention Center to roam through racks of formalwear and blingy accessories. Participants were free to drop in for a makeover from NYX cosmetics and get a blowout from Drybar. There was even an on-site personal stylist to provide advice on colors, cuts, and hairstyles. “It was really bougie,” said 18-year-old Jaylene Avila, who snagged an all-pink ensemble with a fancy bag and faux diamond earrings at the March 22 event. “I’ve never been to something like that.”
CASA CEO Wende Nichols-Julien says it’s not just girls who are excited about the festivities—boys are, too. “When young men dress up in suits and stand in front of the mirror,” says Nichols-Julien, “they say, ‘I never pictured myself looking like this.’ They don’t have a lot of male mentors, certainly not ones dressed in full suits.”
Even after their prom, kids can return to the annual giveaway until they age out of the foster care system at 21. Some go back every year. “I got pampered,” said Mary Sanchez, 20, who lives with a friend’s mom in North Hollywood. “I picked an ice-skating princess dress with a modern Audrey Hepburn twist.” After her shopping spree, Sanchez went on a date, while Avila had to tone down her new look to go to her job. “They teased my hair, but I had to take it out,” she said. “I work at a hot wings place, so I have to wear a hair net.”