CAPE ELIZABETH — When an organization at Cape Elizabeth High School decided to hold a contest, the members thought they would just be helping girls who wanted to go to prom.
They’ve now realized their efforts have had a much larger impact, as they have spurred student creativity and inspired others to volunteer and give back.
The school’s Cape Closet collects old prom dresses to give to students who can’t afford their own. Many of the donated dresses, however, have been deemed too old: not many students were interested in puffy sleeves and shoulder pads.
To salvage the dresses and make them desirable, members of the club started a contest to redesign them with a modern look.
“I’m not expecting them all to be masterpieces, but it’s OK,” senior Caroline Garfield, the Cape Closet president, said.
Garfield said of the 150 dresses the club has collected, about 50 have been classified as needing modifications. Students who wish to participate in the contest can pick out a dress, alter it in any way they choose, and give it back to the club by April 1 so a girl in need can receive it.
Not only does this provide more dresses to give away, but Garfield said the contest taps into a side of CEHS that is often overshadowed.
“Our school is very math and science oriented, so our redesign program engages the more creative students,” she said. “There are some people in our school who are more crafty.”
Garfield said about 30 students have taken dresses to redesign. She said they were excited about working with the dresses, because they were “so cool and so vintage.”
Garfield said many students who took dresses are interested in fashion, and the contest allows them to experiment with design and be creative. She said students plan on altering hemlines, cutting off sleeves, and “adding bling” to bring the dresses up to date.
Garfield said there will be prizes for the first-, second-, and third-best dresses, although she’s not sure what the awards will be – most likely cash prizes or gift cards.
While this is the first year of the redesign contest, Garfield said this is Cape Closet’s third year as an organization. It was started by former CEHS student Zoe Gillies, who graduated in 2014. Garfield said Gillies won an award for her volunteer efforts with the organization, and the contest is a way to get more people interested in giving back.
Garfield said between the students who are redesigning dresses and the community members who donated them in the first place, Cape Closet is “fostering a community of volunteering.”
Garfield said she knows Cape Elizabeth is a more affluent community, though, and that in most cases girls can afford prom dresses. Because of this, Cape Closet also brings dresses to schools in surrounding communities so that more girls can be helped.
“The whole redesign thing is getting the school community involved in an issue that might not directly affect our school, but could affect other girls who aren’t as well off,” Garfield said.
Sophomore Elise Mullen, the Cape Closet vice president, said the club wants to make people feel happy about prom, rather than anxious about not being able to afford it.
“I think people always look back at high school prom,” Mullen said. “If they don’t have enough money and feel like they can’t afford a nice dress, they might be upset. We want to make people feel good.”
Garfield agreed, and said it’s important that anyone who wants to go to prom should be able to and that rising costs associated with the dance shouldn’t get in the way.
“I think it’s important because prom is this rite of passage in high school and I think it should be accessible to everyone,” she said, “regardless of income.”
Cape Elizabeth High School students Caroline Garfield, left, and Elise Mullen, who have collected around 150 prom dresses through Cape Closet, are encouraging people to modernize the dresses so more girls can have access to free gowns.
Cape Elizabeth High School students Caroline Garfield, left, and Elise Mullen store Cape Closet prom dresses at Cape Elizabeth Community Services, where donors are welcome to drop off old dresses.