Donated satin, suits, sequins: LA foster teens get snazzy for prom


Volunteers help teens choose jewelry to wear to prom during the annual Glamour Gowns/Suit Up event. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

Deep in the LA Convention Center, past cheerleaders rehearsing in the lobby and swarms of wheelchair users at an expo, up the escalator and inside an enormous windowless room, hundreds of teenagers are hunting through racks and racks of dazzling formal wear at the annual Glamour Gowns/Suit Up event. And all the fabulous attire accessories on display? They’re free.

Seventeen-year-old Jordan High School student Kat came to pick out a prom dress. She heard about the event after a friend got a dress here last year. “I'm like, damn, I want one,” said Kat, whose last name we’re not using to protect kids in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. “I want to look fancy. I want to look like a Disney princess.” 

Racks of donated brand-new dresses arranged by size and length filled a room at the LA Convention Center. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

Looking like a princess was definitely doable, given the gowns in stock here at the giveaway event, held the first weekend of March. Every year, in partnership with CASA LA, LAUSD and other organizations, the Glamour Gowns/Suit Up team offers kids in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, as well as kids from low-income families, a free special day of style. Co-chair and longtime volunteer Cibinnie Snaer notes their aim: “We want them to walk away feeling like they went to Disneyland.”

The majority of the goods were donated by local LA businesses and gave the room the air of an enormous Santee Alley fancy dress store. 

It’s a one-stop prom shop that gives teens access to clothing and accessories, not to mention professional tailoring, so they can look their best at the big dance. Or just get a snazzy outfit and a special day out with their friends. Colorful floor-length full-skirted numbers with sequins, beading, tulle and all the fixins filled the room. As did shorter dresses, for those in more of a cocktail mood. A room full of suits on the mezzanine overflowed with options too.

A small portion of the many colorful clutches are on display at Glamour Gowns/Suit Up event. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

Another thing on offer that maybe folks don’t always think about when dressing up: fittings by bra specialists from Jeanette Bras, so that kids could get the perfect undergarment for their dress. Plus corsets and undies in an array of colors and sizes.

A volunteer bra specialist from Jeanette Bras waits to help shoppers find the perfect undergarments for their outfit. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

Kat’s sister Jocelyn, 16, brought a collection of pictures on her phone of what she hoped to find. The girl had a vision.

“I'm looking for like a pantsuit, but with the skirt around it, or something that involves pants because I don't like wearing skirts or dresses,” she said. “I don't really like showing my arms so I’m hoping for a long sleeve.” 

Far from going for the big reveal, Jocelyn was more concerned with how much she could cover up.

Kat and Jocelyn were paired with personal shoppers to help them navigate the room full of vibrant dresses and purses and jewelry and shoes and all the things one needs to get properly dolled up. (To be transparent, I have volunteered to be one of these personal shoppers many times over the years.)

Punch cards keep track of what shoppers are grabbing as they make the rounds of all the shopping stations in the Suit Up room. Photo by Giuliana Mayo.

The first dress Jocelyn tried on was a bust. Think maroon satin column with a December wedding/mother-of-the-bride vibe.

A lot of the clothes Jocelyn and Kat were trying on were too small, which was clearly getting a little frustrating, but their personal shoppers remained determined.

Over on the other side of the dressing room, Kat and Jocelyn’s  19-year-old friend Aleysha and her personal shopper found a winner.

“This is the one,” Aleysha pronounced. “This is yes to the dress. Yes. I've seen that show so many times, this is a ‘Yes to the Dress.’”

It was a pretty stunning lavender sheath dress with lots of strappy embellishments that just needed a few adjustments to get it fitting perfectly. They headed over to the alteration station, where a small crew of volunteer local union costumers was working away.

“These are people that work a gazillion hours a week, and they still come to us on the weekend and say, ‘Whatever you need us to do, we'll take care of it,’” event co-chair Snaer sang the praises of the union crew. “It's something we all take for granted. ‘Oh, I can just go to the cleaners and have this altered.’ That's not [the kids’] experience.”

Not all the teens come for prom gear or to get the free alterations, though. In the Suit Up room, I met Damien, who was working a different angle.

“My foster dad said, ‘Hey, you want a suit?’ I’m like ‘nah,’” Damien reported. “He said, ‘You can wear it. You can sell it.’ I’m like, ‘I can sell it? All right.’ Got to make the money somehow.”

Aleysha told me she was there for cosplay purposes, so after she said yes to her dress, I had to know who she was planning to dress up as. Her choice? Isabella from “Encanto,” a Disney movie she’s seen more times than she can count.

That all worked for Snaer, whose aim is to give kids access to things that might not typically be available to them.

“The focus is just getting them everything they could possibly want that normally they don't have the opportunity to get,” Snaer noted. “We all take it for granted that we can just pop over to Macy's, Nordstrom's or whatever our favorite store is, and pick up a dress when we need it. This is not their experience and has never been their experience. So being able to bring essentially a department store of everything to them –– I was just standing in the corner of the room and it's overwhelming,” she said, tearing up a bit. Emotions were high that day for kids and volunteers alike.

Back at the dress station, Jocelyn, who was looking for pants and long sleeves, found something very different: a navy floor-length sleeveless gown with a glittery sheer tulle overlay. 

“I have like butterflies, and I just love it. So I think this is the one,” she exclaimed excitedly.  

“It makes you feel like it's like your wedding day, but for prom,” Jocelyn said of her day at Glamour Gowns. “It also makes you feel like, me as a big girl, it makes you feel comfortable with everyone around. No one's judging. No one's looking. And there's even some people that are almost like me and it's hard for them too, but they don't care. So it's not really [about] your size, ‘cause they will try their very best to fit your dress for you.”

Her sister Kat found a winner too, a v-cut sleeveless gown in a lovely shade of sage with lace and sequin detailing around the bust and a full skirt. She couldn't wait to show it off to her boyfriend, who was planning on coordinating his suit to her dress at prom. 

“I want to remember this day when I'm in my 40s drinking wine and just … wearing my dress. And I'm like, ‘I was one of the hottest people in prom.’ I think this is going to be really fun,” Kat said dreamily.

By the end of the looong Saturday in those windowless Convention Center rooms, Glamour Gowns/Suit Up had given out 98 suits, while 151 people said yes to a dress. But that doesn’t put an end to the hustle. Now the volunteers start all over again, gathering donations and putting together a stockpile of fresh new looks for next year’s prom goers. And for the next few weeks, these high school students will be practicing wearing their new heels and tying their ties before they can show off all their fabulousness in person at prom 2022.