Say Yes to the Prom Dress

Formal Invitation

A photo essay. To view all 19 images, check out the email version.

Coral and emerald and sunflower and silver, long and short and mermaid and princess, satin and tulle and sparkly and glowing, sequined and rhinestoned and ruffled and sweeping.

They’re prom dresses, about 1,500 of them, and they’re currently lining the racks at the Say Yes to the Prom Dress Boutique, an annual springtime pop-up where seniors and juniors attending Connecticut schools are invited to shop for the promwear of their dreams without paying a penny. Since this year’s grand opening on April 13, hundreds of girls, often accompanied by their mothers or friends, have enjoyed the time-honored ritual of finding the perfect dress for the big night—maybe shoes and accessories, too.

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The master of this ceremony before all the ceremony is Khalilah Abdulrahim (pictured first), running the shop each year under the auspices of Project Hope, the New Haven-based youth empowerment nonprofit she directs. Abdulrahim has been leading the Say Yes initiative—“my baby,” she says, and Project Hope’s largest—since informally launching it in 2010. That year, a couple of high school seniors she knew told her they weren’t planning on going to prom because they couldn’t afford the attire. So Abdulrahim appealed to friends and family and collected about 30 dresses for the girls to choose from. Once the girls had made their choices, Abdulrahim planned to bring the remainder to Goodwill—until the girls came back and told her their friends wanted in too. The first formal Say Yes shop popped up the following year.

“It’s special, because we get to offer dresses to girls who wouldn’t have the chance to go to prom . Dresses are very expensive… and this makes it accessible,” Abdulrahim says. But she doesn’t just want girls to have a great night at prom; she also wants them to have a great time in the shop. “We want them to feel like they’re coming into a high-class store and they’re getting top-of-the-line service.” To that end, volunteer personal shoppers guide customers around the racks, while a soundtrack of pulsing trance music conjures the energized tranquility of a SoHo dress shop.

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The dresses, many brand new, are donated by the community at large as well as numerous partners including Atiana’s Boutique, Executive Cleaners, Jordan’s Furniture and The Shops at Yale. Abdulrahim estimates she’s got another 1,500 dresses not on display with more donations coming, so the inventory is comprehensive and frequently refreshed. “We have every type of dress and style that you can think of, from vintage all the way up to modern,” with fits for “all shapes and sizes,” she says. “We have bedazzled dresses, we have plain dresses, we have fitted dresses, we have dresses with long trains. We have it all.”

And thanks to Say Yes to the Prom Dress, so can Connecticut’s teen girls.

Say Yes to the Prom Dress
83 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 3-8pm, Sat 9am-5pm through May 4
Project Hope | Boutique Flyer

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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