GARDINER — Three identical, never-worn bridesmaid dresses hang side by side. They’re long dresses in pale blue satin with draped bodices, sweet and a little retro, and were donated by a Portland bridal shop.
A military wife from South Gardiner donated a gown with a black-and-white snakeskin print covering the skirt.
Then there’s the one-shouldered gown in flowing, emerald green silk that art teacher Meg Gipson found at Goodwill for $4.
The dresses that Gipson has collected have short hems or long ones; they’re patterned, solid or spangled with sequins and beading. Some of them even have sleeves. And all of them, plus about 500 more, will be available first-come, first-served starting at a giveaway that starts at 9 a.m., Saturday, April 26 at Johnson Hall.
The Cinderella Project of Maine, which has been giving away prom dresses in Belfast since 2006, has expanded to central Maine. Gipson, who is organizing the giveaway, teaches at Gardiner Area High School, but students from any high school can come get a free dress and accessories.
Gipson said she got involved to relieve the financial pressure of prom on students and families.
“I know firsthand what many of the young people face when they’re getting ready for prom,” she said. “Most of them spend upwards of $300 or more — most of the time more — on this.”
Spending on prom has been rising at a rate that outpaces inflation, according to a survey by Visa. The company said families would spend an average of $1,139 on prom in 2013, with parents paying 59 percent and students paying 41 percent.
Gardiner senior Hayley Corson said that in her tentative dress shopping this year, she encountered prices from $200 to $500. Hair styling might run $60 before the tip, dinner could cost up to $50, and shoes would be $30 at the very least.
That’s just a short list of prom-related expenses, which might also include tickets, tuxedo rental, makeup, corsages and a limo to share with friends.
The Cinderella Project doesn’t have any limitations based on income. Gipson said there’s a need to control prom costs regardless of a student’s financial situation.
“We believe that if a student wants to get a free prom dress, maybe that $200 they would have spent is better spent on college books, tuition, their car, gas, anything,” she said.
Gipson said the Cinderella Project also will not discriminate based on gender identity. So far she’s only collected dresses, but in the future she hopes to provide suits and tuxes as well.
All a recipient needs to do is “pay it forward” by giving back in some way. Gipson said that could mean donating some of their own formalwear, helping tag or organize dresses or working on some other project.
The Cinderella Project rewards community service through its Cinderella for a Day contest, which Corson won this year. She’ll get first choice of a Cinderella Project dress and a package that includes hair, makeup, nails, dinner for two and a donation to the charity of her choice, the Kennebec Valley Humane Society.
“I’m so lucky to be a part of this and be chosen,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to afford any of this.”
Corson counts herself as fortunate that her then-boyfriend’s parents paid for prom last year, but this year she thought she wouldn’t be able to go. She didn’t want to ask her father, a single dad, for the money because he recently lost his job.
The hairstyling portion of the package won’t do Corson much good. She was among 10 students and two teachers who had their heads shaved at school in February to benefit St. Baldrick’s Foundation, which funds research for childhood cancers. The event raised $1,500, Corson said, and she wrote about it in her contest essay.
Before last week, Corson had traveled to Belfast to look through some of the Cinderella Project’s hundreds of dresses, and she was planning to go back Friday to continue her search.
“It was so overwhelming, because there are so many dresses, and they’re so beautiful,” she said.
Corson said she’s looking for something form-fitting but not tight, and it has to be sparkly.
She’s already donated some of her dresses from past events. She said her classmates are excited for the giveaway.
“This is a great thing,” she said. “Especially for our community because we’re not a rich, wealthy area.”