GARDINER — Olivia Turner saw a car pull up outside the Gardiner Area High School at about 5:50 a.m. Saturday and hoofed it a bit faster to get to the door first.

Unlike Kelsey Thaller, who left Skowhegan at 4:50 a.m. to arrive an instant later, Turner knew what awaited them and the more than 100 women and girls who would follow them through the high school’s front door — 600 prom dresses of every hue and style.

Turner, who had spent the day Friday helping to organize the fabulous and free dresses for the Cinderella Project of Maine‘s Gardiner event, had her eye on one — a really nice dark green — but was still looking, just in case.

Thaller didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but, she said, she’d know it when she saw it.

There were plenty of options to choose from. Rack after rack of formal gowns, fancy dresses and cocktail dresses were lined up in the school’s cafeteria. Along one wall, dressing rooms were rigged up with shower curtains, and a runway, with mirrors on either end, made the community review of dresses into an event.

The dresses range from classic to modern and cross the range colors from subdued to bold. Beaded? Yes. Strapless, one strap, a confusing number of straps? Yes. Mermaid, pouf, bias cut? Yes, yes and yes. Short, long and handkerchief hems? You bet.

Adult volunteers, dressed in purple T-shirts emblazoned with “Fairy Godmother,” delivered advice on fit and style and general support, ferrying rejected choices away and bringing new options to be tried.

The Cinderella Project started 11 years ago in Belfast, and Gardiner joined the annual giveaway three years ago with the help and support of Gardiner Main Street and the Heart and Soul program. The Cinderella Project collects new or gently used dresses and provides them at no cost to anyone who shows up for the event. This year, the number of dresses topped 600, thanks to a “massive” donation from New Hampshire. Donations also come from dress shops that want to clear out older stock to make way for new styles. Because the Cinderella Project is a nonprofit, the tax deductions make the gifts doubly rewarding for business.

“I think we’ll give away 100 this year,” Meg Gipson, co-chair of the Cinderella Project of Maine, said. “I would love to give away twice that.” That would top last year’s total of 75 and match what was given away in Belfast.

Those who select dresses are asked to pay the favor forward; they are invited to return the dresses so someone else can have a chance to wear it in the future.

On Saturday, girls and their families came from as far away as Orono and Dover-Foxcroft to look over the dresses. A couple of hopefuls from Belfast who missed the Cinderella Project giveaway there traveled to Gardiner to look at gowns.

Amanda Beaulieu, of West Gardiner, ended up picking out two gowns. Although she’s home-schooled, a prom is held each year for home-schooled students. Hers will be May 20 at the Elks Lodge in Augusta, and it will be the fourth she’s attended. Her first dress, a lavender long dress, was “poufy at the end,” she said. Although it was a lovely dress, when she got it home and looked at it, she decided it made her look washed out. She was swapped it for a brown dress touched with a bit of glamor thanks to the brown, bronze and pink bead work. She’s got the shoes already and is looking for some pink earrings to accessorize. The brown, she said, would be better with her skin tone and hair.

“It’s nice to get dressed up sometimes,” Beaulieu said.

She picked out a bright blue gown with flowers last year, and it worked out well, she said.

This is the first year the Gardiner event has been hosted at the high school. Before this year, Johnson Hall donated space at the theater on Water Street, but the event has outgrown it.

With less than a half-hour left in Saturday’s event, the crowds had mostly gone and the final few customers were coming through the door. The tally stood at 95 dresses with several more to go out next week.

“I want to give as many away as possible.” Gilpin said.


Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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