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The search for the perfect prom style signals a returned sense of normalcy for some area teens

Prom dress 1
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Paige Stupar looks through racks of prom dresses at an Allegheny County event called Project Prom.

In an office conference room temporarily converted into a dress shop, Paige Stupar sorts through racks of chiffon, lace and jeweled dresses, with her heart set on something orange.

The 17-year-old Carrick High School student hasn’t been to a prom before but says she’s been hoping it would happen this year.

“I’ve been looking forward to prom since I was 7,” she said.

She pulls a blue sequined strapless, a red beaded ballgown and finally an orange mermaid style with a jeweled bodice. Her stepmother, Darlene Punjack, takes pictures and notes adjustments they could make to help the dresses fit. She encourages her stepdaughter to keep trying until she finds one she loves.

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Any of the dresses will be free to Stupar and the other teenagers at the Penn Hills event. Since 2003, the Allegheny County Department of Human Services has distributed dresses donated from local dress shops and department stores. This year, they received a donation from "Pretty Girl," the Netflix film that was shot in Pittsburgh.

“We don’t want parents to have to say no to their kids to what is really kind of a rite of passage,” said program director Shelli Luchs. “So it really just provides those families the ease to say yes, and for their kids to be able to go to prom.”

Project Prom also issues shoes and jewelry and tuxedo vouchers. The program was canceled for the last two years, because most school districts didn’t hold dances — part of the nationwide effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

All Pittsburgh high schools are holding in-person Proms this year, though a district spokesperson said attendees will be required to wear masks. Most districts won't require masks, which is in line with CDC guidance, but the PPS school board delayed a vote on its masking policy until next month.

Project Prom2
Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Paige Stupar, 17, looks at one of the prom dresses she tried on during the Project Prom event hosted by the Allegheny County Department of Human Services.

Masked or not, Luchs said that students are obviously excited for the return of in-person events.

“They’re Facetiming their friends, they’re Facetiming their family members who maybe weren’t able to come to the shop,” she said. “They’re excited about … just I think returning to some sense of normalcy, even if it’s just a little bit.”

County workers have stockpiled the dress inventory over the past two years, even though the giveaways too were suspended. So this year, students had about 3,000 dresses to pick from. Local stylists volunteered to guide students through the selection, a process that includes revealing each look to their families on a pedestal surrounded by floor-length mirrors.

After some contemplation, Stupar took the orange dress home. She didn’t find shoes or jewelry to match, but she’s got a few weeks to make those selections.

Project Prom has a few appointments left. Participants must pre-register on the county’s website.

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