Possibility in a Prom Dress: Cheryl Klein Covers an Incredible HS Fashion Show

Whenever I’m feeling down, visiting the 18-year-old whom I sporadically mentor is always a great pick-me-up. Her life completely changes every couple of weeks, which is in part because she comes from the kind of community and family that land kids in mentoring programs in the first place, and in part because she’s 18.

Some days she’s planning to become a hospice nurse (which she’d be great at; she’s almost supernaturally empathic), other days she’s planning to be a mechanic (she’s got serious math skills, which in my mind transfers to mechanical ability, but maybe that’s because I have neither).

Youth, like fashion, is about possibility, which is why I think it’s inherently energizing to be around young people.* I feel a little weird saying that, because it’s kind of an ageist generalization. I don’t love all young people. But I do love every part of the yearly fashion show that the participants in Art Center College of Design’s high school program put on.


There’s a makeshift catwalk and a DJ and kids from the photo class snapping pics like paparazzi. There are girls taking coltish steps in five-inch heels, hemlines that make every parent in the audience nervous, perfectly lovely little dresses and crazy couture contraptions.

My girlfriend works for Art Center, which is how I ended up at the show, and how, on Saturday morning, I ended up in the high school fashion design class where it all begins.

Inside one of those temporary bungalow buildings that are never actually temporary, Yelen Ayé, a graphic designer and illustrator who’s been teaching introductory fashion design for six years, was DJing from his laptop and generally creating an awesome vibe for the dozen-plus girls and one boy to work in. He turned the volume down long enough to explain that this class’ theme is “Red.”

Themes! I thought. Just like Project Runway.

Even her nails got in on the theme.

Only a couple of students were actually working with red fabric, though. Maybe the others interpreted it more metaphorically? A student named Justine said she just found off-white fabric she liked better. She opened her bag to show me yards of pearl-colored gorgeousness.** I didn’t blame her for rebelling.

By the way, if you’re wondering why you’re not seeing any faces, it’s because they’re minors and I wasn’t about to deal with release forms. This is a volunteer-run blog, you guys.

Prom dresses were a common theme, and those who weren’t making prom dresses were making eveningwear that wouldn’t look out of place at a prom. Only one girl I talked to—Tanya of the coral-colored nails—was making a shirt and pants. I asked Justine what kind of occasion she envisioned for her non-prom dress. “Oh, fancy parties, formal dances at my school….”

Even Thomas, the lone male student, was making a prom dress for his friend Yessenia. “I liked the asymmetry going on in fashion,” he explained of his drapey one-shouldered dress. “All my sketches turned out kind of Greek.” Besides, he added of Yessenia, who was there for a fitting, “She has great shoulders.”

Greek goddess and possible prom queen.

I love fashion sketches and sketchbooks of all kinds. There’s something about the texture of them and maybe, again, the feeling of possibility. Fashion sketching is a semi-prerequisite for Yelen’s class, which is why the students’ sketches looked a tad more professional than the doodles that riddled my high school and college notebooks (and, um, my present-day meeting notes).

Michelle described her dress as “strapless but with straps all over.” Conceptual!

I love the little fabric swatch close-ups on Audrey’s sketches.

Kayla’s dress. Haven’t you heard? Kids today do everything on their newfangled phones.

Nina is making the dress on the right, “a faux wrap dress with layered tulle underneath.”

Nina, maker of the dress above, had the kind of togetherness and drive that I always liked the idea of when I was in high school, but which would have conflicted with my busy summers spent making snarky comments about Small Wonder reruns.

“I wanted to mix different textures and weights,” Nina said confidently. She was focusing on making sure that “all the parts that should be covered are covered. Because all my fabrics are sheer.”

She rattled off a list of art schools she was applying to, and said that yes, she definitely wants to be a fashion designer. Or a costume designer. Then she handed her bottle of green tea to her friend, who said, “I’m not going to get any diseases from drinking this, am I?” Nina assured her she was healthy.

She also had great shoes.

“When you’ve cut your patterns, transfer them to the fabric,” Yelen called out. It was one of the few instructions he gave during the hour I was there. The class was all about hands-on learning.

Yelen imparting wisdom to a student. Actually, I think he was giving her directions to the restroom.

“But don’t cut until I’ve looked at them!” added Daniela, a seamstress who assists with seamstress stuff. Since most of the students are new to sewing, they start with existing patterns and alter them.

Paper is the new…organza?

I asked a few students what inspired them, fashion-wise. Answers ranged from Alexanders McQueen and Wang, to Audrey Hepburn, to Google. What do you Google? I asked Audrey (an Asian teenager in jeans, not Hepburn), who was working on a dusty rose princess dress with a cascade of blue trim running diagonally down the skirt.

“‘Red carpet dresses,’” she said.

“Do you ever read that blog, Go Fug Yourself?” I asked. “They have lots of red carpet pictures and funny commentary.”

Audrey looked a little pale. “Is that your blog? It’s called Go Fuck Yourself?”

These were wholesome-looking kids, the kind who take extracurricular classes on a Saturday. I’d dressed up a little—meaning I wore tights with only one visible run—thinking I’d be surrounded by 17-year-old fashionistas. There were a few interesting hair colors and one girl who was cutting fabric in five-inch heels, but mostly there were a lot of jeans, sundresses and flip-flops. Like professional fashion designers, they seemed more interested in what they were creating than what they were wearing.

Kayla has great boots. Melanie rocks the leopard print. Okay, so these kids are pretty stylish after all.

Adam’s post about fashion as reinvention last week really resonated with me. During the spring, I went through some serious personal crap. To put it in style terms, I thought the next batch of clothes I would acquire would be maternity hand-me-downs. When that turned out not to be true, I got really, really depressed.

Afterward, blogging for IBC was one of the first things I got excited about (that and a prescription for Zoloft). Over the next few months, under the partial guise of research, I found myself buying nearly a wardrobe’s worth of new (or new-to-me) non-maternity clothes—which it turns out are much more fun than the empire-waist floral blouses forced on pregnant women—and thinking, Yes. I’m a different person than I was in April, and I need to wear that truth on my body.

Clothes. Youth. Blogs. All are proof that, even when you’re not creating it inside an empire-waist floral blouse, signs of new life are all around. Thanks for a great guest-blogging gig, IBC.

Puffy paint always fills me with hope.

*Unless you’re a high school teacher, in which case it’s also exhausting, from what I hear.
**I don’t know the names of many fabrics. I only found out what organza was like three years ago. Recently I learned the name for those little 3D stripes in corduroy and promptly forgot it.


About Cheryl Klein

According to the ads that show up on my Facebook page, I love little vintage dresses and shoes with funky heels (and I should also consider a social work degree and self-publishing). Facebook knows too much, you guys. Other things I like: clearance racks, fingerless gloves, the phrase "a smoky eye," and clothing that reminds me of my early fashion icons--Pippi Longstocking, Punky Brewster and Laura Ingalls.


  1. Peter Varvel

    Fun! Reading this made me feel the “energy” of these young, creative people. Thank you!

  2. Even the young-at-heart need a shot of energy now and then. 🙂

  3. I guess this is exactly how I learned to sew as well…forge ahead girls and try not to get kicked out for refusing to follow the pattern ‘directions’!!!

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