Believing that every girl deserves to attend her high school prom, two Chillicothe women have removed the stress of affording a fancy dress.
“Some of these dances are like you’re going to a wedding. There was a need for kids who couldn’t go to the dances because it was too expensive,” said Cari Horack, who opened the all-volunteer Princess Closet in 2016 with her friend, Marla Anderson.
Located at 948 N. Second St. in Chillicothe, the Princess Closet is set up like a boutique with more than 100 dresses, as well shoes and jewelry to complete the look.
The boutique is not just for girls. Boys can also shop for tuxedos and suits.
But while the average cost of going to prom can reach upwards of $500, shoppers at the Princess Closet pay only $25, which is refunded when they return the dry-cleaned dress or tux and accessories.
Chillicothe’s Plaza Cleaners offers a break on the cost of cleaning to students who bring in a Princess Closet receipt, and the Peggy Says Sew shop on Second Street offers discounted alterations.
“Everybody deserves to feel like a princess,” Horack said. “You deserve to look absolutely gorgeous and go have fun and experience your high school dances.”
The idea of offering formalwear to Chillicothe students originated as a National Honor Society project at Illinois Valley Central high school in 2003.
“They just had a few dresses brought in that were donated, and I think the girls just took one,” Horack said.
By the time Horack started working at IVC as assistant to the athletic director in 2007, the NHS project was no longer in place and she was seeing a need.
The Princess Closet idea didn’t come together, however, until Horack took her daughter to Bobbie’s Bridal in Peoria to look for a prom dress in early 2015 and spotted a clearance rack of dresses. Over the next few hours while her daughter was trying on dresses, Horack started a conversation with the shop’s owner, Bobbie Ziffren, and mentioned her dream of helping girls whose families might not be able to afford a prom dress.
“She kept asking me questions and before I left that night she filled my car with dresses,” Horack said. “It was awesome.”
Horack put the dresses on racks in the school’s commons area and invited girls to take one to wear to prom. “But as I did this, I realized lots more girls would come if it wasn’t done at the high school where other people could see them taking a dress,” she said.
Later that year, Ziffren called Horack to say she was closing her business and offered her more dresses and some tuxedoes.
“Half of my garage was full of dresses and tuxedos, and I thought: what am I going to do with all this? It was a great problem to have,” Horack said.
When word got out about what the women hoped to do, the community came together to offer help in a variety of ways. Sarah and Wes Williamson, who own Happy Thought Coffee, donated the use of their building on Second Street, and Butch Thompson volunteered to install carpet donated by Sutton Carpet. Others donated shoes, jewelry and clothing racks, among other things.
“Community members have helped us tremendously,” Horack said. “We could not do this without them.”
Horack and Anderson spent many hours setting up the shop and opened it before IVC’s prom in 2016.
“My goal was to have these kids come in and get a boutique experience like other girls get when they go to a bridal shop,” Horack said. “We treat them like a princess and help them find that perfect dress, which helps their self-esteem.”
She recalled that one of the first girls to come in to the shop was skeptical about finding a dress. “She had never dressed up because she didn’t have the money to do so,” Horack said “But she found a dress that fit her perfectly, and she just stood two inches taller while looking at herself in the mirror She had tears in her eyes, I had tears in my eyes. This is why we do it.”
While the shop is sponsored by IVC and primarily serves that school, it’s also open to schools in northern Peoria County and Marshall County, including Henry, Princeville, Dunlap and Varna.
“We’d never turn anybody away. We just hope we get everything back,” Horack said. “It’s easier for us to get our things back from the IVC kids because it’s our home school.”
In the years since the shop opened, they’ve only lost one homecoming dress that wasn’t returned. There are no income requirements to shop at the Princess Closet. Students are just asked to show their school ID.
The shop gets financial donations from the Optimist Town Theater, the Helping Hands Resale Shoppe, Three Sisters Park’s Summer Camp, Claude-Elen Days and Rescue 33’s Donut Days. The funds go toward upkeep of the building, occasionally purchasing dresses or accessories in needed sizes and cleaning dresses or tuxes as needed.
Currently, the Princess Closet is in need of a new printer and someone who would be willing to donate time to paint the outside of the building. Donations of dresses, shoes and jewelry are also welcome.
“We just ask that the dresses not be outdated. We can always use shoes in good condition, particularly in girls’ sizes 7 ½ or 8,” Horack said. “And we’re always in need of costume jewelry that goes with the dresses: bracelets, necklaces and earrings.”
Horack and Anderson will be spending most of March getting the shop ready for opening day on April 3. In April, shop hours will be 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
For more information, visit the Princess Closet Facebook page or email Horack at email@example.com.