Twice as Nice

A gown fit for a bridesmaid takes on new life for a city's first prom


It was her first time on a boat. Last Friday, 17-year-old Latoya Gough stood on the deck of the Bay Lady, cruising at a nearly imperceptible pace through the Inner Harbor. She and 280 of her classmates at Carver Vocational-Technical High School were bound for the Key Bridge. Three levels of the boat were rocking with the sounds of the long-awaited junior prom.

The clear spring night marked an evening of firsts - memories Latoya would forever share with her best friend, Kenika Walker. Not only was it her first prom, but also her first fancy event. She was sporting her first professional manicure and pedicure, her first corsage, her first fancy "upstyle" and her first glazing of Calvin Klein perfume.

And it was the first time she had ever worn a formal gown: a lavender taffeta dress described by the auctioneer as "strapless with a mermaid bottom. ... Size 2. ... David's Bridal."

It was a dress with attitude, one that seemed to swish its approval whenever you moved. It was also a dress that had already contributed to another irreplaceable moment. As Latoya savored the sights and sounds of her first formal dance, her shimmering gown linked her to a woman who had celebrated a very different dream. As it turned out, this dress was not only about the excitement of first opportunities, but also the richness of second chances.

Two years ago when Maiysha Macer-Harrison agreed to serve as maid of honor for her older sister Kimberlee, she searched the usual boutiques, bridal stores and department stores for a gown. Nothing spoke to her, nothing that worked well on her small frame. The day before the ceremony, "on a whim," she found the dress she'd imagined, at David's Bridal in Glen Burnie.

It was lavender, it was stylish, it was a Size 2.

"I could tell just by looking at it, the way it hung, that it was perfect," Macer-Harrison says. "The waist was perfect, the length was perfect. Everything was perfect. It even had a little shimmer to it."

Strapless and floor-length, the gown came with a shawl. It was also close to her sister's favorite color - purple. She had asked Macer-Harrison to pick something in that shade for her October wedding, an intimate ceremony with fewer than 50 people at the Marriott Waterfront Hotel in Columbia. As the groom serenaded his bride with a song he had written especially for her, Macer-Harrison remembers feeling the poignancy and hope that accompany second weddings.

She had been a bridesmaid at Kimberlee's first wedding as well. It was in September 1993, when Macer-Harrison was a senior at Western High School. Back then, she had worn a fuschia dress with big puffy sleeves.

This time felt very different - less giddy, more purposeful. Both Kimberlee's son and her fiance's son were taking part in their wedding. Macer-Harrison was now a wife and mother - and had also become a big believer in the gift of second chances.

"Sometimes it doesn't work out the first time, and it's nice to be able to start over," she says. "I remember how it felt to see Kimberlee looking so happy. I look up to my sister so much - and I remember how wonderful it was to see her so elated."

It made her feel sentimental about the lavender gown. But after that day there was no reason to wear it, says 29-year-old Macer-Harrison, who works as an enrollment and billing technician for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield. Last winter when she received an e-mail requesting dresses for an auction to help low-income girls buy prom gowns, she offered her taffeta dress and its history of optimism.

"I felt I would love to have another young girl have a special dress like I did," she says. "I felt I would love to play a part in someone's special day."

Finding the one

On a chilly Saturday in March, the small basement of New Life United Methodist Church on Parkside Drive was packed with big plans for spring parties. Formal dresses and gowns - many previously owned, many with designer labels - were being auctioned to benefit On the Heels of Greatness, a nonprofit after-school program for girls ages 12 to 18. Teens and their mothers talked excitedly into cell phones and perched on the edge of their folding chairs as young women modeled the dresses for sale.

Latoya Gough came with Charmaine Hood, the mother of her best friend Kenika; she felt part of their family now. Several months earlier, Kenika had told her mother that Latoya was having trouble at home and asked if she could stay with them. Hood immediately welcomed the soft-spoken teenager into their small West Baltimore rowhouse. Now she was also committed to the notion of getting Latoya to the prom. Latoya had missed the sophomore ball because she couldn't afford to go and was too ashamed to say so. That would not happen again this year, Hood decided.

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