picture of formal dresses
Personal, True Stories, Uncategorized

The $20 Prom Dress

Family stories shape and mold our expectations of the world around us. Some families believe in positive myths – “We always win!” Other families believe negative stories – “Nothing every goes right for us.”

In my family, one simple saying guides us:

When you need it, God provides.

We have a knack in my family of finding formal gowns for pennies. Often these gowns come to us just when we need them but have no money. It’s like Cinderella’s fairy godmother whipping up a ball gown, except for us, it’s wedding and prom dresses.

The story began in the 1930s. My aunt Lucille was about to enter the Dominican order in Amityville, New York. It was the depths of the Great Depression and my grandfather had died suddenly after a bout of pneumonia, leaving my grandmother penniless and with a young daughter at home and a new baby girl.

In those days, it was the custom for young women entering the religious life to wear a wedding dress to the ceremony of final profession. My grandmother was distraught. She could not afford a wedding dress for her daughter.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” she confessed. “I was walking along a street in Brooklyn, not a street I normally take, when I looked up, and there it was. A wedding dress in the window of a store. The store was going out of business, and the dress was just $5.  Five dollars! I could afford five dollars. I bought it there and then, took it home, and it fit Lucille perfectly.”

At that point in the story, my grandmother always dabbed a few tears from her eyes. She turned to me and touched my cheek.

“Remember, Jeanne, God always provides.”

bride getting into wedding dress
Photo by Photos by Lanty on Unsplash


My older sister, Mary, was getting married. My parents didn’t have any money to pay for their daughters’ weddings; they had paid for their own since my widowed grandmother didn’t have any money, either.

Mary gave up her Manhattan apartment and moved back in with my parents to save money for her wedding. She refinished furniture bought for a few bucks at local garage sales so she could furnish their apartment.

But one thing she didn’t have: a wedding dress.

Then, one day, she came home from a visit with her fiance’s parents in Astoria carrying an enormous garment bag. “What is it?”

“My wedding dress,” she said.

She pulled a gown from the garment bag that was exquisite, as it if had been sewn just for her. Adorned with lace and a beautiful train, the gown was clearly of vintage design, but had a timeless, classic quality to it that was perfect for my sister.

“Where did you find it?” We gathered around to admire the lace, the train.

“At the thrift store,” she smiled triumphantly. “I paid $20 for it.” Her future mother in law, a former seamstress, had spotted the well-crafted gown and called her immediately to go look at it.

It fit her beautifully. She made her own veil, a lace mantilla that my niece, her daughter, wore on her own wedding day last October.

I admit; I cried when I saw Melissa in the lace mantilla.

And I remembered the family motto, woven into the fabric of our gowns: God provides.



My $20 prom dress was another miracle.

Like weddings, proms were expenses my thrift parents could ill afford. I worked part time after school for Rosenzweig Insurance, filing policies, answering the phones and stamping the mail. My money went towards college expenses but it also went towards high school expenses, too. My class ring. The prom.

I couldn’t wait for prom night. My friend, Bobby, was going to be my date. I was sharing a limo with my best friend, Sue and her date, Tommy. We would have a table with our best friends and dance the night away.

The only problem: the dress. This was the late 1980s, when the bigger the better. The bigger the metallic skirt, the bigger the hair, the better.

I wasn’t into big dresses. I wanted svelte, chic, like Princess Diana.

All the svelte, chic gowns were hundreds of dollars, and I didn’t have it.

God provides, I heard my grandmother whisper.

I drove to the mall for one last look at the dresses at Macy’s. It was a week from prom night and I still didn’t have a dress. I wandered the mall until I stumbled down to the lower level. There, a bridal salon was going out of business. A rack stood forlornly outside the door with sample dresses on it.

A sign proclaimed, “Sample gowns, all size 10, $20 each.”

There, on the rack, was my prom dress.

It was blue, with spaghetti straps, a plain dress by some standards. It suited me perfectly. It fit my budget.

God provides.

Jeanne prom
Yes, that’s yours truly, the future writer Jeanne Grunert wearing the $20 prom dress.


God seems to want his girls – at least the girls in our family – clothed well. It sounds so childish, so frivolous, so silly. We are Cinderella crying by the hearth because we don’t have the right clothes to go to the ball.

We either have great luck or — God provides.

Whenever I’m tempted to dismiss the whole “we’re in despair, can’t afford anything and our dresses appear” I remember that God is a God of generosity.  Our fathers – my grandfather, my natural father – wanted to give, but finances prevented it. Why wouldn’t our heavenly father want us to be happy, too?

God’s abundance extends beyond measure. Why shouldn’t we find ourselves walking past stores and find the perfect dress at the perfect price just when we need it most?

Why not? As stories go, this one reassures, comforts and reminds us – God provides. And He does, even for something as frivolous as a dress.

Myths, after all, start with a basis in fact.