BY ALISON PEKNAY
On a warm evening in June, teenagers representing all five boroughs of New York City walked between the lions and entered The New York Public Library's Steven A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, but not to study for their upcoming final exams. The iconic building - normally a place that exudes quiet contemplation - was blasting hit dance music from Justin Bieber and Rhianna in Astor Hall, the marble entrance decorated with green, pink and blue lights. Teens were dressed in elaborate outfits and wore masks of exquisite colors and fabrics to attend a Masquerade, the theme of NYPL's Anti-Prom this year.
Inspired by an NYPL teen advisory group in 2004, Anti-Prom was created in lieu of the traditional prom held by local schools. The event provides a welcoming and safe option for teens that may feel uncomfortable or unwelcome at school events for various reasons, such as their sexual orientation or the way they dress. Currently in its sixth year, Anti-Prom is free and open to teenagers 13 to 18 years of age.
"I love the environment. It's the perfect place," said Donovan, a recent graduate from Truman High School in the Bronx who learned about the annual event at his local library. Students from all walks of life are welcome at Anti-Prom, which fosters an atmosphere of diversity and acceptance. For teens who have experienced isolation, prejudice, or bullying, Anti-Prom is a positive experience where support is both given and received.
"The Library has always been a safe place for teens, offering an outlet for curiosity and creativity," said Maggie Jacobs, Director of Educational Proograms at NYPL. "At Anti-Prom, we add music, dancing and fashion to the mix. Most importantly, Anti-Prom provides an alternative space where everyone feels a sense of belonging no matter what group they identify with. The sense of celebration and joy is always palpable - we are so happy to offer our teens an opportunity to enjoy the LIbrary in such a mutually affirming way."
In contrast to traditionally formal prom attire, Anti-Prom encourages teens to wear clothing that allows them to express themselves. Teens like Emma and Bianca, both juniors in high school, took advantage of the opportunity to highlight their individuality. Bianca wore a short flared black lace dress while Emma chose a button down shirt with pants, a vest and a tie.
"This is better than any other prom," Bianca said. "There is freedom to dress however I want to."
Although, they will be eligible to go to their prom next year, both Bianca and Emma have decided to attend NYPL's Anti-Prom instead.
Fashion comes in all shapes, colors and sizes, even more so at the Anti-Prom fashion show that takes place every year. Halfway through the dance, a fashion show displays the dresses designed by teens for Anti-Prom. This year, the Masquerade theme was beautifully celebrated by the teen designers.
Models and designers strutted down the marble stairs of the south end of Astor Hall showing off their talent and creativity. Dresses represented all the colors and textures of a Masquerade; a hi-lo red gown straight out of The Phantom of the Opera, the model wearing a black-feathered mask and black elbow length gloves; a short corset dress of red, purple, burgundy and black was paired with a black cape with white collar; the colors and textures of a masquerade featured in a a long gold dress with feathers and a black lace train.
The designs are so elaborate, many students research for months to create the perfect outfit. Angela, a junior from the High School of Fashion Industry in Chelsea, visited the Library's research collections at the Schwarzman Building to do research for her Venetian-style gown.
"I went to the library to get inspiration," she said.
Angela's floor-length gold and royal blue strapless gown was the first time she designed a dress for Anti-Prom, though she attended the event several times in the past.
Over the years, the themes of Anti-Prom have been eclectic and intuitive: Vampire, Monster Ball, Superhero, to name a few. The themes are designed to embrace acceptance, as well as foster creativity using the current trends and interests of today's youth. It is the excitement of these themes and the atmosphere of inclusion at the event that explains the continued popularity of Anti-Prom and the hundreds of young New Yorkers who attend each year. Teens feel a sense of comfort with themselves and with each other. Strangers and future friends gather together to dance, forming Conga lines that run between the marble columns of Astor Hall. At the snack table friends discuss their outfits and anticipated summer reads. No one, at any point, is judged for how they are dressed or denied entry because of who they are.