The formal County Assemblies charity dances for high school students from around Fairfield County, founded by Mrs. Willem C. Schilthuis, of Westport, in 1938, were attended by young women in floor-length gowns and white gloves.
The young men have always worn tuxedos, but as female fashions changed through the ages, so did the young women's attire, and more recent fashion trends favored shorter formal wear by the girls.
Dance organizers, however, decided to initiate a change in the dress code for the January 2013 Counties dance for juniors in Westport, Fairfield, Weston and Wilton, and the Red & White dance for seniors in the same communities.
The County Assemblies website announced the change this way: "Black-Tie Event-Long Dresses and Tuxedos are the required dress for both events," and students and parents in Westport and Fairfield confirmed that they were informed via a letter about the change to what organizers consider more appropriate attire.
Cathi Zilling, president of the County Assemblies, said the change is planned, in part, to uphold tradition in this, the 75th anniversary of the charity events, but also because some felt the dresses were becoming too short and inappropriate.
"It's not a Hollywood dance party. It is a black-tie formal," said Zilling, adding that the original dances were intended to introduce young people to social graces and social causes. The dances raise funding for local charitable organizations.
According to the County Assemblies website, the mission of the all-volunteer organization is "to increase awareness amongst teens of the realities and challenges faced by those less fortunate and to encourage a culture of enduring philanthropy." The dances have raised money for a number of local charities, including the Center for Women and Families, Project Return, Best Buddies, Operation Hope and the Kennedy Center.
In the early years, the County Assemblies dances "were extremely formal, down to the white gowns and white gloves," Zilling said.
The dress code decision has participants and parents divided, but Zilling said the dance organizers have received only a few negative comments directly. Largely, she said, "Our feedback has been positive."
"I understand why they did it, because some girls would show up to a fancy hotel not wearing appropriate dresses, but I feel like it shouldn't be their job to enforce being dressed nicely. It should be the job of the parents," said Erin Cody, 17, a senior at Fairfield Ludlowe High School, who went to Counties last year as a junior.
"I didn't go to junior prom. I decided to go to Counties instead. You can go to the dance and be with your friends who are not from Fairfield because Counties is for all of Fairfield County," she said. High school proms are generally specific to its own students except for the handful of prom dates from other communities.
Cody said parents should be comfortable with what their daughters wear.
"When I was growing up, we had to wear formal long dresses to our winter formals. They were called the Poinsettia (for seniors) and Mistletoe (for juniors)," said Sophia Maragos, who agrees with the dress code change.
Patricia Maragos said girls have more options with the short dresses. Additionally, she said, while it might harken back to a tradition of the Counties and Red & Whites, it will end a tradition for Staples students.
"We understand why they want to do the long dresses, but it's been a Staples tradition to wear short dresses for Red & Whites," Maragos said.
"And then they wear long dresses to senior prom. That makes it special," said Alexis Teixeira, 17, a Staples student.
Patricia Maragos said high school girls have four opportunities to attend formal events: the Counties and junior prom, and then the Red & Whites and senior prom. Staples girls had their own tradition of wearing short dresses to three of those dances and reserving their long gowns for senior prom.
"It will take the fun out of shopping for the senior prom," said Anita Vohra, 17, of Westport.
In Fairfield, an informal sample found the opposite opinion.
"I like the rule because at our school we don't usually wear long dresses to prom, so I like the opportunity to wear a long dress," said Sydney Burton, 16, a junior at Fairfield Ludlowe. "I like that they're going back to tradition. I think that's cool."
Kelly Ng, 15, a junior at Ludlowe, also agrees with the new dress code.
"I think it's a great idea that they're changing the rule. I think a lot of girls have seen a lot of movies that make them feel like they want to look like a princess one time in their life," she said.
Becca Raab, 17, of Westport, went to the Counties as a junior last year and plans to go to the Red & Whites this year. She said the length of the dresses is not the issue. "One of the problems with the short dresses is that (some of them) were too scandalous, and that's why (organizers) want the long dresses. But some of the long dresses that we saw at previous dances were more risque. They were either low cut, missing the majority of the back of the dress or had cut outs," Raab said. Some dresses had what the girls referred to as the "Angelina Jolie slit" exposing one leg all the way up to the top of their thigh, she said.
Zilling agreed, but said, "We can only do so much. We can only hope that parents are reading our letter and that they understand what the point of this is."
One mother, who asked that her name not be used, said the new dress code will be "an extra financial burden." Long dresses are more expensive, and the parents of sons will have to rent or purchase tuxedoes.
Alexis Teixeira said the long dresses will be an added expense for females who invite the males to the dances. "The girls pay for the tickets, and now you have to spend more for the dresses," said. Males pay for prom, she said.
The Mother and daughter are on the same page on this issue.
"The idea of this event is that it's a charity event. Wouldn't it be better for these kids to spend less on their wardrobe and donate the difference to the charity?" said Lisa Teixeira, Alexis's mom.
Although opinions are mixed, no one said the new dress code would prevent them from attending the dances this year.
Zilling said the dates and venue were recently changed to Jan. 11 for the Red & Whites dance and Jan. 12 for Counties dance. Both will be held at the Stamford Marriott.