Although it was well over forty years ago, I still remember my high school prom as if it were merely yesterday. The first thing I remember is the disaster of an ‘updo’ professional hair style that I ran home and washed out. The second thing I remember is my gown: strapless, ice blue with beautiful, soft appliques and a full, dazzling skirt. I felt, for the first time in my life, like a real princess. (Of course, I also remember the really, really sweet boy who had asked me to the prom; wonder whatever became of him?)
Let’s agree to grudingly admit that your high school prom is indeed a pretty big deal. (Just ask your parents, who will be shelling out hundreds of dollars on the right gown, manicure, pedicure, facial, shoes, accessories and that really, really important prom hairstyle!) If not attending your prom isn’t important to you in this stage of your life, don’t go through the motions for something that’s not right for you. If, however, you have even the smallest of desires to attend, please, please do! Make it happen – it is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
My own daughters have each attended a number of proms over the years, and their choice in dresses is as different as they are as individuals. I actually found it (and still do, with my youngest) a real adventure to shop for prom gowns. It was a fun, memorable and costly time for me as we did the mother-daughter bonding thing over American Express receipts!
1. The very first thing of which you should be aware is that nearly 100% of all prom/special occasion dresses are non-returnable. For your own good, make sure that you really will/want to attend the prom, and that the dress that you select is the one that you will also wear. Some stores will accept a special occasion dress back within a short time frame, assuming that the dress has never been worn, that all tags, every single one of them, are still attached, and you have your receipt. Returns generally apply to less exclusive dresses: ones that are street length, ones that can be worn for occasions other than a prom. Stores that specialize in prom/wedding gowns nearly always have it posted that no returns are accepted, all sales are final. If you buy a ‘special occasion’ type of dress from a department store like Nordstrom, Saks, Lord & Taylor, your chances are better of being able to return it. Again, this applies mostly to fancy street length dresses that aren’t really considered gowns in the purest sense. If you’re going for a full length, obviously intended for prom wear type of gown, make sure that it’s the one that you really, truly love. Otherwise, you’ll be out several hundred dollars – and with little, if any, chance of getting your money back.
The next thing to do? Set a price budget, and stick to it. If you’ll be cutting back on shoes and accessories, that may add a little more leeway on the total price of dressing for the prom. The total amount that you should expect to spend for your gown and accessories should be $500 or less. Of course, there are many ways to cut those costs, including making or having someone else make your gown. These are all items which you should consider before setting foot in a retail store.
2. Narrow in on your color. If you wear a womens’ dress size of 10 and above, think about selecting a slimming color: navy blue, dark copper, dark green (hunter is a beautiful and unusual color!), burgundy, even black. A black gown can be absolutely gorgeous: simple, understated, accessorized with silver or jewel-toned accessories. Look for a gown in a dark color that has a bit of attitude: a bow on the shoulder or at the hip (you can improvise and make or buy a beautiful, colorful pin that you can place in those areas as well to bring a big pop of color to the gown itself.) The idea is to make you appear slimmer by wearing a monochromatic gown – take it a step further by adding your own unique touch with that rhinestone or jeweled pin to show off the gown’s stylish gracefulness. Do try to wear solid colored shoes with the gown: you don’t want to show up wearing a lovely solid burgundy colored gown with green heels peeking from below the hem. The bottom line: brunettes most often look their best in jewel-toned, bright colors, including white and some neutrals (beige, pale silver, certainly gold!) Blondes are flattered by paler versions of those same jewel-toned colors, and look especially good in black and just about every hue of blue. (Gold tones and neutrals tend to wash out your skin tone.) Redheads? Go for the green! By now, you’ve figured out what colors look best on you – and yes, you can include red in shades of burgundy! Try something different, too: plum, dark purple – just avoid the head to toe all over ‘red’ look.)
If you’re a brunette, look for the shades that most complement your skin tone and coloring. My youngest daughter, who is slightly over six feet tall, last year wore to prom a stunningly simple and elegant gold toned halter dress. It has halter tie straps, was made by ABS for Allen Schwartz, and had a single, flounced ruffle at the hem in the front (the front of the gown was slightly above her knees.) The gown flared out to floor length in the back, with that single ruffle. It looked great with her dark eyes and hair, and was ‘different’ enough that she fell madly in love with it the first time she tried it on. She also wore inexpensive gold toned flat sandals with the gown, her reasoning being that she didn’t want to tower over her 6’2″ boyfriend and also wanted to be comfortable during the long evening. Other colors for brunettes include turquoise, peach, copper, silver, (yes, you fashion radicals! consider it!), white, and rich jewel tones: burgundy, hunter green, to name a few. Stay away from brown tones, as they are not flattering.
Your color should be one that not only flatters your hair and skin tones, but is also a color that makes you feel as special as the evening itself!
3. Some style do’s and don’ts! Please try at all costs to avoid the ‘gothic’ look. Not even Deeta von Tees went gothic in the wedding gown she wore to marry Marilyn Manson (they actually both cleaned up pretty well for that occasion, as a matter of fact. Too bad the marriage didn’t turn out as well as their ensembles!) Don’t fall for an overly ‘slutty’, sexy look. It may grab your attention, but the attention you’ll get on prom night itself will be most unwelcomed. If you really like that style, wear it clubbing – but go classy for your prom. You can break down styles by the gown’s skirt style. Going for the princess look? Look at sleeveless or sleeved gowns with a full, flouncy skirt. Nothing says ‘prom’ like tulle! Trying to look hot but not trampy? Go for a long, slinky gown with a straight, fitted skirt. The dress can have a subtle side or front slit (key word: subtle!) Laura Ashley had a line of potential prom dresses last year which were surprisingly popular. The dresses were quite frilly and girly above the waist (lots of subtle and not so subtle florals), with balloon hemmed skirts which were above the knee. This style of dress looks best on a tall, thin young woman who wants to show off her legs. If you don’t have great legs, don’t go for a short-skirted prom gown. If you have heavy arms, wear a dress with sleeves: cap or even elbow-length gowns are available. If your dress is either strapless or has tiny straps, consider a gown with a fancy bust: sequins, crystals, etc., with a solid color skirt – full or otherwise. If your bustline is a simple, solid color, consider a gown whose skirt – no matter what it’s length – has a little extra pizzazz in the way of beading, crystals or embroidery. Some girls prefer a simple, monochromatic look. If you’re going for pure elegance, remember to accessorize your gown with a stunning necklace and earrings. They don’t have to match perfectly, but you don’t want a silver necklace with goldtoned earrings, ladies. You could even look for a set of costume jewelry in the same color as your dress for an all-over matched look.
Avoid dresses that have a lot of cut outs in the design; showing a lot of flesh isn’t really appropriate prom wear, and they look, frankly, cheap. Make sure that your gown has a lined skirt. Make sure that your gown has a built-in bra, or if not, make sure that you buy a well-made strapless bra (this applies both to strapless and small spaghetti strap dresses. You don’t want to have to deal with trying to tuck in bra straps all evening. Stores such as Victoria’s Secret have these marvelous bra ‘cups’ that cover you up for about $22 a pair.) Stay away from dresses that have a fully ruffled skirt; ruffles are great, but only in moderation. Look at gowns that have a single strap; this look was very popular on the Oscar red carpet this year. And whatever style you feel most comfortable in, don’t, please don’t, wear a tiara in your hair. (This is especially important if your gown has any beading or crystals on it!) You’re not British royalty, don’t look foolish by trying to pass as one of them.
A lot of girls make a point of starting to get artificial tans weeks before their prom so that their skin tone will be even more flattered by the gown’s color. This is a matter of personal preference and taste. If you are planning to do this, start scheduling your tanning appointments now on a regular basis so that you get the correct number of healthy tans in before your big day.
4. Take someone with you when you’re shopping for your gown. But don’t take TOO many people! I remember one of my girls was invited to the prom as a freshman. (Normally, we don’t allow them to attend prom until they are at least sophomores, but made an exception this time.) That year, the two of us went merrily from store to store to store – accompanied by four of her BFF, none of whom were themselves going to the prom, but wanted in on the action! I endured many a long-suffering look from sales clerks as all of the girls selected gowns that they loved – and often wanted to try on just for the heck of it. Taking along too many people is distracting and time-consuming. You will also be getting too many different points of view from too many people, and this will make your decision-making much harder. Go with your mother, your aunt, your best friend – someone whose opinion you really value. In the end, though, it’s the person who’s writing out the check who has the ultimate say!
5. Most shops that are dedicated to prom/special occasion wear now keep ‘logs’ of which dresses in what sizes and colors have been sold to students from area high schools. This is a great way to know if that icy blue beaded gown that you just love has already been purchased by the junior girl who sits next to you in History. No matter how great the gown looks on you, do you really want to be one of at least two people wearing it to the same prom? Check with each store to see what their policies are on keeping these logs.
Hit as many stores as you can, and as early as you can. Try to stay away from department store gowns and dresses; they don’t always keep logs of who bought which gown (actually, they rarely if ever do), and your chances of showing up in the same dress as SEVERAL other girls are pretty high. Go to not only shops that specialize in prom wear, but boutique shops that carry one of a kind, sample dresses. If you’re able, head up to Manhattan to see what both designers’ shops and funky, off the beaten path boutiques are showing. One year, we ended up buying a gorgeous Laundry by Shelli Segal gown at their NYC store. About three weeks later, we saw the exact same style in a local New Jersey department store – but only in one color, and only floor length. (We had bought the street length gown.) Designers will ship only certain styles and colors to most of their distributors; you really do have a better chance of finding something not only hot off the presses but one of a kind in their own stores. If you do go to New York, draw up a list of stores to visit. Make sure that the following stores are on it: Saks, Bergdorff Goodman, Prada, Miu Miu, Anna Sui, The Flying W, What Comes Around Goes Around, FCUK, Vera Wang, Laundry, Betsey Johnson, Tracy Reese. Google your favorite designers online to see if they have stores I haven’t listed here in New York, and put them on the list as well.
If you can’t make it to New York (or Atlanta, San Francisco, Beverly Hills, Chicago, Dallas, Miami), go physically out of your ‘comfort zone’ with local stores that you normally would shop at. A lot of mothers take their daughters out of state to go prom gown shopping. In our case, we have headed to the huge King of Prussia Mall in Pennsylvania (bought several dresses there over the years), which also has a lot of high-end designer stores, including Laura Ashley.
6. Consider shopping online. There’s a wonderful web site called www.edressme.com. which has a lot of very stylist gowns and dresses. They make a lot of knock-offs of designer lines, as well as actually manufacturing for designers themselves. (Their New York City workshop is to die for!) You can also check out stores that may not be in your local area like Neimann Marcus (in Texas and western/midwestern states) to see what lines they carry. Go to Ebay to see what you can find at amazingly low prices!
Obviously, the only problem you’ll encounter with buying a dress online is that it may not fit perfectly. If, however, the gown is exactly what you’ve been looking for, take it to your town’s best seamstress and have her adjust it for you. (Make sure that the dress actually CAN be altered first.)
7. Visit your local consignment shops. I’m not referring to thrift shops (although those can be actually fun and informative), but high-end consignment shops. Our local consignment shop here in southern New Jersey already has four beautiful gowns in stock – each carefully dry cleaned, some brand new with tags that are half the store’s retail price.) Google consignment shops in your area, and call first to see what they have in stock.
8. Don’t buy your gown a size too small, thinking that you’ll lose enough weight to look good and have it fit well. 90% of us just don’t achieve that goal, and the stress can be terrible. It’s best to buy what fits you now, at your present weight.
9. Go light on your accessories and shoes. Do not spend a fortune on a pair of Jimmy Choo’s. No one will be looking at your feet, quite honestly. Your shoes should be pretty, but more importantly, comfortable. Most girls kick them off once they arrive at the prom itself so that they can have more fun dancing anyway. You’ll most likely need a pair of pantyhose; here again, go with an inexpensive pair. It’s not your wedding night! Remember to keep in mind your date’s height when selecting shoes. Some guys really DO care if their date towers over them. Go with flats or small heels. If you wear stilettos or anything over 2″ in heel height, you may actually rip your gown by accident or heaven forbid, even trip over your hem.
Don’t wear your Grandmother’s heirloom quality pearl and gold earrings and bracelet. Chances are, unfortunately, pretty good that the jewelry can be misplaced, damaged or lost. Save the heirloom jewels for your high school or college graduation ceremonies. Wear something pretty, flirty and in keeping with the tone set by the type of gown you’re wearing. Don’t buy earrings so big that they’re actually the first thing people will notice. If you buy a gown that has a lot of beading on it already, don’t take away from that look with a big, boxy or beaded necklace; earrings and maybe a small bangle bracelet are all that you’ll need. Less really is best here.
10. What to do with your gown after the prom? Some girls like to have it preserved, as a keepsake or to give to their own daughters one day. Others may want to take a more practical look at a gown for which they’ve spent several hundred dollars. Get it dry cleaned now and put it away carefully in the back of your closet. The following prom season, you’ll have several choices. You can consign the gown and try to recoup some of your money back, while giving someone else the chance to own a classic gown at a deep discount. You could also share the (cleaned) gown by lending it to a sister or friend who is the same size.
Another wonderful option? Consider donating your prom gown to one of the charities that accepts cleaned, in good condition gowns, and donates them to less privileged young women who couldn’t afford to pay for a gown like yours. (Google prom gown donations to find a charity close to you.) When you look back at the prom photos and enjoy those warm, fuzzy memories of the wonderful evening that you had, the perfect way to cap off those memories is by knowing that someone less fortunate can enjoy their own prom in your gown.