Prom fashions move away from classics as teens turn to vintage and homemade
By Amanda Kwan
Neev Zaiet has the dress and shoes ready and the hairstyle picked out. She’s had a run-through in the entire ensemble, right down to the makeup, and has posed for a photo shoot with a friend.
There is still the small matter of finding a boy to escort the 16-year-old junior to the Valencia High School prom. But the big night is still two months away.
In this age of savvy teens, the annual high school dance has taken on an aura of breathless anticipation rivaling a wedding. With attendees, their parents and schools getting involved to plan one night of formality for teens who usually slink to class in jeans and scuffed sneakers, students see the dance as a fashion show to unleash their inner divas.
“You search for months for the perfect dress and spend more time trying to find the perfect accessories,” says Dominique Marinello, 15, of Santa Clarita, Calif. “The truth is that no one, your date especially, realizes what it takes to prepare for the big day, but it’s great to feel like the most beautiful girl in the room for the night.”
And it’s no longer as simple as taking a trip to the tried-and-true formal dress departments at their local department stores. Members of Teen Vogue’s “It Girls” focus group of fashionable readers say they’re just as likely to scour vintage stores or create their own looks.
“They are ready to break the rules,” says Gloria Baume, fashion director of Teen Vogue. “They will take only what they like from those stereotypical looks that have dominated the market since the 1950s and reinterpret them in their own magical way.”
That approach also helps them avoid showing up as someone else’s dress twin. Laura Hammer, a 17-year-old member of the Teen Vogue group, will be wearing a 1960s shift purchased from an online vintage retailer.
“I chose vintage because I had the option of going through the racks at the same stores every teenage girl in my school will be picking through ó you know the usual: Betsey Johnson, Nordstrom, Saks ó and cross my fingers and hope that no one buys the same dress,” Laura says. “But by going against the majority and buying vintage, I had the guarantee that I will show up in a one-of-a-kind design.”
Cady Fontana, 17, is so concerned about being unique on her special night that she’s making her own dress. The senior at Ithaca High School in Ithaca, N.Y., wants to duplicate the reaction she received for her self-made peach satin cocktail-length dress at last year’s event.
“Prom is an awesome opportunity for me to show my peers what I can do, sewing-wise,” she says.
Breaking with other traditions, such as donning a full-length gown, was also a popular and practical idea. Cristina Ruiz, 18, of Marietta, Ga., recalled her experience at the junior prom in a floor-length dress: “It was impossible to dance in, and I kept tripping all over the place.”
Dress designer Jessica McClintock, whose fashion career started in 1968 by making dresses for San Francisco’s hippie generation, says 80 percent of her prom collection last year were full-length dresses, and she plans to decrease that amount to 70 percent this year.
McClintock, who wore a long white strapless organza dress inspired by Grace Kelly to her own prom in 1950, says she visits four to five high school dances in her San Francisco neighborhood each year to gauge trends. This year, McClintock says her short dresses will have “a lot of tulle, so girls can wear them with their spike heels, which they love to do.”
Some even considered abandoning dresses altogether. “Girls have this misconception that if you are not wearing a big dress, you are underdressed,” explains Christine Sirois, a 17-year-old from Toronto. “There is no reason why a young woman cannot wear a wonderfully tailored suit if she chooses.”
If parents are concerned that their daughters may be seeking a too-mature look, they can rest easy. Though television shows and music videos may boast overtly sexualized images of young women, these girls just want to look their age.
“Even though I love people thinking I’m 18, I think that a high school prom isn’t the place to look more mature,” says Devan Elmore, a 16-year-old junior at Hamilton High School in Sussex, Wis. “I think that for prom, it should be about dancing with your friends and guys, and not caring how old you appear to be.”
Despite the level of expectation that teens have for their big night, many girls stressed that status is no longer about money.
“The perfect dress could be $1,000 or just out of a friend’s closet,” says Ellen Kim, a junior at Flintridge Preparatory Academy in the Los Angeles suburbs. “Either way, you won’t be wearing a price tag on the night of prom so spending more money won’t make you look any better.”
Still, there are plenty of costs parents will be asked to pay: The “It Girls” predicted more than $400 for dress, shoes, makeup and hair, dance tickets and limousine rental.
And that price doesn’t always come with total contentment. Most girls said their look would be incomplete if a date’s ensemble didn’t gel with theirs.
Neev, the 16-year-old with everything but the prom date, will be channeling the 1980s in a teal blue strapless dress from Betsey Johnson. And to match her pink heels, her lucky man will have to wear a hot pink tie.
“I will find a hot pink tie, no matter what,” Neev says. “My date will be ecstatic to know that he can stand out at prom and have a hot pink tie and a date in one of the most unique dresses.”