…can be as easy as A, B, C.
The most obvious thing to think about when choosing a dress to wear to prom is how the dress looks, but there’s more to it than just loving a beautiful dress you see on the internet or on a store mannequin.
Consider the appropriateness of the dress(es) you like. Not only will the dress you choose have to conform to any guidelines set by your school or by the venue the prom is being held in, but it should also be in line with the level of formality you expect at your particular event. Some proms are “fancier” than others, and you don’t want to over or under dress.
Once you know the dress code and how formal the event is, begin to narrow the search.
It’s easy to find out what types of dresses are on trend for prom during any given year; check out styles worn on the red carpet during awards season, flip through a couple of fashion magazines aimed at a teen audience, Google “prom trends 20xx”. You can use these sources as inspiration and as a rough guideline for your dress shopping, be careful not to lock yourself into imitating a celebrity, or wearing a certain shape of dress because that’s what friends are planning to wear. Above all fashion considerations, you want your dress to make you look great, and the best way to look fabulous in a dress is to choose a dress that reflects your personal style and is flattering to your skin, shape and features.
Just because you love a color doesn’t mean it’s a good color on you. The best colors for you are colors that occur naturally on your body. Try on dresses in your eye color, lip color (sans lipstick), and hair color. Broaden your search by trying colors that are roughly the same saturation level and tone as those that occur in your eyes and hair, and also try and stay in the same “temperature” range. You’ve likely heard skin tones described as “warm” and “cool”. There is an immense amount of information about colors and color temperature, but to (over) simplify…warm complexions have a more yellow undertone and cool complexions have a pinker undertone. Those with warm complexions look best in colors found in fire and in the front ½ of the rainbow – red, orange, yellow, brown. Cool complexions look best in colors from the back ½ of the rainbow – green, blue, purple, pink, black.
Don’t stop at color when considering what dress looks best. Take into account the texture of the fabric, the scale of the print or details, and the level of contrast in the piece. Just like with color, textures and shapes that appear on your body are flattering. If your hair is straight and smooth, a fabric with a silky finish might be a nice choice. If you have angular features, they’ll be well-complimented by something geometric rather than flowing. Think about your scale as it relates to the scale of details in the dress. Are you petite? Do you have small, delicate features? If so, large, bold prints or embellishments will probably look overwhelming and draw too much focus. But if you’re tall or broad, larger patterns balance with you better. Again, tomes have been written on these topics, and if you’re interested in further information, check out Nancy Nix Rice’s blog and books.
Finally, choose a silhouette that flatters your figure. Select a shape that highlights features you like, and causes features you’re not that thrilled about to recede into the background. The best dresses lead viewers’ eyes down and up the figure and draw the focus to land at your face. If there’s a portion of your body that’s short, avoid lines that cross the area horizontally. For instance, if you have a short torso, a contrasting band or horizontal seam at the waistline might not be the best look. The belt or seam visually cuts the body and makes the torso look shorter and wider than it is. If you have an hourglass figure, a drop waist won’t be optimal since the narrowness of your waist will be obscured while the width of your hips will be highlighted. Be mindful of adding extra volume in places you don’t want attention drawn to.
Not only should you consider the sticker price on the dress, but also what will need to be invested in it, like for alterations and accessories.
Alterations are almost always needed, and vary wildly in complexity and cost. Most alterations shops, including sewBoise, set their prices according to how long an alteration takes, how skilled the sewist needs to be to complete the alteration, and if there are any notions needed for the adjustment (zippers, extra boning, etc. ). The more time-consuming a task is, the more expensive, even if the dress isn’t. Take a look at this alterations price list. You can see that hemming a dress can cost as little as $15 for a plain straight hem, or over $100 if there are multiple layers, beading, or other complications.
Consider as well what shoes, undergarments, jewelry, handbag, and outerwear you are going to wear with the dress. Do you already own these items? Or is there a special bra, slip, or wrap you’ll need to purchase? Add those to the cost of the dress.
Awareness in the dressing room can help you avoid busting your budget with unanticipated costs.
The prom isn’t ALL about the dress. It’s about having a great time, and it’s difficult to enjoy yourself if you’re tugging at or tripping over your clothes all night.
Fit is paramount. Your dress should be neither too loose nor too tight. You should be able to easily breathe, eat and sit without discomfort and without worrying your dress will tear. If it’s strapless or has spaghetti straps, ideally it will be anchored at the waist and supported with boning. If the bodice of your dress fits correctly, there should be no need to keep hiking it up all night. A good alterationist (hint, hint) will be able to modify a dress to stay put on your body. Another thing an alterationist can help you with is the length of your dress. Be sure your dress hits at a flattering part of the leg if it’s a short dress, and that it’s not a tripping hazard if it’s a long dress. Also, try walking backward in your dress. You should not be able to step on it. Trains on dresses are not appropriate for anyplace that people other than the train wearer are standing up and/or walking. A dress with a train will get soiled, torn or jerked off of its wearer when it’s inevitably stepped on at prom.
Check the mobility of your limbs in the dress. Can you take a full stride, or must you penguin-walk? Can you hug or dance with your date without cutting off the circulation in your arms? Some movement restrictions can be reduced with alterations, but changes requiring extra fabric are time consuming (read expensive) and a perfect fabric match can rarely be found.
Be aware of the fabric and texture of your dress. Sometimes beads, sequins and trims can be scratchy against bare skin. Identify areas of discomfort and decide whether the removal of beads or trim in that area will compromise the beauty of the dress. It’s easy for a professional to remove a few offending beads from the armpit of a gown without any negative impact to the aesthetics. Be sure the fabric itself doesn’t irritate your skin. You don’t want an itchy ruffle bugging you all night. See if the irritation can be removed by adding a slip or removing a tag, or if it’s better just to find a more comfortable dress.
Think about what the temperature will be like on the way to the prom and once you arrive. A long dress with multiple layers and long sleeves won’t be a good choice at a venue without air conditioning. Likewise, a flimsy short strapless won’t do if it’s cold out, though layering a long warm coat over your dress can help in this scenario.
Hopefully this guide has given you some thoughts to keep in mind when you go dress shopping. Some final bits of advice; start early, keep your options open, and don’t be afraid to be different. A dress that makes you look and feel great is a great dress no matter what everybody else is wearing.
I’m sure some readers are wondering why this article didn’t focus on making your own prom dress or having it custom made – sewBoise is a sewing business, after all. Of course those are options!
Custom-made prom gowns aren’t a common project for us…mostly because the monetary investment required and the lead-time we need to complete such a project are too much for the typical teen, especially for what’s likely to be a one-time-wear dress. However, if your prom is still months away and you have a big budget for the event, we’d love to make your dream dress for you!
Likewise, ambitious sewists who want to make a dress for themselves (or others) should be realistic about their skill level and how that relates to the dress they envision. It’s also imperative to allow plenty of time to make the dress, not only because something thrown together will look thrown together, but because hiccups in the process are inevitable and there needs to be time to find and execute a solution. Try not to get in over your head. Find a knowledgeable teacher or mentor (like us!) to help you through the tough parts (Note: YouTube and Pinterest are not mentors) and you’ll definitely wind up with a one-of-a-kind wonder instead of a homemade blunder. Choose your fabric carefully and select your pattern or design in the same way you would a store bought dress…following the above ABCs!