How to Find the Perfect Prom Dress

Much of the buildup to prom centers on finding a fabulous dress.
Much of the buildup to prom centers on finding a fabulous dress.
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Like first dates and passing the driver's exam, prom is one of those teenage rites of passage with a build-up bordering on a space shuttle launch. In the case of prom, to overgeneralize it, that buildup is pretty much all about the dress -- imagining it, shopping for it, trying it on for friends...

"Prom dress" once meant a floor-length, satin strapless gown. That classic is indefinitely fashionable, not to mention flattering, but prom dresses have broken the mold. Modern looks range from cute to romantic to sexy, from sporty to indie to Lea Michele-at-the-Emmys, all bright red with rosette sleeves. There's something for every fashion type.


It can say a lot, that dress: Color, fabric, length, embellishment and style all reflect personality. The perfect dress makes you feel not only your most beautiful, but also your most comfortably "you."

The search for that dress can get a wee bit crazy as the moment of truth draws near, but it doesn't have to. Here, some tips to keep the search fun and increase your chances of ending up with something you love more than life itself, at least for one big night.

To start with, sequins and cutouts can wait. First, you need a game plan ...

In terms of preparation, finding the perfect dress is kind of like studying: The earlier you start, the greater your chances of success.

Give yourself two to three months for a nice, low-stress buffer. That's plenty of time to visit multiple stores, see what's out there, compare, get input, have any necessary alterations done and then style with shoes and accessories.

Budget, too, should be addressed here. Going into the search with no sense of an upper limit can result in the devastating discovery that your perfect dress will not, in fact, be coming home with you. If it's out of your price range, don't try it on; just admire, take note and keep it in mind as you comb the racks. Creating an eBay search for that dress or something very much like it might even result in a huge, happy score.

Which brings us to the less-beaten path: Mall stores and boutiques are not the only places where fabulous dresses live. Not only auction sites but also Etsy and consignment stores might allow you to pick up a dress you couldn't afford in a traditional retail setting -- and it might even be brand-new.

Finally, what may be the most crucial element in the plan: Find out if your school has a prom dress code. Wearing the perfect dress will just be sad if you can't get in.

Now, on to the good stuff: What's your color?

Prom-dress colors and fabrics run the gamut from whites to brights and from chiffon to silk-jersey. Before you make a choice, consider which ones will most flatter your assets. Warm skin tones tend to glow in warm colors such as orange, bronze, coral and tan, while cooler tones thrive in cool hues like blue, silver, mint and emerald. Pink, white, peach and red often look good on everyone. Purples, too, can flatter cool and warm alike.

For fabric, decide whether you want to show off your curves or minimize them. Very stretchy fabrics and large prints will accentuate your shape, while heavier fabrics with less give, solids and tiny prints can help camouflage "trouble areas."

Current trends are wide-ranging, so it shouldn't be tough to find the right color/fabric combo for your ideal look. On the trendier end, you've got animal prints, brights (coral, teal and cobalt blue are huge), all-over sequins, feathered skirts and flowy chiffon overlays. Toward the more timeless end, pastels (especially white and blush), beading, satin and draped jersey can set a stylish but classic tone.

Cuts and lengths are as important as colors and fabrics in determining which dress makes you look and feel your best, and the range of choices there are just as plentiful. They're also, to the occasional distress of school officials, a bit more extreme ...

Here, ladies, is where your school's dress code, if there is one, comes into play. Some of the trendiest, most highly desired dresses feature such details as bare midriffs, plunging necklines, and slits like the one that gave Angie's Right Leg its own Twitter account. You may love these styles. Your school may not. Find out, lest your prom night ends before it begins (or your perfect dress ends up paired with your date's jacket).

Know what's allowed? Great. Now, what's your look?

Are you going for classic, romantic, bold, fun, sexy or even sporty? And what's going to flatter? In conventional-beauty terms, that typically indicates the style that will turn you into an hourglass shape, balanced on top and bottom, and smaller in the waist.

The range of current prom-dress styles give you lots of wiggle room, so to speak. You'll find everything from mini to floor-grazing, strapless to flutter-sleeved, and bodycon to ball gown. The high-low hemline is everywhere, as far as on-trend styles go, along with bustier-style tops, cutout bodices and all-over feathered skirts.

You may think that wearing something feathered, or a cutout-bodice and skirt connected by crystal strands might guarantee you walk into prom looking unique. This line of thought is logical but unfortunately doesn't always hold true. While finding yourself wearing what is apparently also the perfect dress for four of your classmates can be a bit disappointing, and awkward, it's not the end of the world -- especially if you just happen to be carrying, say, some safety pins or a sewing kit in your perfect purse. Full-length gown? Not after you test your ruching skills in the bathroom. Hello, high-low hemline.

Or, in the protracted buildup to the big night, daydream some ways to make your perfect dress exclusively yours. Try embellishing or cinching with brooches, adding a contrasting sash, or even swapping out plain spaghetti straps with strands of beads. That, along with your unique take on shoes and accessories, will likely guarantee a singular send-off into your new, post-high school world.

Do remember to dance so much you sweat all over your perfect choice. You'll keep that memory with you a whole lot longer than you do the dress.

For more information on prom styles, flattering fits and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


  • Brown, Susan S. "Prom fashion 2012: This year's dresses, fashion trends run the gamut." The Denver Post. April 9, 2012. (Sept. 11, 2012)
  • Holmes, Elizabeth. "For Prom, Schools Say 'No' to the Dress." The Wall Street Journal. March 29, 2012. (Sept. 11, 2012)
  • Johnston, Susan. "5 Ways to Save During Prom Season." U.S. News & World Report. April 3, 2012. (Sept. 10, 2012)
  • Milligan, Lauren. "Vogue Loves: Prom Dress Inspiration." Vogue. May 9, 2012. (Sept. 11, 2012)
  • Perrin, Rebecca. "Prom Trends 2012: Go Color Crazy!" April 26, 2012. (Sept. 11, 2012)