I have this less than revolutionary theory that everyone could answer the question: What did you wear to prom? Yes, the person who obsessed over every detail for months in advance, from what manicure to get for prom to how to find the most unique prom dress, definitely remembers every detail of their outfit. But even someone of the belief that prom isn't a big deal or someone who got their prom dress at the last minute could still tell me what she was wearing that night.
I decided to put my theory to the test and talked with seven women (myself included, so really six other women) about their prom dresses. Not all of them were super nostalgic for their proms, or senior year of high school, for that matter, but all of them could tell me exactly what they wore to prom, how long it took for them to get ready, where they bought their dresses, and what their parents and friends thought about the look.
Say what you will about prom night, but you will always remember what you wore, even if you don't remember all of the details of the event itself. Here are seven women looking back on how special their prom dresses were to them, all these years later.
Sam and I have known each other since we took ballet together in elementary school, and went to the same senior prom. "I hate to admit where I got my prom dress from, because I got it at Sak's, so I did definitely go for a more expensive dress." Sam went with her mom, on a mission to find a dress with a halter top because she was a varsity swimmer with broader shoulders. "Nothing caught my eye until that one because I think at the time, I was going through a bit of a hippie phase, and I really liked all the different colors... It was unique. I knew no one was going to show up with that same dress."
Sam's advice would be to keep the event in perspective: "At the time, it seems like the biggest deal ever, and it's not. It's a night. It's a couple of hours... You will have many more parties in your life, so don't be that concerned about your dress." But she also reiterated the value of thinking ahead, viewing your prom dress as an investment piece, and getting something relatively classic. "I definitely was weirdly thinking that far in advance and thinking, 'I want to be able to wear my prom dress again.' So I would lean toward buying something you think you could actually wear again." She's actually worn the dress since prom, at her sorority's formal, where, "No one knew it was a prom dress."
When I asked Hannah, one of my coworkers, to describe the process of getting her dress, she admitted, "To be honest, I had a lot of other things going on, because I planned the prom." Her responsibilities as part of the prom committee were seemingly endless: "We had to send out the invitations. We picked the flowers. We made our own balloon arch because I know how to make a balloon arch," so she kept the whole dress picking process simple. "It was a long, navy blue dress that I bought from a bridal store. It was a bridesmaid's dress, but it didn't really look like one because it was so long... There weren't necessarily as many options as I thought there would be, and I wasn't going to have it ordered or anything," she explained. "I was like, 'This one works. This one's here. I'm not looking anywhere else.'" The day of prom, Hannah helped to set up the venue and then "ran to get my hair down and ran to put my dress on at a friend's house where we did pictures." And that was it. Her only advice was, "Chill out. There are so many other things in life."
Her senior year of high school, Erin went to three different proms: Her own high school's, her then-boyfriend's, and her platonic friend's. The first dress she bought was white and simple, from a store called Elephant's Trunk, which is where all of the other girls in her high school went to get their dresses. But it didn't feel totally right: "My mom felt like the dress didn't scream 'Erin.' It's not that special, once in a lifetime dress." So when her boyfriend invited her to his prom, Erin and her mom went to a vintage store and got a bright orange dress with open sides. "The saleswomen was just like, 'This is your dress. Your body looks incredible. This is it,'" Erin explained. But then, when Erin was invited to a third prom, she had to track down a final dress. When she was younger, she had fallen in love with her older brother's junior prom date's black dress, so Erin reached out and borrowed the old dress from her. Erin loved that black dress. "That was a blessing, I swear to you, being able to wear that dress was a miracle."
Her advice? "Don't go to Elephant's Trunk because that's where everyone else is going... Picture yourself. Be unique!" In retrospect, Erin wishes she has just gone vintage and secondhand with all of her dresses because it was truer to her. "Those two dresses are just so incredibly unique, and they're both so special to me. The black dress is a dress I actually could wear again. The orange dress would be harder to wear again unless it was a prom because it's so loud and because it's so young." But really, that's what makes prom fun. "If you want to dye your hair blue and wear a tutu and a light-up bra to your prom, do it. Because this is your time. You're leaving high school. Go out with a bang."
"As with most of my fashion-related decisions in high school, I wanted a prom dress that slimmed me down and hid my body as much as possible. I'd been taught — both in the home and out of it — that I always looked better (read: thinner) in dark hues, A-line silhouettes, and above all, in fits that didn't cling to my fat. In retrospect, I so wish I'd gone for the neon green dress of my dreams, but I chose the simplest baggy, black gown I could find in my size. The pro was that I matched my best friend (and date). But the con was, of course, that I was secretly body shaming myself the entire evening. If I could talk to my 18-year-old self, I'd just say, 'Buy the neon green one.'"
"I think I just wanted something a little strange," Kerry, my friend from college, said about her prom dress. "I always felt my high school was pretty monolithic in style. You know, the preppy look, and pretty much everyone shopped at the same stores and had the same look, so in high school, I was very much into being weird about what I wore." She went out looking for a dress that was "contemporary and futuristic looking," and ended up with an ankle-length metallic gold dress with tank top sleeves from a vintage store in Tampa, Florida, where she grew up. Even thought it wasn't anything like what her other peers were wearing, it was well-received by her friends. Plus, "My mom liked it a lot." Her main advice would be to find "something that's going to make you happy and feel good about what you're wearing. Don't think too much about what other people are dressing or looking like or looking for."
"Another piece of advice I'd give to myself is to plan ahead a little bit... I think my hair might have been damp when I left. I didn't put a lot of makeup on. I couldn't find one of my shoes in time, so I had to wear a different pair of shoes. I was really mad when I saw the missing shoe the next day in the laundry room." But not having the right pair of shoes wasn't going to ruin Kerry's night. "It was a cool time for us to be like, 'We had a great time, and tonight's another time we can have one of our most fun nights together as friends.'"
My cousin Megumi grew up in New Jersey but went to a private New York City high school, à la Gossip Girl, but really, her process for picking a dress was low-key (even though her prom was at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel). "I didn’t start actually looking or thinking about what I wanted until a month before," she admitted. "I just went to the mall one day and just looked around and found a dress and that was it. It was pretty quick." Her two main requirements were a dress "I could move in, and not super long." Within half an hour of shopping, she found the dress. "It definitely wasn’t a prom dress. It was more of a cocktail dress. It was electric blue, an asymmetrical neckline. It was about knee length."
The day of prom, she did her own hair and makeup, then went to pre-prom in a classmate's apartment.(Megumi also went to prom stag, because she didn't want to "make concessions on prom plans based on what my date wanted to do," which is the best attitude to go into prom.) Like Sam, Megumi liked her prom dress because, "I could have worn it to other things, but I actually haven’t worn it since." But really, it doesn't matter because she still liked it for what it was. "I would say it’s okay if you get a totally impractical dress that you’re not going to wear after prom."
I couldn't write this piece without sharing my own prom dress story, and it all starts with spring break! As a high school graduation gift, my parents took my little brother and me to London for spring break. (I think my dad also wanted to take a vacation to London, so it wasn't a totally selfless move on his part.) I had gotten it in my head that I would get my prom dress while in London, so I would know that no one else would have the same dress and because I figured, somehow, that London would be more chic than New York.
We actually found my dress at a small boutique in Bath, a city about 100 miles outside of London, where we had been walking down some side street to get to the Roman baths or something. I saw this dress in the window, and it was exactly how I pictured my dress to be. Something simple, almost Grecian, and long and bright. If I had to describe myself in a color, it absolutely would not be hot pink, but it was hard not to smile at something so bright and whimsical. I tried it on, and it fit perfectly, and my parents dug it, and we bought it, and I felt like the coolest girl ever to be able to tell people, "Yeah, I got my prom dress in England." The best part was making my date wear a bubble gum pink vest and bowtie; luckily, he was totally game. I, like Sam and Megumi, am sure I can find another time to wear this dress. I just need for someone to invite me to a black tie gala, but until then (and even if it never comes up), my prom dress will happily sit in my closet.
Images: Courtesy Interviewees; Author's Own