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Prom Dresses Are Just Dresses Now

Prom Dresses Are Just Dresses Now
Prom Dresses Are Just Dresses Now

For high schoolers across America, prom season means heady nights of corsages, limousines, broken curfews, and gaudy, bedazzled gowns—except, maybe not that last part anymore. The words prom dress once conjured images of shimmering taffeta and poofy princess skirts and other cringeworthy fashion choices only teens would make. You can still buy those types of dresses, but these days, high-school dance floors are more refined, filled with slinky satin, garden-party florals, and corseted bodices—designs that women in their 20s, 30s, and beyond might wear.

Over the past decade or so, the style divisions among age groups have become far more fluid. Social media has flattened the landscape of influence, so people of all ages are being fed similar content. Retail, meanwhile, has moved away from age-specific brands toward fast-fashion sites and online stores with wide appeal. The assimilation is especially clear in prom style. Teens will wear just about any fancy adult look to the dance, whether it be a relatively casual dress you might see at an Easter brunch, or a jumpsuit fit for the red carpet. This has spurred an existential crisis in teen fashion: What even is a prom dress anymore?

That question once had a distinct answer. High schoolers in earlier decades had specialized magazine editions such as Teen Prom and Seventeen Prom, which promised hundreds of pages of “pretty dresses” designed just for that night. Chain stores made for young people, such as Rue21, and separate junior sections at department stores made these styles easy to shop for. Now most of those teen magazines are defunct, many of the chains have declared bankruptcy, and many department stores have closed. Teens have been left to their own devices.

Grace Karle, an 18-year-old senior from Illinois, has tried a few different sartorial approaches. At her first prom, last year, she wore a “classic, Cinderella-looking blue dress”—an archetypal “for teens” look. But in retrospect, she realized it wasn’t her style. So this year, she scoured Pinterest for inspiration and ultimately chose a floral, full-length, ruffled gown with a matching belt and ribbon-tie sleeves. It’s a sophisticated look, made by a brand, V. Chapman, that is a favorite of bridal parties. I have friends in their 30s who have worn similar styles to summer weddings. For Karle, this was part of the appeal. She wanted something that didn’t scream “prom” so that when she was older, she could look at photos and think, “Oh, that dress is so pretty,” she told me.

A lot of young people shopping for prom are, like Karle, drawing from a world of influences unbounded by age. On social media, “someone who’s 17 may follow someone who’s 35, or someone who’s 35 may follow a 16-year-old,” Felicia Garay-Stanton, the PR director for Jovani, one of the best-known prom brands, told me. The few remaining teen chains, such as Abercrombie, have adjusted their offerings to draw in more 20- and 30-somethings, attempting to compete with online stores that have more expansive selections. Jovani’s options have blurred the line too, Garay-Stanton told me. She recently spoke with a woman in her late 30s who was trying on one of the brand’s “iconic prom styles” for a black-tie wedding; it fit the event’s dress code flawlessly. When you can wear anything to prom, you can wear a prom dress to anything.

This trend aligns with the dissolving of generational boundaries more broadly. Some members of Gen Alpha (infamously dubbed the “Sephora tweens”) have been emulating the multistep skin-care routines of influencers double their age. Adults are buying stuffed animals, a phenomenon some have labeled “kidulthood.” Strict age-based taste distinctions aren’t necessarily innate, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that the categories we’ve constructed are converging.

When it comes to prom, teen and adult styles have aligned before. In the modern imagination, prom is defined by movies and memories of the ’80s, ’90s, and early aughts: Pretty in Pink’s DIY polka dots, Mean Girls’ strapless minidresses, 10 Things I Hate About You’s understated blue slip. But the dance has evolved significantly throughout its history, as teens have changed their minds about whether they agree with adult tastes. Sometimes prom is “completely in sync with fashion, and then sometimes it’s doing its own thing,” Pamela Roskin, an assistant professor at Parsons School of Design who has studied the prom dress’s evolution, told me.

Today, no single look defines the dance. The popularity of sheer-paneled bustiers and figure-hugging gowns may be explained by the age-old teenage desire to look glamorous and mature. Frilly florals and bows, which are also common, may show a desire to return to innocence and an old-fashioned kind of femininity. The looks vary from region to region, too. According to Garay-Stanton, shoppers in the Northeast tend toward simple looks in black or red, Texans opt for wilder colors and sequins, and southerners like girlish ruffles. In many Black communities, elaborate custom evening gowns are the norm; one Mississippi TikToker joked that high schoolers in that state were dressing for the “Facebook Met Gala.” Many girls are opting for something more gender-neutral, such as a jumpsuit or a suit—and, of course, dresses aren’t only for girls.

Some people miss prom fashion’s former distinctiveness and are resisting recent signs of change. Schools and parents have long pushed back on dresses they deem too revealing. And in recent years, several have made headlines for barring girls and nonbinary students from prom for wearing suits. But there’s also a debate playing out across social media about whether some of the new styles are “appropriate” for prom. Karle saw the force of these opinions when she posted a video of her second, less-teenage-looking dress on TikTok. A deluge of commenters told her the look was too casual for the big night. The comments were surprising and disappointing to Karle, who adores her dress and said she thinks people should loosen their expectations.

Many adults feel wistful when they see a prom dress that instantly takes them back to their own special evening—however awkward and imperfect it may have been. But teens don’t exist to fuel adult nostalgia. What should a prom dress be? is “the ultimate question,” Roskin said. “And every generation gets to ask it.” Prom-dress style is so special precisely because young people have the power to determine it for themselves.


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