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In Search of the Perfect Prom Dress

Finding the Right Attire Can Be Elusive

The adventure could have been called “Gidget Gets a Prom Dress” and subtitled “Nightmare at the Mall." Moms and daughters are divided as to which is more accurate.

As Baby Boomers come of age and have teen-agers of their own, they begin to behave more like their own parents than they would have believed possible in the growing-more-distant, rebellious past.

“I always thought that shopping for a prom dress with her was going to be one of those idyllic, mother/daughter bonding experiences,” said Angel, 17-year-old Jackie’s mom. “What was I smoking?”

Like hundreds of moms and daughters, Angel and Jackie went to Tyson’s Corner looking for that illusive, perfect prom dress on a rainy Saturday in May.

Jackie goes to school at Yorktown. “I always think I’m pretty cool until I shop for clothes with her,” said Angel. “I mean, she wears bell bottom jeans and tie-dyed shirts. This dress thing, though … wow!”

Most proms today are for seniors and their dates only, not, as in the past, for juniors and seniors. Other things about proms have changed over the years as well.

Take, for example, 1972, a year that was representative of the last prom for most of the moms who were interviewed. While some said that their prom was held in a hotel, more than half of the moms remembered a prom that was held in the gymnasium of their high school. The prom theme was a not-so-well-kept secret and was usually based on a popular song or movie of the day. “Stairway to Heaven," “Color My World," “Pieces of April,” “A Time for Us" were some of the more popular themes. Members of the junior class chose the theme and decorated the facility accordingly. Color schemes were often representative of senior class colors.

IN 1972, PROM dresses came in a variety of styles. They were chiffon and flowing, lace covered and full of crinolines, slinky and tight-fitting. There were long sleeves and high necks, straps and low-cut backs and bodices and strapless — much like today.

There are some differences, however, at least according to some of the moms who were shopping for this year’s offerings. “Who ever heard of shopping at Frederick’s of Hollywood for a prom dress?” asked Susan, the mother of 16-year-old Kate, who attends Langley High School. “I mean, I was thinking of Laura Ashley or something like that. I think this is going to be depressing. Not that I don’t appreciate Frederick’s of Hollywood, of course. I just had something a little subtler in mind.”

Subtle wasn’t exactly what most of the girls were looking for. “Who would wear something like that,” asked Dawn, holding up a lavender number with tulle and lace, crinolines included. Dawn is a student at West Springfield.

At least three mothers in the store hid their faces in their hands. “Thank God I destroyed all of those pictures of my prom,” said Rene. “I think my prom dress, my senior year, looked almost exactly like that except in pink.”

This year’s styles range from frills and lace to beads and sequins to backless, slitted, and, one, seemingly frontless. There were simple sheath-like black dresses, printed dresses, dresses with flowers and everything else that any designer could imagine. Buyers from several major department stores confirmed what was obvious in the stores. “The only thing that the dresses have as a common theme this year is that they tend to show a lot of skin,” said Kashana Moublique, a buyer for Lord and Taylor. “Moms who are looking for that dress with long flowing sleeves and high necklines aren’t going to find it easily,” she said.

There is a lot of pink and lavender and a lot of black backgrounds with color designs. Moms will find a lot of familiar chiffon and silk, but there is also a lot of Spandex.

SOME GIRLS FOUND the perfect dress on their first try. Kae, who goes to T. C. Williams, had a general idea of what she was looking for and it took just three hours and 15 stores to find it. Her dress has one shoulder strap, a halter back and is black with pink flowers and sequins. “We did very well,” said her adult friend, Sally, who accompanied her on the adventure.

Others were not so fortunate. Barbara and her daughter, Kate, spent three weeks looking for that perfect dress. “She had this idea in her head when we started,” Barbara said. “Unfortunately, nothing we saw was exactly right. At one point, we had eight dresses at our house for her to try.” Kate is a student at West Potomac.

This included one that was ordered from New York and shipped to the home and another that was shipped from White Flint Mall in Maryland. “When the one from New York arrived, I thought that we had solved the problem,” Barbara said. “It didn’t fit right. I thought the same when the one from White Flint arrived. No such luck.”

Finally, Barbara saw a dress in turquoise or aqua that she thought would look good on Kate. “She didn’t even want to try it on because she said she was too tired,” Barbara said. “She finally tried it on and that was the dress she wore to the prom.”

ACCORDING TO A SURVEY conducted by Seventeen magazine, the average prom dress this year will cost between $200 and $300. “As we were going through this odyssey, I just kept wondering whether it was worth all of this for one night,” Barbara said.

And after the dress, there are the prom tickets, which, in the local area are ranging from $20 to $50 each. Then there is dinner before the prom at some expensive restaurant – average cost, $30 per person. Most couples share the cost of a limousine at between $50 and $100 per hour, and then there are corsages, boutonnières, hair, nails, tuxedos, shoes and jewelry. The cost could easily be in excess of $500 per person.

And who knows whether the evening itself will live up to the dress? “I seem to remember having a huge fight with my best friend the night of my senior prom,” said Joann, whose daughter Stephanie, a student at Mount Vernon, purchased a black gown with beadwork. “It ruined the entire evening.”

Some moms just wanted to buy the dress and go home. Susan’s daughter, Kate, found “the perfect dress” after days of searching. It was black, with red flowers and sequins. “It’s perfect,” Kate said. “It’s only a little more than we said.”

Gratefully, Susan paid the extra $50. “I’m sure that I will enjoy watching her get ready, taking pictures of her with her date on the night of the prom,” Susan said. “Right now, though, I just don’t want to be in a clothing store ever again in my life. That extra $50 seems a small price to pay.”