My 18-year-old daughter has a strong sense of style, but passionately hates any kind of conventional, commercial, glitzy fashion, and needs a prom dress. She thinks it should be ankle-length and not too clingy. She usually buys her clothes in secondhand stores, or on the street. The hand-me-downs from my own closet, some of them going back to my own mom, have been rejected as not right. Where to start? — Susan, New York, N.Y.
Not with “Euphoria.” That much-buzzed-about award-winning teen streaming drama has given rise to an entire fashion subset on TikTok largely featuring what seems to be efforts to wear the tiniest, most body-conscious amount of clothing possible. And not with “The Breakfast Club,” the 1985 John Hughes film in which Molly Ringwald canonized the prom queen stereotype.
There’s a reason the prom scene in “Carrie,” with its image of the titular character in her party dress and crown drenched in blood, has entered the pop culture pantheon. Prom is one of those social events that somehow manages to be highly fraught no matter what the generation or context. The Met Gala, after all, is effectively the fashion/Hollywood/society prom, and think about all the effort and angst that goes into that! And those guests have stylists to help.
The question is how to remain true to yourself while also showing a different side. Dressing up is an opportunity to push the edge of identity, especially as high school ends, but also a risk in an arena where judgments and cliques abound — a weird bridge between past and future.
In this context, I can understand why your daughter prefers not to shop your closet: Prom is, after all, about her.
Plus, of course, she also needs to be comfortable enough to move around and dance without fear that some body part is going to be inadvertently revealed. Not to mention eat and drink without getting a stomachache due to corsetry or some other type of punitive dress construction.
It can seem impossible. Still, there are in fact lots of alternatives to the generic spaghetti-strap-deep-vee-neck-slinky-dress-with-slit-up-the-side that seems to be the current default prom cliché.
If your prom-goer is interested in the resale economy, she could scan Poshmark, which has a whole section devoted to prom dresses, and might offer more variety than brick-and-mortar vintage shops. But perhaps easier to think about is simply finding a great maxi dress, or even a jumpsuit.
(Note: Often there’s a bit of a price hike associated with “prom dress” or even “party dress,” as opposed to, say, “maxi dress,” just the way there is with “white wedding shoes,” so be careful with the search terms.)
This one-shouldered caftan dress from Anthropologie, for example, in bright blue is both airy and funky, thanks to the fact the strap is actually … a belt. Or check out this star-sign sequined look from Free People, and this draped silk, which channels 1930s starlet — also why I like this cowl-neck satin jumpsuit from Lulus.
And it is also possible that the easiest option, as my colleague Jess Testa suggested, is a very simple dress and some great accessories: high impact, low commitment, still very personal and as unconventional as could be desired.
Your Style Questions, Answered
Every week on Open Thread, Vanessa will answer a reader’s fashion-related question, which you can send to her anytime via email or Twitter. Questions are edited and condensed.