Trashy Prom Dresses Remain Flash Point In Ongoing Intergenerational War


The New York Post is out to spread a message to teen girls: risqué prom dresses are cool, and will piss off your parents.

Or at least that’s what I took away from this helpful article, which even lists stores that will sell such dresses, quotes a principal who disapproves of them for added inspiration, and provides several helpful illustrations. Of course, the idea of wearing as little as possible to prom is hardly an invention of today’s teens: when I was of an age to attend high school balls (as we called them in New Zealand), baring as much skin as possible without drawing the attention of the vice-headmistress was always the goal. We had the added impetus of living out our school days under the sartorial restrictions of a uniform policy that mandated blazers and kilts in winter, and drop-waisted plaid dresses with unflattering inverted box-pleats in summer. Formal dances were like a mufti day where the theme was Your Glittering, Grown-Up Future. Naturally, it was a future we imagined with lots of thigh-high slit skirts and backless frocks.

Getting an invite to a formal, that was the problem. My school, which was single-sex, had the distinction of being partnerless: our “brother” school had gone co-ed several years earlier, and no longer required our services to mount theatre productions or make up the numbers at balls. (Imagine the situation of single-sex, Columbia-adjacent Barnard, but with everyone in regulation shoes.) In addition, while most other high schools held graduation balls and a ball open to Year 12 and Year 13 students, my school only did a Leavers’ Ball for Year 13s; this restriction left us precious little leverage for bartering on the ball-ticket exchange.

So everything depended on meeting a boy through some extra-curricular activity that was not sex-segregated (writing group, I learned, was really not a good place to look), befriending him, and hoping he stayed single enough to invite you (and get his friends to invite your friends) to his school ball, even though you might not invite him back to yours when it finally rolled around. My peers and I would jockey multiple prospects at various boys’ schools, juggling favors and leveraging our persuasive skills to the best of our abilities, extracting promises and exploring contingencies, until the night rolled around and just how many classmates had managed the feat of finagling a date would be revealed. It was tough, tough work, and sometimes the results were not pretty. (Once, my best friend and I were set up with friends-of-friends-of-friends. I ended up with a Bangladeshi international student who told me, after our sole chemistry-free date, that I had made him see abstract painting in a totally new way; my friend got a rugby-playing scion of old Christchurch family who took all of her drink tickets for safe keeping and furtively downed the lot. Oh, yeah: we were permitted alcohol at our high school balls. That kind of ruled.)

But, oh my, the dresses. Knock-offs of those Tom Ford-era Gucci jersey gowns with the large cut-outs were popular. (In the words of the Post, “Perhaps the most shocking dress available this year is the Nadia, designed by Boutique. The stretch-satin dress — whose front dips to just above the pubic bone — retails online for $349.” The more things change.) Also hot were imitations of Kate Hudson’s ass-skimming yellow dress from How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. (Looks like they’re still re-creating that, actually.) One year, I dreamed of wearing a black wool suit with just a lace bandeau underneath the jacket; I got as far as making the suit (I had recently spent a rapt weekend deconstructing the jacket of one of my father’s old Johnny Carson suits piece by piece, and I’d taught myself pad-stitching from a book about couture) before I got too nervous about the idea of wearing trousers to a ball to go through with it. (Also, it turns out that learning pad-stitching from a book is maybe not ideal.)

I vividly remember one of the girls in the year ahead of me dancing at a ball in a black satin dress that was not only backless, but had a neckline that plunged past her sternum. The dress was a little like this, only without all the ugly beading; I thought she looked so elegant, and so grown up. Another year, I made a red charmeuse bias-cut dress with a handkerchief hem and extensive hand-knotted beaded silk tasseling that fell over the shoulders. It was pretty heavily based on John Galliano Dior couture offering from 1997, which is to say it was not slutty — slutty has never been in my repertoire — but was very, very sexy. I can’t say I did my design idol justice, but God I loved that dress.

For my last high school ball, my own leavers’ ball, I wore a poufy, asymmetrical skirt in crisp white, and a black chiffon strapless top with vertical lines of elasticized ruching and a ribbon-edged center ruffle in front. The top was essentially a very capacious and unformed tube, which I closed in back by stitching in a black zipper that drew the tube’s sides together. The fact that this chiffon bodice was unlined was my — daring, I thought — point. I could probably have used some boning, but what did I know? I didn’t want to mess up the lay of the ruching. About halfway through the night, one of my best friends (incidentally, the same one who’d contended with the drunk rugby player blind date the year before) leaned over to me and said, “Sauers, I’m really glad you wore that nude strapless bra.”

Considering we came of age during a time marked by many concurrent fads of questionable taste — electronic music, reflective-tape everything, reality TV, handkerchief tops, tattoo jewelry, Madonna’s Orientalist phase, the aforementioned Tom Ford — I think my and my friends’ dress choices have aged rather well.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted only one thing: to be older. Childhood, to me, was an extended exercise in disempowerment; turning into a teenager only added to that frustration the new frustrations of active adult mistrust and hostility. Everything about the world seemed designed to tell me that I had no rightful place in it until I would turn 18, and even then, my value was debatable. That was the message sent by watchful shopkeepers who would follow me through their stores, by endless negative news stories about teens and drugs and alcohol, by the fact that adults inevitably told me the way I talked about the world was “cute” and reminded me that I was just a girl, and had the whole rest of my life to deal with grown-up concerns! Everything about life was complicated by regulations and requirements handed down by adults who presumed to know my mind, and my interests, better than I did myself. I wanted to be older, and I doubt I was in any way unique in my desire. And we live in a culture that understands the adulthood of women in bodily terms — in some ways, you become a woman when you can decide for yourself what you wear and how you will present your own body. Teenage girls know this. That’s probably why they gravitate to leopard print and décolleté. You needn’t look any further than Michelle Obama’s gorgeous, kind of daring prom dress to know that teenagers have been fighting for control over the way they expose their own bodies — and aware of the implications of both that control and that exposure — for probably as long as there have been formal dances.

And it seems to me still that there is a distinct air of youth-hate in a lot of the coverage that this intergenerational struggle generates. The assumption that a teenage girl’s body is the concern and responsibility, if not the outright property, of her parents is itself a patriarchal idea. It’s also always girls’ prom clothing choices that are the subject of social concern and censure, not boys’. Our cultural ideas of “good taste” are informed by social class, and there is an undeniable element of unexamined racism in many of the sites that publish galleries of “trashy” prom photos so as to hold them up to ridicule. For a pretty ordinary and deeply understandable form of rebellion, “tacky” formal attire really does seem to rile up the olds.

Which is probably a good thing. One of the elements of my teenage life I most cherished was the knowledge that, no matter my choices, some adult somewhere (or, if possible, many adults near me) would be left sputtering with disapproval. Those were the same people who had set up a society and a power structure that purposefully excluded me, and I wore their disapproval with pride.

(In all seriousness, though: this spangled body-stocking might be pushing it.)

Prom Dresses Going Risqué This Year [NYPost]

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