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The DRESS DIVA's Guide to Prom & Grad Dress Shopping



After many years of helping young ladies find their perfect dress for prom and grad, I have found that parents and their daughters are not always ready for the experience of trying on and purchasing a dress for their special event. For many young ladies, this is their first experience in a fancy dress, and it can be both an exciting and overwhelming, pressure-filled time. I’m hoping this little guide will give you a heads-up to what to expect when you go out for the first time.

Store Etiquette:

a) As most formal wear stores pay large sums for their samples, it is generally requested to avoid wearing makeup -foundation and lipsticks are big culprits in dress marks and stains. As well, remove any jewelry/watches that could catch on the dresses.

b) Many stores will also ask to remove your shoes, so be prepared to get some cozy slippers on; this helps to preserve the dresses as you won’t be tracking in dirt, water, mud, snow, salt…you get the idea. There is nothing worse than trying on a dirty dress in a dirty change room!

c) Store consultants realize you may not be accustomed to hanging up dresses, but please don’t leave them on the floor- even getting them on the hanger without zipping them up will preserve the dresses.

d)Tired and need your caffeine fix? Drink it ahead and leave the rest of your Starbucks in the car – you’d be surprised at the amount of stains that are caused by coffee, wet hands, people that have just eaten, or even applied hand cream.

e)Ask before you take a picture. Not all boutiques and bridal salons allow you to take pictures of dresses on the hanger or on your body.

Do some research: doing a little searching on the internet, finding styles you like is helpful. Keep in mind though that not all stores will have what is shown on the internet and you may not find the exact dress. If you see something you like, be open to similar styles, shapes and colours. Often times young ladies will try something that they never thought they would like and they end up falling madly in love with the dress. Best advice: stay open to possibilities. Sometimes the dress will pick you and not the other way around.

Eat before you head out: this has a dual purpose- you will need energy for this experience (emotional, physical and mental), but you also will not be allowed to bring food into these boutiques. Snacking throughout the day on healthy options helps to keep your energy up – avoid lots of sugar to avoid those mood swings and energy crashes.

Don’t freak out if it isn’t in your size: be prepared that the samples will be in different sizes, but the size may not be exactly right – it may be too big or too small, so just be prepared to use your visual skills to imagine what it will look like. The sales consultants will be able to guide you in this process, by cinching the dress (either with their hands or dress clamps).

“It’s too long!”: yes, most long dresses will be long for the average shopper, unless you are 6 feet tall (lucky you, if you are as you won’t need to alter the length)- dress companies do this on purpose as it's easier to subtract length than adding it. However, for most ladies, the dress will be long and will need to be hemmed. Also be prepared for some nipping and tucking – most dresses don’t fit perfect right off the rack. Many girls/ladies may need straps taken up, the waist cinched, that sort of thing. Again, prepare for some extra money for this, as it’s never included in the price of the dress. Also alteration costs vary depending on where the seamstress is located (mall vs an alternate location like a boutique).

The Entourage: careful how many and who you bring with you to your fitting. Sometimes having the right people make all the difference. Generally, parents want you to feel beautiful and happy, so they are a good person to have with you – even if you are just “looking”. Too many friends with too many opinions can be confusing.

If you are finding it hard to make a decision: well, you know, it may not be the first dress you try on that you fall in love with, but it might also be that first one. I will warn you, that when trying on a lot of dresses, things can get VERY confusing, especially if this is your daughter’s first experience wearing a gorgeous dress/gown. Choosing the perfect dress can be a difficult decision, and there are times when it is best to take a step back and return to the store at another date with a fresh state of mind. If you think you are ready to make a decision but you want a second opinion, store consultants are usually objective. Calling a friend can be a good option, but surprisingly, not always. There are times when a friend doesn’t like the dress because it's not their style, and not necessarily because it doesn’t look good on you. BEST ADVICE - judge the dress on how it makes you feel (beautiful, pretty, feminine, happy, etc.), how you want to feel on the day of your event, how it looks on your body, etc. Lots of opinions can muddy up the decision making process – parents, this can be a good time for some guidance also on your part.

You get what you pay for: you will pay more money for a better/higher quality dress. Quality shows itself in a myriad of ways: a designer who has a longstanding reputation in the fashion world is held to high standards and so you can expect the best from them. Parents, be prepared to spend some money if your daughter has fallen in love with the well-known prom/grad designers. The pricing will generally be above “mall” pricing for dresses of this caliber. Grad dresses can cost anywhere from $250+ and prom dresses $350+ in boutiques. Again, the cost will vary depending on the designer.

Beware of purchasing online – some websites can look legit, but many are knock-offs. It’s always risky business ordering online, unless it’s a reputable company. If you decide to go this route, check their return policy ahead and make sure you get your measurements right. Going to your local seamstress will alleviate any problems if you are unsure how to measure. Generally, you will need your Bust, Waist, and Hip measurement, in INCHES.

Ordering your special dress: what you may not know is that at boutiques and formal wear stores, you may have to order “the” dress. Ordering a dress can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months, depending on the dress company. Not all stores have dresses that they sell “off the rack” and often sell by ordering off of “samples”. These samples may sometimes be sold by the owner, but don’t expect it, and it would likely be closer to the end of the season. If you do end up ordering a dress, you will likely be required to place a 50% deposit on the dress.

Ask the store if they have a dress registry. Most stores are doing this now, to help the grad/prom girls not duplicate dresses within the same class/grade. If the store offers this, they will write down your dress style number/colour, etc., and when someone comes in from the same school, they will steer that person away from the one you have purchased. Catastrophe avoided. Also, Facebook pages for this purpose (to avoid someone showing up in the same dress) are often made by the girls/ladies in the class, where they share pictures with their classmates.

Take the proper attire with you for your alterations appointment: the seamstress measures to size, so make sure you have purchased (and bring with you) the shoes you plan to wear with the dress. Also, don’t forget undergarments if you plan to wear them – even a padded bra can affect how a dress fits.

Last piece of advice: HAVE FUN ON YOUR SPECIAL DAY!

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