Prom is fast approaching and I thought it might be helpful to offer some tips for moms and prom-girls before they head out to buy a gown for this momentous event.
Over the years I have altered a lot of prom dresses. Before you go and buy a dress, I encourage you to consider the following tips.
- Shop early. Shoot for early January. If you find a dress you love, there will be time for the shop to order it in your size.
- Aim to find a dress that fits you just right. Never buy a dress that’s too small. You can make a large dress smaller. It isn’t necessarily easy but it can be done. You would be amazed what we can squeeze into before we can’t do up the zipper. I have seen dresses that almost zipped all the way up, but once we opened the seams they were actually 10cm too small around the ribcage. That’s a LOT. The seam allowance does not allow for that much expansion. So don’t let a sales person talk you into a dress that’s too tight. I don’t care if you think it’s only a wee little bit tight. Walk away. Trust me, walk away.
- Don’t trust the boutique to give you a realistic opinion regarding the necessary alterations. The sales staff want to sell their dresses before prom season ends. They will tell you whatever they think will make you want to buy a dress from them. Most sales staff do not sew. They have no idea what can and can’t be done. And just because something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.
- Caveat emptor: If you find a dress on a discount rack and it’s marked down to 10% of its original retail price, there is something wrong with the dress. You’re getting a deal for a reason. The dress is probably defective. If it is, the sales staff may not tell you unless you specifically ask them whether it’s defective and what’s wrong with it. So if it’s marked way down, find out why before you buy.
- Too long? A dress that’s too long can be shortened… mostly. Look for a few things to minimize a big shock when you pay to have it hemmed. First, how many layers of skirt are there? I have seen prom dresses with eight, yes eight layers. Each layer has to be carefully measured and trimmed and then finished. It takes time. How voluminous are the layers? Look at the perimeter of the skirt(s). I have hemmed dresses with chiffon skirts that had a perimeter of 85 feet. I swear to God that I am not exaggerating. It takes time to carefully measure around 85 feet of chiffon. The more layers, the more expensive it is to hem; the more diaphanous the fabric the more expensive it is to hem.
- Speaking of chiffon… aka “the Devil’s fabric”; it’s horrible to work with. It has a mind of its own and takes a very skilled hand to tame it. If the skirt is made of chiffon, be aware that hemming it will be a lot of work. Chiffon has a gorgeous drape; it’s so pretty and feminine. Just be prepared that alterations will be challenging and could add up in a hurry.
- Beading and appliques can get in the way of taking a dress in. If you choose a dress with these embellishments and it is too big, look at the side seams and the centre back of the dress. Notice whether the beads or applique work span across those seams. If the appliques go inside of the side seams it shouldn’t be too bad to take it in at the sides. If it actually spans over top of the side seams it could make the alterations considerably more expensive to complete. Beading is tricky. If there is a lot of beading and the dress is too big, have the person you are shopping with (not the sales person) pull the dress together at the back to see whether the fit looks nice once it’s tightened up just at the centre back. (I’m assuming there’s a zipper at the back here.) Look at how it fits in the bust. Does the shape of the bust lay nicely? If it does that’s good. The dress should be relatively easy to alter. If the bust seems distorted or looks unflattering when you pull it together at the back, don’t buy the dress. The alterations will likely end up adding up to huge dollars.
- Strapless always seems like such a great idea when you are trying dresses on. Just be aware that the reality of a strapless dress is that you will be wrestling with keeping it where it’s supposed to be all night. If you don’t mind that, then all the power to you.
- Choose a style that flatters your body type. Try on different styles. Don’t let yourself get locked into the idea of a particular style without first being sure that it will flatter your body.
- One of the downsides of buying dresses online is that you don’t get a chance to try them on first. It can take a long time for them to arrive and when they do, often they don’t fit well. Many of these stores don’t allow you to return or exchange dresses. Be sure you know what you are getting into.
- Try on different colours. Your favourite colour may not actually look good with your skin tone or your hair colour. Try on styles and colours that you wouldn’t necessarily normally choose just to see how they look. If you don’t like them, no harm done. However, you may stumble on something amazing.
- Buying the dress is only step one. It’s pretty rare to find a dress that you love that won’t need some alteration. Be prepared to pay for a skilled seamstress. The more elaborate the dress, the more expensive the alterations will be. It’s not uncommon to pay up to $500 or more in alterations.
- Allow plenty of time for the alterations. Expect to wait a month or more for your dress to be worked on after you drop it off. Good seamstresses are busy. Altering gowns is challenging work and requires a clear mind and steady hand.
- Above all, remember that this is prom; keep it in perspective. Yes, it is a big deal. But it’s only one day of your life. Don’t expect your parents to mortgage their house over a dress that you will only wear for a total of maybe 3 hours.