What happened to modest prom dresses?
May 9th, 2012
07:52 AM ET

What happened to modest prom dresses?

By Carl Azuz, CNN

(CNN) The sparkly, sequined prom gowns that many of us remember from the 90s – like the Glamour Shots that sometimes accompanied them – might not have been the prettiest.  But most were pretty modest compared to what some young promgoers have been squeezing themselves into this year.

At David’s Bridal, there’s a prom dress line categorized as “Sexy,” and it’s accounting for about 35 percent of the retail chain’s sales, according to the Wall Street Journal.  Low-cut backs, high-cut hemlines, and skin-showing cutouts define the style.

Clothing retailer AMIClubwear, self-described as “the positive place for girls,” has options that would positively trouble more conservative fathers.  The company throws revealing and tight styles into its mix of party dresses.  Factor in the racier options at other retailers like promgirl.com and Jovani, and you have a veritable runway of the risqué.

There’s no doubt that the dresses offered have broad appeal to some of today’s high school students; after all, demand drives the market.  But their schools are implementing dress codes to ensure certain garments aren’t worn.

For example, anything that shows off the midriff, is too low-cut (in either the front or the back), or is see-through will not been seen through the doors at Milford High School in Massachusetts.  The line is drawn at the bust line at Alabama’s Opelika High School:  “If flesh touches flesh” below that point, the prom dress code says, “the dress is inappropriate.”  It also forbids midriffs as well as slits that rise more than three inches above the knee.

Video: Teen suspended over prom dress

Women aren’t singled out in this, either.  Some dress codes mandate dress shoes on young men’s feet, so forget about funning up a tux with Chuck Taylors.  And dress shirts are also required to be worn at all times during some dances, which could seriously disappoint our male fans of Jersey Shore.

But the blame extends well beyond Pauly D and JWOWW.  Everything from The Real Housewives to Desperate Housewives – from Lindsay Lohan to Lady Gaga – is having an influence.

Video: No prom in this skimpy dress

“This whole idea of the red-carpet obsession and getting dressed up is at the forefront of our culture,” says Catherine Moellering, who tracks prom trends and is the executive vice president of ToBe Report.  And when Jennifer Lopez strides the red carpet with a neckline that reaches the top of her stomach, admiring viewers of all ages are going to notice, and some are going to try to copy the look.

There are alternatives for today’s students, of course.  Rather than looking to the present, there’s always the notion of nodding to the romantic past.  Practically every tuxedo set does this in some way.  And there are a number of retail locations that sell vintage or vintage-inspired dresses that can be every bit the show-stopper as something with less coverage.

While '90s fashions may best be left where they are, '50s glamour holds great allure for students like high school junior Erica Beebe, who praises the modest elegance of icons like Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn:  “Grace and Audrey always left something to the imagination,” Beebe writes at postbulletin.com.

“I believe it is that sense of modesty that my generation is often missing, and I know I am one of the offenders.  In an age where even the most intimate aspects of life are posted on social networking sites, privacy has no value.”  Beebe goes on to blame the absence of modesty and an unquenchable thirst for attention as the driving forces behind scandalous prom dresses.

Others blame a shift in parenting values – the notion that our parents wouldn’t have let us go out in certain outfits, but it’s all right if our kids do.  That’s part of the reason why Houston Chronicle blogger Mary Jo Rapini posted a list of tips to help parents guide their teenagers’ choices.  Her advice includes explaining why a dress may be inappropriate, encouraging teenagers to make different choices, allowing them time to mull it over and vent to friends…and possibly being prepared to put your foot down if all else fails.

It’s understandable why promgoers want to have the final say in what they wear, whether that’s altered by a parent, a friend, a rule or a tailor.  At the end of the complex debate, though, is actually a very simple choice.  It’s between the elegant and the suggestive, as the two don’t often coincide.

Gotta watch: Crazy prom antics

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Filed under: Extracurricular • High school
soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Michael

    Immodest clothing is rampant these days. It's such a sad thing to see women think that it's appropriate. This just in: It's like selling your body. It's those people who get abused by guys and then wonder why – hint – perhaps you're not wearing modest clothing and influenced his behavior. Guys need to stop gawking at every low cut thing and be honest. If you were married or have a girlfriend – do you want other people staring at your significant other? Put some clothes on.

    May 10, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • Miranda

      Justifying abuse by putting blame on what a woman is wearing is absolutely sick and disgusting. If a woman gets abused by a man, it's because he is an abuser, not because she did anything to invoke it.

      May 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
    • Erica

      real nice victim blaming there. a rapist is going to rape whether a person is wearing jeans and a tshirt or a mini skirt and a tube top. it has nothing to do with clothing. No one should have to cover up because some people don't have control over their own bodies.

      May 10, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  2. skip

    i really wonder how many "rules" and "laws" are on the books in this country. we are such a controlled society. if you think we are not, think again.

    May 10, 2012 at 9:02 am |
    • Guest

      Maybe if there werent so many damned idiots we wouldnt need so many 'rules' and 'laws'

      May 10, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  3. Julez

    I used to buy my formal dresses at vintage clothing stores, so this is no surprise to me. The dresses always looked classy and elegant, and, another plus – buying vintage means you'll be highly unlikely to see another girl wearing the same dress!

    May 10, 2012 at 7:58 am |
  4. TehKitteh

    What happened to the good old days when kids wore nice, tasteful, coordinating ensembles like these?


    I mean, seriously, who wouldn't want to give up a few measley years in state prison for a few hours of incredible memories with this little girl:


    May 10, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  5. Mikee

    I love AMIclubwear. Their dresses aren't too racy , I guess it is a matter of taste and how you wear it.

    May 10, 2012 at 1:49 am |
  6. letsgomets2012!

    BTW, dress shoes are to be worn with suits and after-5 formal wear.

    No sneakers, no Doc Martens, no pumped up kicks.

    And most certainly NO HATS with a tuxedo. The only exception is a top hat but that is retained for the uberist of formal events after 5 pm.

    And most certainly NO baseball caps!

    Etiquette dictates that men remove their headwear when they enter a building -

    May 9, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  7. letsgomets2012!

    Let the 3 Bs apply"

    No Boobs
    No Butt
    No Belly

    It's as simple as that.

    May 9, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
    • Nayum

      No crack in front or back!

      May 22, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
  8. Bridge

    The prom is not the place to show off. The appropriate age and place will come for the "Let it all hang out.Exclude the strapless, the see-through, the short tight, wrinkly, unsuitable styles. Dress like a princess, you may just feel like one for life.

    May 9, 2012 at 10:17 pm |
  9. Bob Brown

    I've gotta admit that I've said, "Not dressed like that you're not, young lady!"

    That said, why would *anyone* want a modest prom dress. the prom queens of the next two weekends are at their peak. It's not OK to let it all hang out, but it *is* OK to show off a bit.

    Signed: Old F@rt

    May 9, 2012 at 9:53 pm |
  10. Nwichi

    I ever thought that morality is -0% in the USA. Never knew that their are still right thinking fellows like @Swmum e.t.c. The Lord Jesus fashions and rules the world. Modesty and morality will soon become a school curriculum.

    May 9, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
  11. hamsta

    What else would you expect when nero teaches the kids to tickle their toes in marthas vineyard while the nation starves. i call it obamanomics- spend all the money you want on things you really dont need and make your grandkids pay for it while you take dinner from their plate and give it to some leach who refuse to get a job.

    May 9, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Bob Brown

      Your remark might be more persuasive if you wrote in English.

      May 9, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
  12. Carolyn Griffin

    I think it is outrageous how they let kids dress these days. However, I did wear, in 1963 a strapless, floor length gown. It certainly was not low cut though. I still have it!

    May 9, 2012 at 7:45 pm |
  13. Miya

    I totally agree with Josh. Before or After. People also think it is appropriate to wear jeans EVERYWHERE –
    But that's another topic.

    May 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  14. Gail


    Enjoy. From 2003 and there abouts.

    May 9, 2012 at 7:26 pm |
  15. Cindy

    Having seen many pictures on Facebook from the recent prom at my son's high school here in suburban Philadelphia...it occurred to me at that time that some of the girls looked more like they were heading out to sell themselves on street corners than attend a prom. I don't have a daughter, but I have been consistently dismayed for the past few years at the immodest clothing that parents allow their teenage daughters out of the house in.

    May 9, 2012 at 7:17 pm |

    Good taste never goes out of style.

    May 9, 2012 at 6:37 pm |
  17. Anna

    Girls self-esteem is low. If wearing a low-cut or short dress helps boost it, then they should be able to wear something they want. Although there should be SOME limitations on what they can wear. And plus, so many celebrities wear stuff like that..... and so girls think that they should too.

    May 9, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  18. Solo

    What happened to modest anything for that matter?

    May 9, 2012 at 6:29 pm |
  19. Stormy

    My daughter just attended Prom both at her school and at her boyfriend's school. She looked for weeks, at dozens of stores, to find a dress that was both appropriate and lovely. She found it. Rather modest sweetheart-type neckline, bare shoulders (spaghetti strap), low-but-not-too-low back, fit nicely, not at all tight, slightly flowy skirt... basically showed off her shoulders and a bit of upper back, flattering and comfortable and feminine in every way... just breathtakingly beautiful... looked amazing next to her handsome tux/vest/bowtie wearing boyfriend. What I liked best was that he appreciated SO much how lovely she looked and commented to her confidentially on how much class she had and how proud he was to be her date. 😉

    May 9, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  20. Fed Up

    Young girls get the message that putting it all out there is alright – take a look at what mommy is dressing her middle-aged behind in.

    May 9, 2012 at 4:58 pm |
  21. KC

    Modest prom dresses can be found, but you have to look for them. Or make them yourself. One of the loveliest dresses I've seen lately, the girl and her mother had sewn at home because they couldn't afford ready-made.

    May 9, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  22. Nunya

    Ahh...what happened to the good ole' days when everyone wore burlap sacks with holes cut out for your arms and legs and if you wanted to be a little "racy" some holes for your eyes.

    May 9, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
  23. J

    Where are her parents? Do they think that dress is appropriate for any occasion for a 17/18 year old???

    May 9, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  24. Mike

    We need some pictures of those in question to fully understand what we are talking about here.

    May 9, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  25. Sara

    Well, Brittany looked modest and adorable last night on Glee. You can also look at most things that Hailee Steinfeld has worn to awards shows for alteration inspiration.

    You can find modest dresses in the children's section of stores (Macy's has nice fancy ones), and alter them to your desires (like cutting some of the netting underneath that gives the skirt some body). Good luck getting your average teenager to shop for her prom dress in the children's section, though.

    Banana Republic has nice bridesmaid-type dresses that are usually pretty modest, as does J. Crew (though I'd personally look at the wedding dresses and have one dyed, as I prefer that style – but you have to look to find one that's not outrageously expensive by prom standards).

    Finally, thrift stores. I got a prom dress and a pageant dress at a thrift store and altered them myself, both were reasonably modest styles.

    May 9, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  26. bigdumbdinosaur

    Proms are just a bunch of foolishness. Instead of high school girls concentrating on trying to out-do each other with ridiculous fashion statements, how about if they put that energy into actually getting an education?

    May 9, 2012 at 2:11 pm |
    • LolaBelle

      You sound OLD!!!

      May 9, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  27. Andrew

    We live in a "no-class" society where parents don't raise their kids with a sense of taste and class. What do you expect? Some just don't know. Like my philosophy teacher always said, "The village idiot wouldn't be the village idiot if they knew they were the village idiot." Notice I used the gender neutral "they" to include the idiocy of both genders. How is that for PC?

    May 9, 2012 at 2:10 pm |
  28. hamsta

    its called obamanomics- spend all the money you want on stuff you really dont need and make your grandkids pay for it while they starve.

    May 9, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • jean

      Go back to your cave.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Mike

      Obama isn't doing much more than Dubya did, turning a surplus into a deficit.

      May 9, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
    • Beth

      Yeah! Girls buying skimpy dresses for prom is Obama's fault!

      May 9, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  29. Michelle

    Instead of a race to see who can imitate a red-carpet star best, why not focus on a "race" to discover and present the wonderful unique person each girl is? It is so sad that girls are so driven to imitate, when really, there is a unique and beautiful self just waiting to be developed and encouraged. And the best way to show that beautiful self is not through showing skin – indeed, it shows much better through modest dress and actions.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
  30. SWMom

    Modesty has gone the way of the 8-track tape in this country. It is pretty disheartening to see the way many people - young and old - conduct themselves in public, both in dress and demeanor. Being modern is one thing, being immodest is another.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:36 pm |
  31. vel

    Not sure how things are at the high schools anywhere else, but where my son goes the prom isn't even held in our town, it's nearly 30 miles away at a hotel in Orlando. As we explained to him, that's an "accident looking for a place to go to far," then when we saw how some of the girls were dressed we wondered which ones were his classmates and which ones were paid to be there. Really, we wonder why there is such a high rate of teenage pregnancy in this country.

    May 9, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  32. ElleryQuinn

    @palintwit - because it's top of all 16-17 yr old girl's list to go home with a socially retarded chap like yourself?

    May 9, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
  33. Sydneys Vintage Clothing

    Not only does wearing vintage clothing in the Grace and Audrey styles leave something to the imagination, but it also is fashion insurance. Insurance that when arrive at your prom wearing a vintage 50's ballroom gown, not only does it make a fashion statement but it is guaranteed that no one else there will have on the same dress!

    May 9, 2012 at 11:57 am |
    • palintwit

      It also guarantees that she'll be going home with just the morning paper.

      May 9, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
      • Nayum

        yes! very funny and so true!

        May 22, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  34. morris2196

    If it’s not for sale or rent, don’t advertise it.

    May 9, 2012 at 11:30 am |
    • Nayum

      yes! please! can you tell every girl that? tell them they might as well wear a "for sale" sign on their backs! (it might even cover them up a little bit LOL)

      May 22, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  35. Josh

    I guess it all depends if the girl wants to look like the before, or like the after, of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.

    May 9, 2012 at 11:12 am |