In 2005, prom dress designer Xcite held a runway show in Houston, Texas to show off its newest collection. One model walked the runway in a dress that seemed particularly risqué – her breasts were covered only by two very narrow straps of fabric forming an X across her chest. Is this really what was being marketed to teenage girls? Well, no, it turned out. Some said the model had worn the dress backwards, others said she didn't cross the straps behind her neck like she was supposed to. Either way, she made an already quite revealing dress even skimpier. But that didn't matter — the buyers loved it, and it became one of the most popular dresses of the season.
With puffy pink dresses having gone the way of the VHS, prom-goers have been eager — particularly in the last few years — to flaunt shoulder blades, midriffs, breasts, and thighs in all manner of backless, stomach-baring, skintight, embellished dresses. The Xcite incident only accelerated a prom dress trend of less fabric, more skin. Now, the ever-skimpier dresses have led to a nationally sensationalized slutty dress crackdown by vexed school administrators. Even Sarah Palin was asked to weigh in on it on the "Today" show this week.
Experts suspect high school girls are getting the message that this is what's hot (and acceptable) from reality television shows like "The Real Housewives" and "American Idol"; obsessive red-carpet coverage of award shows like the Oscars; and the Internet, where all these images are all-too-accessible. On all of the "Real Housewives" shows, formal dresses are part of everyday life. Every event — whether it's an actually fancy gathering or just dinner at a friend's house — necessitates a new gown, and highly revealing ones are indisputable favorites; on "Dancing With The Stars," dresses that bare a dancer's sides or stomach are particularly popular.
All of this media has contributed to a rising interest in and greater awareness of formal wear — and a prom dress industry that's ready to give these teens exactly what they want.
"This whole idea of the red-carpet obsession and getting dressed up is at the forefront of our culture," explains Catherine Moellering, the executive vice president of ToBe Report and an expert prom trend tracker. "The idea that [award show] coverage comes on TV three hours before the show even starts — that's something new."
Most fashion trends trickle down from designer runway shows, and astute fashion followers can usually trace a fad back to something that was previously paraded on the runway. But that's not the case with the skin-baring looks that now dominate promwear, says Moellering. In fact, she says runway evening wear has been more covered up in recent seasons. Rather, today's popular prom dress look, Moellering says, "comes from 'Dancing With The Stars' and 'Jersey Shore.'" She adds, "I think it's the Real Housewife-iciation of social occasion dressing."
Teenage girls are constantly negotiating the delicate balance between blending in and standing out. When it comes to prom, the way to stand out is by showing some leg – or back. But it's also the way to blend in.
Michael Kasher, the President of Los Angeles-based prom dress line La Femme, agrees with Moellering: "We believe that a lot of the changes are attributable to the social media influence and how accessible trends are to girls. Ten years ago it wasn't so easy for girls to be inundated with pictures of what every celebrities are wearing."
Prom dress designers, Moellering explains, are particularly beholden to what the consumer wants, especially in a down economy. These dressmakers are not tastemakers, on hand to tell girls what's cool. They're suppliers, ready to churn out designs that their clients demand. If they don't give them what they want (in this case, loud, skin-baring dresses), another label will.
Kim Collins, the Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of PromGirl.com, says her company now offers more than 6,000 prom dress designs, all of which come in multiple colors. Many of them are backless, sideless, and sometimes, almost bottomless.
The practically endless options to choose from on sites like PromGirl have also shaped the prom apparel industry, making it difficult for Mom-and-Pop businesses to survive in the prom space. Before online shopping, girls turned to local shops that stocked a few dresses. When Collins started at PromGirl 11 years ago, the dresses were "simple, in basic colors, with no prints." It was "all spaghetti straps" — and that was about as risqué as it got. With the jaw-dropping number of styles that have come out of so many online retailers fiercely competing against one another, a plain baby blue, spaghetti strap number simply can't live on – it's natural selection. The patterned backless things, in all their ubiquity, flourish.
So we've come a long way since 20 years ago, when the most dramatic sartorial occurrence at your average prom, as dramatized in a 1991 episode of "90210," was two girls showing up in the same dress. It's woefully hard to imagine even one person showing up looking anything like Brenda and Kelly did. But at least it's a reminder of how much trends change.