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Posted on Apr 28, 2017

This Is How Tough It Can Actually Be To Follow High School Prom Dress Codes

I really didn't know what I was getting into with this.

by ,
Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

Hi, I'm Kristin! Last year, I did a project where I tried to follow eight American high school dress codes with my adult wardrobe, and LOL it was so hard I couldn't even do one of them with the clothes I had.

But I've also noticed that every prom season, people's hackles seem to get raised when it comes to the issue of "appropriate" prom attire, and there are always stories of girls getting turned away from their prom for wearing a bunch of perfectly ordinary outfits.

New York Times/Allure/Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan

If high schools were so worried about women showing skin, wouldn't a pretty easy solution be to let women wear tuxes? I'm just saying.

As is the case whenever I hear about any adult nonsense, I was curious. How hard would it be for me to find myself some prom-ready evening wear while adhering to prom dress codes?

So, with the help of my stylist friend Lulu Bernard, we assembled 34 on-trend formal dresses in my size...

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

Then, for each prom dress code, I tried to figure out just how many of these faboo dresses I would ACTUALLY be allowed to wear — and from the dresses that were left, I selected my favorites for each school:

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For our purposes, we took all the rules as literally as possible. If the rule said we couldn't do a thing, we didn't do it — even if the literal interpretation seemed unreasonable and petty to us.

SO! I started with the easiest dress code, because I am a lazy procrastinator and the other ones looked hard:

Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

Literally all the rules for this dress code, for women:

— "Formal evening gown (finger tip length)"

— "Dressy cocktail dress (finger tip length)"

— "Dress shoes or sandals"

"Fingertip length," for those of us who have been out of school for a while, is the distance down your leg that your longest fingertip reaches when your arms are at your sides. It's basically the metric by which all high school girls' legs are ruled, and you'll see it a lot here.

Because I am 5'3'' and "fingertip length" rules are basically pointless nonsense on me because my arms are short (more on that in a moment), all the dresses were allowed:

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

But before you celebrate my bounty of dress options, it's important to mention the bad, unspoken part of this (and many other) school's dress code:

Women have to wear dresses and men have to wear tuxes, a rule that literally has no defensible position. Sorry. I tried. (I did not try.)

Here's the dress I chose to wear for my hypothetical trip to Ben Davis High School's prom, which is adorable, and so I assumed it wouldn't be allowed for most of the other high schools (spoiler: It is not):

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

(Dress: Unique Vintage)

Next, I tried another school that I had pegged during the planning of this project as a "relatively easy" dress code:

Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

The most frustrating parts of this prom dress code for me were this vague directive:

Strapless dresses are OK as long as they "fit appropriately" (Which: Anything can "fit appropriately." When assless chaps "fit appropriately" they are still assless, so this sounds more like a passive-aggressive way of saying "hope you have boobs that agree with clothes!")

And this redundant yet somehow contradictory trio of rules:

— All areas "normally covered by a one-piece bathing suit" must be covered.

— No see-through material from the knees to the upper chest. BUT ALSO:

— Dresses and slits must be 2 inches longer than the fingertips.

Which...wha? I can only show my lower thighs...if they are NOT covered in mesh? I'm not Indiana Jones, I don't have all day to solve riddles so that I can be allowed into places.

So while Broken Arrow High School has a relatively forgiving dress code, it's still presented in a way that might warrant hiring an SAT tutor to understand.

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

But the dress I was able to pick for Broken Arrow was BEAUTIFUL, and it felt prom-appropriate enough that the only thing I'm missing now is a hapless platonic male friend I'm forcing to be my date.

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

(Dress: Madison James)

So, quick aside! I originally picked this next school because I thought it'd be one of the hardest, if not THE hardest.

And I was a little thrown off when it ended up being the third easiest:

Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

The hardest part of this prom dress code was basically all of it, including:

— Necklines must not be lower than 5 inches from the base of the neck.

No sweetheart necklines, no strapless dresses.

But this duo of rules was particularly hilarious:

— "Dresses may not have a slit that exceeds mid-thigh. This is fingertip length."

— "Dress length must be no shorter than mid-thigh (approximately 4 inches above the middle of the knee both in the front and the back)."

To Illustrate why these length rules are so delightfully broken, let's look at a picture of me in a bathing suit, shall we?

Kristin Chirico/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

So, as you can see, a "fingertip length" dress slit would be MUCH SHORTER on me than mid-thigh. But a "4 inches above the middle of the knee" dress length would be much LONGER on me than "mid-thigh."

I am somehow both too short AND too tall for this dress code to make any sense on me. It appears to have been written by someone who learned what a leg was approximately five minutes ago, and still has many questions.

While I could technically pass this dress code by simply wrapping a hand towel around my waist, I don't think that would fly, so I deferred to the more conservative lengths:

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

This was also the first school where the dresses I had to choose from were mostly ones intended for adult women, not teenagers, and it only got rougher from here.

For my Crawford High School dress selection, this was actually the second one we proclaimed to be the winner, because we discovered at the last moment that the first one I picked was cut slightly too low in the chest. It's just much easier to get tripped up on these rules than you'd think.

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

(Dress: Adrianna Papell)

This school had the fourth most restrictive dress code. I have enjoyed fishing car keys out of the trash more than I enjoyed trying to figure out WTF I could wear for this school:

Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

Like Crawford, there were a couple of rules that seemed to belie a lack of understanding of how human limbs work:

— "Dresses may not have a slit that exceeds mid-thigh. This is fingertip length."

— "Hemlines or slits for dresses must be no shorter than 2 inches above the knee."

But hands down, the most annoying part of this dress code was this:

— "Dresses may not be cut below the bust line. With arms down at your side, if flesh touches flesh below the bust line, the dress is inappropriate."

(A brief aside: At this point, I was beginning to wonder where all the prom dress code rule makers were getting this idea that mid-thigh was the same as "fingertip length.")

And then I saw slide 10 of Central High School's helpful presentation on their prom dress code rules, and realized they might be basing their limb length assumptions off of pictures of dresses on the bodies of actual fashion models. You know: tall people. With a very specific and narrow set of physical proportions:


ANYWAY! Once I started trying on dresses, I discovered that the REAL frustrating issue with this dress code was the fact that I had at least a little bit of boob flesh touching arm flesh while wearing basically every dress:

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

Look, flesh-on-flesh action is just sort of what happens when you've got boobs above a certain size. There's just a lot of fat swimming around up there, and no lifeguards.

And again, we are following these dress codes literally. Is it possible that I might have been able to squeak by with one or two of these dresses? Maybe, but based on how many viral news stories there are about girls who weren't able to squeak by with their perfectly beautiful dresses, I doubt it.

So here's the dress I chose for Central High School, because we realized that basically the only way to truly keep my arms from touching my boob fat was just to shut the fat off from the world entirely like it's Fortunato lookin' for that cask of amontillado.

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

Also, let's be clear about two things: 1) This dress is banging and 2) it probably would have been on the "not allowed" list were I any taller.

We had to get out a tape measure to check, but the length of this dress JUST squeaked by, and I'm 5'3''. Which was sad; because of the armpit rule, the only thing left to show off were my legs.

(Dress: Adrianna Papell)

This next school's dress code contained my favorite rule of this entire project:

Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

The most unworkable rules in this prom dress code were probably these:

— "No part of the dress may have see-through material or be cut-out."

— "All dresses must be T-length (mid-calf) or longer" (I think they mean tea length here, but fine).

But the rule that is Best in Show winner for this entire project was this:

— "Front cannot be cut lower than the middle of the chest."

Yes, that is actually what it says, and I daresay it's a masterpiece of this genre. Isn't the middle of the chest, like...the nipples? Or the sternum, which has a vertical edge that is LOWER than the nipples? What the ever-living fuck does this even mean? Did they get the guy who comes up with the assembly instructions for kids' bicycles to write this?

Anyway, there is no way to follow this rule literally, so for this one I had to assume that the "middle of the chest" probably means "the armpit line" even though that is NOT the middle of the chest AT ALL.

So yeah. As you can guess, this one was pretty hard too:

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

I think what I didn't anticipate is that even though the codes for all these schools appear different, they all lead you to the same place of having not many options to choose from — and that's something I couldn't have known before I started actually trying on dresses, and understanding that each one has quirks that make them all fit differently.

Here's the dress I picked for Paraclete. I also realized — long after we finished shooting this project — that technically this dress also might not work because it has frigging shoulder cutouts, alasjrfiqjerfjw;f are you kidding me??

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

The rules pertaining to this issue were another total mindfuck: There was one that said "the back [of the dress] cannot be lower than the waist" — which leads me to believe that you CAN have your upper back (and therefore the curve of your shoulder) exposed. Plus, strapless dresses were allowed.

So then shouldn't SOME cutouts be allowed, according to these very rules? Normally this is the logic that you use when you're trying to short out a robot.

(Dress: Adrianna Papell)

Finally, here was the school with the hardest dress code, which was, at least, straightforward:

Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

All the rules in this prom dress code were rough, but these were the ones that were toughest for me:

— Formal long dresses

— No cleavage

— Nothing see-through

— Shawls/jackets must be worn with sleeveless dresses

I didn't have any opaque shawls available, so sleeveless was out. Also, I'd like to point out that "The A/C was cranked WAY too high" is a sentence that has literally never been uttered at a school dance ever, so not real sure how that rule is supposed to play out, smell-wise.

Of the 34 lovely dresses, this dress code left me with...two to choose from.

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

And here's my dress for St. Augustine High School. This is a really cute bridesmaid's dress for an adult woman. But I think that if I were 17 and — after trying on 34 prom dresses — I was only given two choices, I'd feel...pretty bummed.

Caitlin Cowie/Charlotte Gomez/BuzzFeed

And I'd probably also be furious: Why am I being punished just for having the bad luck of living in a school district that is more restrictive than other school districts? What does this show me other than the fact that the community in which I live doesn't align with what I might want for my life?

(Dress: Adrianna Papell)

So, here's what I learned: Not only are prom dress codes vastly different depending on where you live, but so many of them have rules that are like witch riddles to try and sort out.

Going into this, I was actually kind of worried that I picked too many schools that were too easy, because I erroneously thought that the hardest rule would be about the length of the skirt. I didn't even realize just how difficult each school would be until I started trying on the dresses and seeing how divorced the rules were from how eveningwear dresses actually fit. Were I a real student at some of these schools, finding a dress without the help of a stylist could have easily taken weeks.

Not that I'm completely anti-rule. I saw a lot of "no canes" rules for boys, which (except for people with disabilities) makes sense: High schoolers probably SHOULD be protected from their occasional propensity to whack each other for fun with novelty objects.

But we're not trying to whack you with our boobs. We're just trying to have them, OK?

Special thanks to Unique Vintage, Torrid, Adrianna Papell, and Madison James for providing the dresses for this shoot!

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