By  on June 12, 2008

There are few events in life that provoke such polarizing reactions as the memory of prom — from a nostalgic sigh to eye-widening horror. The recollections are often a window into the adolescent soul: Were you a rah-rah girly girl, besotted with the quarterback and posing for snapshots on the lawn in a pastel gown? Or were you the kohl-eyed loner, donning Doc Martens with your slipdress? For some designers, of course, prom is big business, and those lingering memories of boutonnieres and crinoline can be ample inspiration for a designer's next line.

"It was absolutely about the petticoat for me," says Betsey Johnson, a perennial go-to designer at prom time (her spring show was themed "Prom Queen"). "I wore a pale blue organza silver embroidered tutu dress. I think I stuck out almost horizontally," says Johnson. "That dress has been a total inspiration for my prom dresses, which are always our bestsellers. So many people in the business tell me they wore my dress to the prom. But I'm careful to do a range of looks, from sophisticated sheaths to that classic half-puffy dress."

For many designers, that seminal high school gala was a chance to showcase a nascent (and, perhaps, not entirely typical) sense of style. "I wore a tuxedo," says Cynthia Rowley, who was already used to raising eyebrows in small-town Illinois (she rented the tux her senior year, but sewed her own dresses for every other school dance). "Girls now are so sophisticated, but I only make short dresses, so I'm flattered [when] they wear them to prom," Rowley says. Tory Burch went straight for the big time and wore an Yves Saint Laurent gown her mom picked out for her prom at her all-girls Pennsylvania high school. "It was black tulle on the bottom and pink sequins on top, sort of blush-colored," she says. "People liked it, although it was sort of crazy for the prom." According to Burch, her georgette sequined Karl dress and Hamilton tank dress made it to many a parquet dance floor this season.

"My mom made my dress," admits Dallas-bred Lela Rose, noting that the strapless petal-pink gown was based on a Vogue pattern. "It was very Eighties, and I ruined it. I spilled all kinds of stuff on it, and it just got trashed." The same goes for Vena Cava's Lisa Mayock, who wore a Thirties-style peach silk georgette slipdress to her Los Angeles prom in the late Nineties, only to have it fall apart on her — literally — halfway through the night. "There was definitely some skin showing where it shouldn't have been," she says. "Come to think of it, it looked much cooler afterward." (Adds Mayock's partner, Sophie Buhai: "I wore a black lace deco dress and a faded blue zip-up sweatshirt. My date had a black orchid flown in from Indonesia for me to wear. I think he really understood me.")Erin Fetherston picked a Thirties-style bias-cut gown, though hers was from Bergdorf's, and she flew from Northern California to New York to get it. "I remember hiking around the Garment District and flower district to incorporate pieces into the dress," she says. There are regrets, however. "If I were to do prom again, I would do something short or more playful or with a giant tutu. But I guess I wanted to be a glamour girl." Sari Gueron eschewed the preppy Laura Ashley florals of suburban Connecticut for a short, ruffled black dress she bought at a vintage store. "It was pretty and sexy and, mostly, I felt comfortable in it," she says.

Of course, girls aren't the only ones for whom prom attire is a fashion statement. Robert Tagliapietra and Jeffrey Costello of Costello Tagliapietra both wore vintage tuxedo jackets to their proms, with Tagliapietra pairing jeans with his jacket. Costello, who opted for the full tux and whose prom was in 1979, claims he was simply "having a New Wave moment."

Behnaz Sarafpour had a bubble skirt moment, inspired by a YSL dress from that season — a navy blue duchesse satin number that she sewed herself. "As I remember," she says, "bubble skirts were pretty hot in 1987."

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