Byline: Neeti Madhok

ATLANTA — Prom is traditionally a night of pretty gowns, matching shoes, hosiery, purses, jewelry and perfect hairdos.
But today’s teen wants to add sexy to the equation, not content to leave it at just pretty. Taking inspiration from movies and big awards shows, the looks run from traditional, long gowns to short dresses, pantsuits and even shorts.
Bareness, fitted bodices with fuller skirts in bright pastels are in — fitted gowns and bright colors are out — according to a panel of high school girls at a prom seminar held during the August mart.
A dress for prom, typically the first major formal evening in a girl’s life, is not usually a hasty decision. Teens spend months looking around and trying on, before actually buying anything. Parents may be concerned with cost, which typically ranges from $180 to $300, but can go up to $500.
“They start looking in January, but actually buy in April, just a few days before the actual event,” said C.B. Mathis, owner of CB’s, a Lancaster, S.C., specialty store.
Jennifer Hatcher, a teen panelist, said the look is more important than quality.
Retailers, such as Karen Saucier, an owner of Brisch’s, a Pensacola, Fla., specialty store, echoed the emphasis on style.
“Girls can be so intent on an individual look,” she said. “Last year, a customer ordered custom-made shorts to stand out from the crowd.”
Retailers often register every dress sold to each customer, to avoid duplication. The practice is particularly important in small towns.
The teen panel said fuller skirts make it easier to move around, dance and relax. Serious dancers often prefer short dresses, and fuller pantsuits are becoming more popular as well, for comfort and a unique look.
Some schools have dress codes and restrictions that don’t allow cutouts or high slits. Parents may also impose restrictions.
Retailer Mathis said, “We don’t try to settle disputes, we go along with the parent’s wishes. Our aim is to sell a complete package, which includes hosiery, shoes and jewelry. Sales reps are given commission on complete packages that they sell.”
Provocative looks can often be altered by adding a sheer fabric to a cutout, said Deanne Mahan, a former student at Palm Beach Lakes high school, Palm Beach, Fla., now a salesperson at Mollie Wright Bridals in Palm Beach.
Cost and more durable fabrics were concerns of other panelists. Although chiffon has been popular recently, some girls feel that it may be too delicate to stand up to a long evening. And some girls said they also want versatility and look for a gown that can be worn for more than one occasion.
To attract business, stores advertise through flyers and in the school newspaper. Buying incentives, such as 10 percent off to any senior who bought a gown from the same store as a junior, are also effective tools. Retailers stressed the importance of choosing inventory carefully and well in advance.
A satisfied prom customer can mean repeat business for a retailer.
“A happy prom customer is often likely to return for a wedding dress,” said Saucier.

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