How to Find Your Perfect Vintage Prom Dress

Pick a decade or mix ’em up.

I know that some of you had your proms last week (send us pictures, please!), but for those of you still looking for a dress, some thoughts.

When thinking about what kind of dress I wanted to wear for my senior prom, I was certain about a couple of things: I wanted to look like a princess, and I also wanted to wear Doc Martens like Buffy in the movie version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I ended up getting a pink 1950s-style dress made by a dressmaker, which I wore with white 14-inch Docs, rhinestone cat-eye glasses, and a furry spiked collar that I think was supposed to be for a pet cat. Much of the Rookie staff and our friends opted for vintage or vintage-inspired dresses as well:

Clockwise from top left: Rachael (on left); Jamie in vintage (on right); me in my 1950s look with my date, John Stamos; Ira; Emily C. (on left in green vintage dress).

Clockwise from top left: Minna (on left) wearing her grandma’s headpiece; Anna in a vintage dress with date James Spader; Tara in a leather dress (!); flower child Petra; Leanna in a vintage 1950s dress.

If you want to put together a retro look for prom, there are many eras to choose from, whether it’s 1970s flower child or a Charleston-dancing flapper. As for finding the perfect dress, Etsy has endless options for authentic vintage, and many online stores specialize in vintage-inspired looks. We are now going to take a trip through fashion memory lane, to peruse the best dress styles of past decades so as to discover which one is the perfect for you and where you might find it! COME WITH ME….

The Roaring ’20s brought us flappers and their well-defined style, exemplified by silent-film start Clara Bow (above, bottom left). It was also a good time for dresses with intricate beading and opulent details, like the ones worn by the glittering socialites in The Great Gatsby and Kirsten Dunst in The Cat’s Meow (bottom row, center). You can search Etsy for “Gatsby dress” or check out Unique Vintage’s many options for flapper-style dresses in a good range of sizes. If you’re like me and not a fan of the drop-waist silhouette, you can look for dresses that aren’t as obviously ’20s, like this one from Modcloth, and just add flapper-esque accessories like feathered fascinators, beaded capelets, and long strands of knotted pearls. Remember, you can also find feathers at your local craft store and make your own headpiece. Girls, you know I ALWAYS gots to encourage the use of a glue gun! And do your hair in finger waves like Drew Barrymore in that picture on the right! Here’s a tutorial for that, from Jane at the Hairpin.

Clockwise from top left: flapper dress, Etsy, $36; tassel dress, Modcloth, $88; Art Deco capelet, Unique Vintage, $48; gold dress, Modcloth, $37; Roaring ’20s dress, Unique Vintage, $158.

The 1950s brought us elegant dresses with fitted waists and full skirts, which, as I mentioned, was the kind of dress I went for myself. Visualize the glamour of Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth and you get what I’m talking about. The decade also introduced wiggle dresses like the ones Marilyn Monroe wore. Trashy Diva has an amazing assortment of the full-skirt dresses, while Pinup Girl Clothing has plenty of wiggle-style dresses to choose from. WARNING: if you are a lover of tulle, Etsy will be a feast for your eyes. Just search “1950s prom dress” and prepare to cry over how beautiful some of the things you will see like this BEAUTACIA.

Clockwise from top left: lace wiggle dress, Pinup Girl Clothing, $96; Niagara dress, Pinup Girl Clothing, $102; peach dress, Etsy, $189; Annette bow dress, Trashy Diva, $163; Honey Dress, Trashy Diva, $163.

Fashion went through a big transformation in the ’60s. The modest hemlines of the ’50s still prevailed during the early part of the decade; then Ronettes-style beehives and heavy eyeliner moved in, eventually making way for mod fashions that models Twiggy (top left) and Peggy Moffitt popularized. Let’s focus on that later part of the era, when swing-style, trapeze aka tent dresses were popular and worn by style icons like Mia Farrow (both pictures on the right). These can be found in many Etsy vintage shops, but you can also see modern replicas like this chartreuse one on Modcloth and this lace-sleeved number on Romwe.

Clockwise from top left: pink 1960s dress, Etsy, $60; green dress, $63, Modcloth; blue trapeze dress, Etsy, $75; pink lace-sleeved dress, Romwe, $58; purple dress, Romwe, $37.

When I envision a 1970s prom, I think of long, strappy gowns like the pale pink one Sissy Spacek (top left) wore in Carrie and the slinky numbers Michelle Pfeiffer (bottom right) wore in Scarface. This satin-and-lace dress from Modcloth is a more romantic version of that look. Just forgo any mobster dudes as dates and buckets of pig blood as accessories. You can also invoke the ’70s with long, maxi-length gowns that have peasant-style tops, like the Lisbon girls in The Virgin Suicides, or flowy, peek-a-boo shoulders like the ones on this pretty peach dress I found on Etsy. If you have long hair, loose waves are best, and DARE I SAY IT, a flower crown would look great with that look as well.

Clockwise from top left: vintage bohemian dress, $85, Etsy; mint green maxi dress, $57, Etsy; satin slip gown, $111, Modcloth; vintage powder-blue lace dress, $32, Etsy; vintage melon evening gown, $46, Etsy.

I know you might shudder in horror shen you hear “80s prom dress,” but if we strip away the outlandish ruffles and unnecessary shoulder pads there is something so many of us find oh-so-beautiful: SEQUINS. All the glamour girls wore them, from that babe-alicious bitch Alexis on Dynasty (bottom left) to Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls (top right, in black). Strapless satin numbers worn with long opera gloves will get you a little bit of Vanity 6 flavor. Eighties looks are really easy to thrift, but ASOS also makes it easy with this off-the-shoulder dress that comes in different colors. Wear this look with your highest stilettos, and be sure to enter the gym or ballroom just as the fog machine starts up so you can make as mesmerizing an entrance as Lisa did in Weird Science.

Clockwise from top left: fuchsia sequined dress, Etsy, $72; blue sequined dress, $64, ASOS; gold sequined party dress, Etsy, $51; black velvet peplum dress; Etsy, $60.


  • horreure May 7th, 2012 3:05 PM

    ohmygod, you looked amazing in your prom dress!

  • purplebabaushka May 7th, 2012 3:06 PM

    I was SO excited to see this article! Vintage rocks!!

  • Starboardd May 7th, 2012 3:08 PM

    This is such a terrific article! I actually ended up making my own dress because I wanted it to fit well and everything I liked was too expensive, but I did bank on the 1950s/early 1960s for inspiration, and ended up with a dress I can totally see Betty Draper wearing in an earlier season of Mad Men. Plus, a lot of friends have asked me to help style them — I’m totally sending them this article to go along with my help!

  • rebecca May 7th, 2012 3:11 PM

    thanks so much for this! i have been obsessively searching for a 70s-style prom dress for weeks. i ended up getting this: but i quite like your recommendations.

  • mayaautumn May 7th, 2012 3:13 PM

    this post is so pretty. SO PRETTY. and helpful/handy:)
    i love petra’s flower dress and all the sixties stuff.
    also, that pic of you is v.cute. gah!so much to say..

  • heyjeannie May 7th, 2012 3:19 PM

    Please tell me that Ira (in the first collage) is Ira G. of NPR. Vintage Dead Ringer Status!!

  • christinachristina May 7th, 2012 3:28 PM

    my prom happened years ago, but this article is great inspiration for, you know, LIFE, because i’m always looking for a reason to get dressed up.

  • Abby May 7th, 2012 3:34 PM

    Awww, I’m kind of sad I didn’t get to wear any of these… my prom was a couple of weeks ago. But these are awesome anyway!!

    Also, The Great Gatsby? Seriously the only thing I wanted to do while I was reading it was swing dance. Like, all the time.

  • Manchuriangirl May 7th, 2012 3:39 PM

    I ended up making my dress from an old black dress I already had. It took forever to sew on so many flowers but absolutely worth it. I pretty much finished the rest of The Secret Garden on tape while crafting everything. Y’all too adorable Style Rookie and crew!

  • GlitterKitty May 7th, 2012 4:16 PM

    Oh my god!!! They’re all so gorgeous! I wish I could go to prom (but sadly, I’m a freshman). I nearly died when I clicked on the 1950s Etsy link…. soooo pretty. I wish I could wear tulle dresses every day!!

  • RockHatesMiriam May 7th, 2012 4:22 PM

    aaaaaaww y’all looked so cute in your prom dresses!!
    Love this as im already worrying about prom even though its next year. I’ll definitely take some inspiration from this!

  • missblack May 7th, 2012 4:31 PM

    Oh my God that leather dress is the BOMB DIGGITY. I am sooooo jealous.


  • Susann May 7th, 2012 4:36 PM

    So many great photos of you :)

    If I could, I’d go for a 1950s dress, but it’s quite hard to find one – maybe I’ll find something (affordable!) in Paris next month!

  • Jenny May 7th, 2012 4:58 PM

    OMG, MARIE! I love your 90′s Drew Barrymore hair with your 50′s prom dress. And of course, there’s no date more 90′s than JOHN FRIGGIN’ STAMOS. Well done, ya babe.

  • Kathryn May 7th, 2012 5:38 PM

    I LOVE this post! I can’t go to prom until next year but I totally want to now, and hopefully I’ll find an awesome dress from any one of those decades because I LOVE THEM ALL!!

  • fung-eyed May 7th, 2012 6:08 PM

    rookie, I know you are classy, but if you want to do a ’2000′ themed prom spread….it will get raunchy and tacky but I have some good pics from that era. <3 leah

  • Moxx May 7th, 2012 6:29 PM

    Aaaaaa I wanted to see the 14-inch docs! Those sound amazing!

  • Selenium May 7th, 2012 6:36 PM

    But these are so cute and make me wanna die. Please update when next years prom rolls around!

  • LPMAshley May 7th, 2012 6:54 PM

    Thank you So much for featuring La Petite Marmoset! We LOVE Rookie Mag! :)

  • KinuKinu May 7th, 2012 6:58 PM

    Wow, this is amazing..I don’t think I’m gonna go to prom but this is awesome. I’m not the type to go to prom…..I’d rather 1) not embarrass myself with my spazz-tastic dancing 2) watch k-dramas 3) read comic books
    I don’t think it would turn out good if I went

    p.s. I just got back home from seeing The Avengers. It…was….so….freakin’…..good.
    I accept Whedon as my Supreme Lord
    p.s.s. The Avengers was so excellent….so goooood.

    • Anaheed May 7th, 2012 7:04 PM

      YES it was AMAZING and so funny; I loved it.

      • KinuKinu May 7th, 2012 7:16 PM

        I loved it so much…..It was BY FAR the best super hero movie EVER.
        The movie made 80 million bucks in ONE DAY and Joss deserves it just for what they did to Firefly.
        I’m glad he worked on it because now I cannot think of the movie being as good without him behind it…..It was so cool♥

        Supreme Lord Whedon
        (i live in Whedonverse)

        • TessAnnesley May 8th, 2012 2:11 AM


          p.s although sometimes there was a little too much handsome on one screen for me to focus, I mean Iron Man + Captain America + Thor, JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL

  • graceandviola May 7th, 2012 7:44 PM

    Yay for vintage prom dresses! I am wearing a 20s flapper this year. I found it in my grandmother’s room. How perfect is that? I also get to wear my great grandmother’s headpiece that she wore to a dance in the 20s. I am so excited! Anyone have any ideas of what shoes I should wear? I’m kind of stumped.

    • Yellie May 7th, 2012 10:49 PM

      Aww that’s amazing! And from your family too, that makes it a thousand times more special.
      I think if you wanted to keep with the time period as far as the shoes, you could go for a T-BAR shoe seeing as spectator shoes or Mary Janes aren’t very dressy but hey, it’s not like they’re flip-flops. Jeweled decoration and brocade were really big… you could always just go for a modern shoe something neutral.
      Best of luck, the twenties are crazy cool, and i’m totally jealous of you right now!!!!

  • Eat.Style.Play May 7th, 2012 7:46 PM

    Thats Pink Sequin Number is LPM! Those girls are amazing! I’m so glad they are featured!!

  • Ruby B. May 7th, 2012 7:54 PM

    omg this is the best

  • myy May 7th, 2012 9:20 PM

    Love this article! The cover picture made me laugh so much!!!

  • mamacass May 7th, 2012 10:30 PM

    this just made me want to crash a prom. or throw a prom themed party.


    so. good.

  • Yellie May 7th, 2012 10:35 PM

    I just got my prom dress on the weekend! It vintage, 50′s (not usually my favorite), dusty rose, halter…. honestly kinda of excited gonna dye my hair purple too…

    great article, so much fun seeing everybody’s dresses! (eeeeekkkk!)

  • Kaleidoscopeeyes May 7th, 2012 10:35 PM

    I’m in eighth grade so I’m still too young for prom obviously, but for my eighth grade promotion I’m wearing a vintage style dress and brown combat boots.

  • Adrienne May 7th, 2012 10:52 PM

    Oh god I love this so much! I will definitely go back to this article next year for prom! :)

  • Sorcha May 7th, 2012 11:45 PM

    I found my perfect vintage prom dress a few hours before this was published! It’s 50s, pink acetate, the basic shape is similar to the dress Marilyn wears in your montage but it looks like something a Gibson Girl might wear. I LAHVE IT.

  • Sefe May 7th, 2012 11:53 PM

    You forgot the slinky 90′s silhouettes! I’m going with a black silk dress I found in my mom’s closet from around ’96.

  • TessAnnesley May 8th, 2012 2:09 AM

    I’ve still got my prom to go to just next month (even though we call them formals here in Australia) and i am SO EXCITED to wear my dress! It’s bright purple vintage 1970s that I found by complete accident last year, and I haven’t had an occasion to wear it to until the formal this term! It has organza fairy sleeves that billow and it fits me perfectly and i feel like stevie nicks in it and AAAAAAHHHHH
    vintage formal dresses are DA BOMB, I cannot believe I am the only one in my year (100 girls!) that is buying vintage! I feel weird in new clothes now haha

  • ivoire May 8th, 2012 2:14 AM

    i would definitely go for sixties!

  • ahhrealmonsters May 8th, 2012 3:10 AM

    uh is the key to finding your perfect vintage prom dress “be a skinny blonde white girl (or maybe a slightly non skinny/non blonde white girl)”?

    • ivoire May 8th, 2012 4:43 AM

      hey, that’s not really true. i thought i saw a diverse range of girls in this!

  • tomorrowwillbebetter May 8th, 2012 5:27 AM

    I just ordered my vintage 80s dress off etsy last week!!! It’s like you guys are crazy mind readers or something! It’ blue and princessy with black lacy sequins down the front which is kinda corsety and a full skirt. :) Vintage dress shopping is so much fun!!

  • Caden May 8th, 2012 6:38 AM

    I’m actually looking for a vintage-style wedding dress and these tips have been fantastic! The 50s style is best for my shape but is it ok to have a wedding dress from a shop called Trashy Diva? Haha.

    Caden x

  • deborahdeborah May 8th, 2012 7:19 AM

    The 40s were a great decade for prom/formal dresses as well! Slightly more understated than the 50s but just as pretty and very femme.

  • girlhero May 8th, 2012 12:21 PM

    wow, marie.
    I’m 20 so this doesn’t apply to me, UNFORTUNATE, but this is the best prom dress advice I’ve ever read.

  • christy May 8th, 2012 1:30 PM

    What a great article! Thank you so much for including the pink 60′s dress from 4 Birds Vintage! Love Rookie!

  • EmilyL27 May 8th, 2012 5:52 PM

    Awesome. I wasn’t quite as cool as you guys in high school but once I got a black lace 50s/60s strapless dress from an nyc flea market and wore it to my mid western winter dance (how hip was I and why wasn’t rookie around about 8 years ago?!) Doesn’t fit me anymore which seems strange because I’m skinnier now but also taller so you know…. luckily my wears it when she sings in her rock band sometimes (I know… she is sooo hip too)

    My boyfriend’s company had a swanky christmas party at the plaza last year though and I totally dressed up as twiggy (in my mind) in a super short loose 60s print dress from Zara that I found in a west village thrift shop, my new pixie hair cut and lots of eye liner.

    But seriously theme dressing everyday is the way to go… have fun at prom!

    • EmilyL27 May 8th, 2012 5:53 PM

      I meant to say my MOM wears it to sing in her band:)

  • seasontosleep May 8th, 2012 7:00 PM

    Our school had junior prom pretty early (March) but it was still fun. I got my prom dress for 5 dollars at goodwill and had it shortened. Love love loved it and got a lot of compliments, too! sells some cute vintage prom dresses also !

  • sn0wwhite May 9th, 2012 12:34 AM

    I KNEW I should’ve taken James Spader as my prom date.

  • Justin Case May 9th, 2012 9:18 PM

    I don’t dare to think of what this says about me, but I keep reading ”PORN DRESS”.

  • ariaablaze July 28th, 2012 3:17 PM

    i LOVE this especially kirsten dunst’s

  • Laura August 3rd, 2012 5:14 PM

    that 50s prom dress from etsy (from the link) is perfect, wish I could buy it.

  • Inu-girl August 17th, 2012 10:30 AM

    Hey there,

    Sorry I’m new to this thing and I’ve been scouting around your website for a few hours now. It’s really fun and inspiring, I love how I just recongise half these older actresses instantly and loving every outfit piece you upload.

    As for the vintage prom dress around three years ago when I was back in high school it was coming up to my prom. I didn’t really want to go either I’ll be honest, but my mother forced me. I was looking for a dress everywhere, nothing stood out to me and I’m a kooky sort of lass myself. So I thought… “Hey I’ll just make my damn dress” and I make dresses/clothing anyway so I gave it a shot. << But here is the dress that I made.

    I was actually believe it or not inspired by a similarish one I saw on ebay which came from America but since I live in England it'd take forever to arrive plus it was a tiny size.

    And also I was inspired by my old retro barbie dresses. I mean I've always envied my dolls clothing since I was little. She always had glittery and outstanding princesses dresses and I wanted to be a princess at my prom.

    So I went and had a ball instead !

    Hope you like my dress !