The school-dance canon offers an abundance of practical answers about what to wear to prom or other formal dances: stick to something classic, find a dress that flatters your body, wear pantyhose (hahahaha, jk, nobody says that anymore). But what if you don’t have the money to spend on a dress that you’re only gonna wear once? What’ll you put all your crap in? What if you want to go buck wild and dress in a bonkers theme?!
Hello! We (Gabby and Marie, prom experts) are here to help you with those kinds of prom-related queries! We’re going to cover every potential prom-style scenario we can think of—accessories-related quandaries, how to match your look with your date’s or pal’s (if you want to), how to find a prom outfit you can wear again…how to choose your dancing shoes! If you’re going to a formal dance this spring and need sartorial support: Read on.
What if I don’t have much money to spend on a dress?
Gabby: Some prom dresses are so expensive that I’m shocked they don’t come with a voucher for free party-bus rental and complimentary sparkling apple cider. Formal gowns have some of the worst cost-per-wear ratios! Like, a $60 pair of jeans strikes me as kind of expensive, but then I think about how I’ll wear those jeans at least twice a week for a few years. It’s unlikely that you’ll wear a gown more than once. On the other hand, there is a good chance the pictures taken of you in that prom dress will live on in your parent’s living room (or at least on the internet), so in that sense it’s like you’re wearing it…FOREVER. Most of the looks here won’t set you back more than $100, $200 tops. Vintage and thrifted dresses tend to be even cheaper options, or you could spend zero dollars and borrow a dress from a friend who already did the whole prom thing.
Ugh, what is formal attire, even—like, what vibe should I be going for?
Gabby: Due to the overwhelming influence of the Disney Princess Industrial Complex, you may feel pressure to wear a big fancy ball gown to your prom. I wore one, and—I’m glad I did! I’d always browsed 1950s prom dresses online for fun, so when my prom came around I decided that it was time to wear one. I mean, the layers of tulle obstructed me from walking, which was a bit of a safety hazard, but I really didn’t know when I’d have another chance to wear a dress like that. I cared much more about finding the perfect vintage dress than finding a date:
I bought my dress at a vintage store in rural Pennsylvania for about $75; the zipper was broken and it needed to be hemmed, so I ended up paying a tailor another $50 to fix those problems. I wore some thrifted earrings and a pair of glittery heels I got at T.J. Maxx for like $17. But dresses are most definitely not the only way to go. You can wear whatever you want! Unlike high school, THERE ARE NO RULES when it comes to your prom ensemble.
What if my look is butch or androgynous?
Marie: If you want to be dapper as all get-out, you could splurge on a tux from a place like HerTuxedo, which tailors its suits to women’s proportions, or an awesome tuxedo jacket like this one and go cheaper on the pants and shirt. Fourteen carries formal jackets, pants, and shirts that you could match with dressy clothes you’ve already got in your closet, and HauteButch has dress shirts that are so fance you wouldn’t even need a jacket. (If you go sans jacket, adding some suspenders would be killer.)
You could also look for a vintage suit or tux and have it tailored to you (Fourteen has a list of a few LGBTQ-friendly tailors around the U.S.).
What if I just want to be comfortable?
Gabby: Maybe your goal is to wear something that helps you achieve maximum danceability. In that case, might I suggest a formal jumpsuit?
Wait—could I maybe wear my prom outfit again?
Gabby: I think a gown paired with a denim or leather jacket is a classic, albeit not always practical, look you can get away with wearing in non-prom settings. But if getting your money’s worth from your prom outfit is a big factor for you, then forgoing a traditional ball gown might be your best bet. A jumpsuit, mini dress, or fancy top-and-skirt/pants set that you can mix and match later with other, more casual clothes are great choices. Coordinated separates sets especially are looks you can recycle without having to worry that someone will ask you, “HEY DIDN’T YOU WEAR THAT OUTFIT TO PROM?” (Though people who think it’s weird that you’d want to reinterpret your prom look outside a hotel ballroom are likely just haters who envy your ability to exude a party-ready elegance at all times.)
The internet has a truly amazing selection of dressy, coordinated separates right now: