How to Find a Perfect Prom Dress Without Breaking the Bank


It’s time to start thinking about what your daughter will wear to the prom, unless you are one of those who likes to wait until the last minute, get something from the clearance rack and try to make it work. Everyone is trying to save money these days, but waiting for tat  special gown to go on clearance is an “iffy” way to get a good deal. There’s a good chance the size you need will be gone or, if not, it has been tried on by who-knows-how-many other girls.

Here are some tips for getting a great dress without going (too much) into debt.

Dress styles are varied this year. There are short ones, long ones, classic styles, sexy styles, full and poofy, slim and form-fitting. Black is popular (as always) but so are jewel tones, pastels and pale-pale-pale-almost-nude colors. (Thank you, Golden Globes!) And there are many prints being shown as well. The good news is that there is a style and color for every body type and skin color. The bad news is that the choices can be overwhelming.

Start with color. Does your teen have a favorite color? Does she have a color that you know suits her skin, hair and eye colors? Does she prefer a basic, like black or white? Or maybe she likes lots of color, hoping to stand out. How about a print? Even animal prints are being shown this year. Choose a couple of colors that she likes and keep them in mind when shopping; they will help narrow the choices. But keep an open mind for the color you haven’t thought of, that she falls in love with as soon as she sees it in the store window or online.

Style is something a 16-year-old may not have developed yet or just the opposite: she has a very definite sense of style. Either way, start by looking in her closet. Look at which dresses she loves… or not. Does she gravitate toward more basic styles, or does she prefer a girly look with lots of frills? Maybe she likes old Hollywood glam or retro styles. It might help to jot down words that come to mind when you think of what she likes. Is she very fashion-forward or is she more interested in what looks good on her rather than having the latest trend?

While you rummage around in her closet, how about using a dress that she already has? Maybe it can be shortened or restyled to freshen the look. If she has a favorite dress – and also check out her sister’s closet – it may be worth a consultation with a dressmaker to see what can be done. Alterations are almost always cost-effective compared to buying a brand new dress or gown. But be sure to allow your seamstress enough time; prom and wedding seasons start in February!

Next, look at your gal’s figure. Is she a tall reed, or short and curvy? Maybe she has a very defined waist or an ample bosom. Decide if she is an “apple” or a “pear” or triangle or any of the other shapes used to guide you to the proper-shaped dress. Some websites and catalogs will actually have a shape key that will direct you to just the right style for her body type.

Armed with color and style ideas, it’s time to shop for your bargain. I always recommend shopping locally first. There is nothing like actually trying on the dress, feeling the fabric, and seeing the color and detailing up close. This will give you a chance to check out which styles look good on your teen and an idea of pricing. Don’t forget to check secondhand and consignment shops, too. I’ve known teens who have bragged at how little their dresses cost because they got them used. And they are supporting “green” industry.

But unless you are lucky enough to live in a large metropolitan area with lots of dress shops, your best bet is going to be online or catalog shopping, especially if you have an out-of-the-ordinary shape to fit. There are many websites that cater to the prom market. Be wary of any website that claims they will “custom fit,” especially if the warehouse is outside the United States. There is no such thing as getting a custom fit garment online. Custom sizing has to be done in person with the gown on the body by your local dressmaker or tailor. When shopping online, it’s always best to go with a reputable business, one that has name recognition and is in your own country. Another advantage is that you can order several dresses, try them on and send back the ones you don’t like. The shipping costs are negligible compared to the time it takes to go all over town trying on dresses or going out of town to shop. Plus you will have so many more choices.

There are many bargains online, especially if you check out the clearance sections. Prom styles don’t really change much from year to year, so a discontinued model from last year will not look out of place. If your daughter absolutely has to have the latest style, there are websites that have very reasonable prices. Don’t forget to check out some places that you wouldn’t normally check, like bridal sites. Many that sell bridesmaid dresses also sell prom dresses.

Another big trend right now is to bypass the whole prom scene and just find a nice cocktail dress. Short dresses, knee length and above, are very in, and she can use the dress for another occasion without looking out of place. With the right heels and jewelry, she can look dressy and stylish and ready for her big night.

No matter where you finally find the perfect dress, be sure to contact your local dressmaker or tailor in plenty of time to get alterations done. Most alterations shops have a one- to two-week turn-around time. And get plenty of pictures!

Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or

Barbara Stone
Barbara Stone is the owner of Barbara Stone Designs, a full-service tailoring and dressmaking business at 5200 Churn Creek Road, Suite P, Redding, CA, 96002. She can be reached at (530) 222-1340 or
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8 Responses

  1. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    The sad fact is that no matter how perfect the dress is and no matter whether you do your hair yourself or go the salon route, you're still going to look back at the pictures 20, 30 plus years from now and wonder how on Earth you let yourself go out looking like that!! And then, hopefully, you'll laugh . . . . right out loud!!!

    Here's a comforting thought: wanna bet that the stars on the red carpet have the same reaction down the road!

    Good luck, girls. Bottom line: HAVE FUN!!!

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      shhh…let them find out for themselves! LOL As long as they think they look good now, that's all that really matters.

    • Avatar Erin Friedman says:

      Our kids think the brown ruffled shirt with the ivory tuxedo that Craig wore to my prom is hysterical. It was very slick at the time.

  2. Avatar Erin Friedman says:

    Craigslist and EBay are also great options for bargain hunters. I have a girlfriend who wore a three different dresses at her wedding – she bought them all on Ebay. She looked like a million bucks, but she only spent a couple hundred.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      I hesitate to recommend buying clothing on EBay or Craigslist because I have had to recut too many dresses over the years because of ill fit and construction. That is why I recommend when buying on the internet to use a name brand source. Your friend was one of the lucky ones.

  3. Avatar Mary Jean Walker says:

    Great write up. I especially liked you mentioning that a gown bought on-line can never be "custom" made. Customers seem to believe that they are. Three basic measurements do not a custom gown make !
    You also mentioned to contact your seamstress as early as possible. I want to put that in our local newspaper.
    I agree with your comments about style, shape and color. This will be another interesting year for sure.

    • Avatar Barbara Stone says:

      thanks, Mary! Yes, I try to educate as well as inform the public about alterations and good fit and to help them understand that a good dressmaker is always busy, sometimes just down-right crazy!

  4. Avatar Tera Doss says:

    i have been searching for the perfect prom dress for senior year but i have failed at finding it…. prom is march 19th and i still dont have a dress….i dont kno what to do or where to go….