It’s Not About The Prom Dress: It’s About the Young Woman Wearing It
By J’Nel Wright
“Mom, you don’t understand. Everybody is wearing this style.”
“I don’t care about everyone,” was the mother’s reply. “I only care about you.”
Listening from my place in the neighboring shoe department, I watched as the debate between teenage daughter and mother sparked and simmered. Early predictions showed a total impasse with no resolution in sight.
“This isn’t about the prom dress, dear,” Mom replied, delivering a mortal blow. “It’s about the young woman wearing it.”
The point Mom was trying to make to her daughter was about the power of appearance.
The way we present ourselves to the world, whether intentional or not, sends a message. And it’s not limited to young people.
When you think back to your first job interview, one of the fundamental tips is to dress professionally. Why? Because you want to look smart and qualified for the job, of course. And first impressions make a big difference in getting hired.
“If you look the part you’re more easily able to act the part. You’ll have more confidence, you’ll gain respect from co-workers, and you’ll make a better impression on clients,” says Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, etiquette expert. “We’re in a very fast-paced world. We look someone over very quickly, and even though we’re told not to make judgements [sic] of people we are making assumptions about them.”
Alyse Kalish, editor at The Muse, agrees. “While in an ideal world you’d be judged solely by your skills, expertise, and personality, at the end of the day first impressions matter—and your clothes are a huge part of that.”
Considering the epic battle commencing in evening wear, we have to recognize that this isn’t just a matter of modesty. Instead, this is more about recognizing the desire for self-expression and the impact physical appearance and clothing have on social judgment. Here are some points to consider when you talk to your teen about the power of appearance.
I know, I know: People should be judged on their spirit and their inner beauty. I agree. But the truth is, we are a visual society. And that means we are vulnerable to snap judgments all of the time. “You don’t have to be a fashion enthusiast to realize there’s a relationship between the way we look and how others perceive us,” says the staff at Exploringyourmind.com. “Clothes are always part of the things we analyze when we first meet someone. The clothes we wear allow us to project the image of ourselves that we want others to see.”
But defining what is “suitable” and what makes us feel like we’re presenting our best self to the world is open to interpretation. But for young people who still answer to the rules of their parents, can there be a middle ground that encompasses style and self-expression based on contrasting interpretations?
These days, the mother and daughter camps may have common ground. For instance, what most people consider modest has ruffled its way into today’s trends, with emerging designers using fabric to help visualize women’s strength and intelligence in modern, timeless, stylish ways. “I believe that as women we have come of age and understood that empowerment is not about baring all nor is it about covering all, it’s about exercising your choice,” says fashion designer Ghizlan Guenez, the mastermind behind luxury e-tailer The Modist.
We are constantly influenced by the trends of the world. That’s how marketing works, right? And with every Guenez comes a social media mega-icon, who often exposes his or her private life (and parts) to the social media world in an intelligent and socially strategic fashion. But is it appropriate? This is the time to start ongoing, open, and honest conversations with your teen, listening to his or her point of view while stating clearly the rules of the home.
Ready for the “Real World”?
When I find myself losing an argument with a local teenager, I often close with “just wait until you’re in the real world.” In this case, it may be true. With a few high-profile exceptions (I’m looking at you, Marc Benioff and your Cabana shirts and cross-trainers), you’ll notice that most companies have professional dress codes that personify and support the company brand. And if one hopes to navigate the corporate ladder, clothing and overall appearance may play a role.
“People decide and define for themselves exactly what makes them look and act ‘smart.’ Smart has different meanings to each of us, and we need to respect and embrace these differences to get the best from our people,” says Forbes contributor Debra Corey. “However, if I’m being completely honest, there are times where I do put on a suit or a nice dress when I speak at a large event, because it gives me the extra confidence to get on stage in front of a large group of people.”
Meanwhile, this young lady wants to buy this dress now, undoubtedly influenced by the styles that swagger through the school halls every week. Does wearing a sleeveless dress to prom next weekend destine this girl to a life of professional pole-dancing and changing her name to Trixie after high school? Probably not, but that’s not the conversation.
Instead of battling over the look, perhaps the real question to ask is why this particular look is so appealing? Not in a defensive way but in a “help-me-see-things-from-your-perspective” way. Is this style of dress really speaking to you? Or are you relying on the popular crowd to dictate your look? If that’s the case, then the conversation needs to shift beyond clothing and more about self-confidence and enforcing standards and principles that make respect uncompromising.
And as the mom was trying to point out, the first step to expressing those standards is through appearance. What is important to you? How do you feel about yourself? What are your priorities? And how can you visually express your values?
I’m not sure how the story ended with the mother/daughter duel. But when my teenaged son finished shopping, I asked for his opinion.
“What would you think if your date to the dance wore that dress?”
“Bad idea,” he said.
Aha! The mom must have won this argument. I asked why.
“Why? She can’t do laser tag in a dress like that. She can’t even bend over! We would totally lose.”
J’Nel Wright is a freelance writer who specializes in topics concerning lifestyles, health and wellness, and business. Her work has appeared in a variety of regional and national publications. Her educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in English and Social Work. She has traveled throughout Europe, Africa, Southeast Asia, French Polynesia, Mexico and much of the United States.