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Playing Princess

Michael Davis Photos

Hours spent planning, shopping, dressing and prepping result in a glamorous evening, which lasts just a few hours. Is it a wedding? No, it’s the high school prom.

This industry, trend and adolescent milestone, however, have been churning away, readying for this year’s prom season since December. That’s right. “Prom season,” for some, begins in the middle of winter, when girls first start hunting for the perfect dress to wear five or six months later.

“A lot of times what the girls will do is go online and look at the manufacturers’ Web sites,” says Marie Adornato, who owns Spybaby Bridal in downtown Syracuse’s Armory Square. Her store receives loads of online inquiries, and the staff is “constantly researching for people to see what we have.”

“I just recommend they come in and try something on,” she adds. The girls should get an idea of what looks good on them and what they like in person. Spybaby sells about 500 dresses for prom each year.

Many teens will cut pictures from magazines or print out the dress they love from the Internet and take them into area stores.

It’s important to see the dresses in reality, says Lorraine Koury, who owns Boom Babies, at 489 Westcott St. in Syracuse. The color, the fabric or the sheen of the material may all look different up close. As a result, Boom Babies stocks several thousand dresses, in all lengths and sizes, so customers can see exactly what they’re getting.

“Bright, happy prints,” that’s what’s hot right now, Koury says. “And a lot of back interest is still popular.”

The intricate necklines in the front, however, may keep girls from seeking necklaces, says Courtney Donelan, manager of Keely’s Bridal and Formal Wear, 2 W. Genesee St. in Baldwinsville. Many girls seem to just be going for the dress and earrings, which can help keep the costs lower than if more accessories were warranted.

Girls talk about finding sale dresses for less than $100, or borrowing a friend or relative’s dress, especially if they live in another school district (and went to a different prom). Otherwise, the average price of dresses is about $225, local shop owners say. More elaborate dresses may be more than $300, some as high as $500.

“The pouffies,” as Boom Babies labels those along one wall in the store, may cost the most and “have taken a backseat now,” Koury says. “They are a little more traditional.” She credits growing sophistication among teenage girls with broadening interests in fashion at prom time. “Girls have (more) exposure to really beautiful designer stuff now than they did 10 years ago. Since manufacturers moved more factories to China (where labor costs are lower) in the same time period, more dresses have beading as well.

Yellow and orange dresses fill two racks just inside the entrance to Boom Babies. “Yellow’s very popular,” Koury says. So is orange.

Shopkeepers agree bright colors are in this year. Girls who are going to their third or fourth prom may already have worn a more subdued dress, says Donelan. They’re ready to try something splashier.

One recent Sunday, Tricia Garcia, 18, of Onondaga Hill was shopping for her third prom dress. Two years ago, she borrowed a neighbor’s dress; last year, on a visit to Florida, she found one on sale for $80.

“So I said, ‘This year you can finally pick out what you want,’” her mother, Donna, said while fingering through racks of gowns at Keely’s. An only child, Tricia described the shopping process as “a lot of work.” But “once you find one, it’s fun.” The Onondaga Central High School senior stopped to point out a dress to her mother. They discussed how last year’s prom queen wore that pattern on a similar-styled dress she had found online.

“As a mother, you have a conflict about how much money to spend,” Donna Garcia said about prom. Last year her daughter and some friends came back to Garcia’s house after the prom to change before heading out for more fun.

“I remember walking into her bedroom and there were three or four prom dresses lying on the floor in piles. I started counting two-four-six hundred dollars!” Then, when she looks at the photos, she says, “They are so beautiful.”

Teenage girls and their mothers aren’t the only ones in the stores, several shopkeepers observe. Some girls ask their boyfriends to come along to see the dresses, says Adornato of Spybaby, as two teen boys entered the store and looked around for the females they knew there.

Two dads joined the crowd at Boom Babies on a recent Sunday afternoon. “I find that sometimes the fathers have less opinions of what they would like to see their daughters wear and they let them pick a dress that (the daughters) would like a little more,” says Koury.

Part of the psychology of prom dressing is trying to keep mother and daughter happy, she says. “Sometimes there’s a little power struggle between mother and daughter.” Koury encourages mothers to give dresses they select to the store’s sales associates to show the daughters. “If the mother gives it to them, they (the daughters) will reject it outright.” And it may be a dress that would look good.

Stores like those mentioned here typically maintain a registry of prom dresses sold in a season. The registry aims at limiting to one the exact dress and color of that dress that will be sold to a girl attending each prom in the region.

One associate in Boom Babies was overheard advising a girl that three similar dresses in the same shade of aquamarine had been sold for the girl’s prom. Did the girl want to consider another dress? She certainly could go with a fourth dress in the same color but a different style; the associate just wanted her to make an informed decision. The girl, standing with her parents, told the associate she didn’t care; she would just get the dress she wanted.

One thing everyone agrees on is that strappy silver, high-heeled shoes are de rigueur, unless a girl would rather wear black shoes. Stores also offer to dye select shoes to match a dress.

At Keely’s, Boom Babies and Spybaby, shoppers receive one-on-one service. Waits for dressing rooms on weekends during pre-prom season can be 20 to 60 minutes. Each store hires additional staff to work with prom shoppers. Some girls may even leave school to try on dresses when the stores are less crowded.

Boom Babies puts a sign saying “The Dresses are Here” when they arrive in winter. Fancier, shorter dresses are growing in popularity, Koury says, especially for semi-formal dances. Patrons are asked to put hospital-type booties over their shoes so they don’t dirty the hems of the dresses. At Spybaby, patrons take off their shoes and place them in front of the main counter.

Several college students asked about their prom dresses recall them with affection—and note that they still hang in closets at home. “I can’t get rid of them,” says Jessica Reifke, who went to high school in Oswego. “They’re a big investment.” Asked if that’s the only reason, she admits: “They’re beautiful and I want to wear them again.” 

Eileen Gilligan, a mother of two, lives in Baldwinsville.

In real life: Though many teens will scope out dresses online or in print magazines, it’s important to see the dresses in person, since the fabric may look different up close, says Lorraine Koury, owner of Boom Babies on Westcott Street in Syracuse.

A plethora of choices: Spybaby in Syracuse’s Armory Square sells some 500 prom dresses to local teens every year, says owner Marie Adornato (above). “I just recommend they come in and try something on.”

© Family Times: The Parenting Guide of Central New York