The Dress

By Tawny Maya McCray

March 14, 2012 5 min read

Finding the perfect dress for prom is a big deal in most teenage girls' lives. It also can come with a big price tag, unless you know where to look. There are many affordable options out there, so you can look great without breaking the bank.

Krissy Richard, manager of Formals Etc., says it's often a better idea to rent rather than buy. "Especially for teenage girls, they will never, ever wear (the dress) again," she says. "They refuse to be caught in the same dress. It's a fashion faux pas."

Formals Etc. rents dresses from $99 to $129, alterations included. The cost to buy a dress at the store will run you $275 and up.

Richard says that about 90 percent of her customers rent dresses from the store, compared with 10 percent who buy.

The popular look for this year, according to Richard, has been short mini-dresses, both the ones that are short in the front and long in the back and the ones that have detachable trains. "I've been getting requests for that all day long," she says.

Another sought-after style takes its cue from the military.

"We do a lot of camouflage; it's very, very huge, and not just in military towns," she says, adding that the store's owner also has an online business, Camo Formal, which specializes in camouflage dresses.

Mermaid dresses are also still in style, but ball gowns have faded in popularity, Richard says.

Dress rentals at the website Lending Luxury start as low as $50 and go up depending on the retail price of the dress. Dry cleaning and return shipping are included in the rental price. All rentals are for five days, but another five days can be added for $25. The company also offers a special: Rent one dress and get the second for 50 percent off.

Lending Luxury owner Sarah Jon Porreca and vice president Jennifer Rosen do not allow for alterations on rented dresses but do sell temporary hem tape that allows you to make the dress shorter if need be.

Their brands include Dolce & Gabbana, Badgley Mischka, Rachel Roy, Betsey Johnson, Christian Lacroix, Diane von Furstenberg, Nicole Miller and Herve Leger.

Porreca and Rosen agree it's definitely better to rent than to buy. "With social media as popular as it is today, who wants to be seen in the same dress twice, and who wouldn't want to save hundreds or even thousands of dollars?" Porreca says. "For example, a $1,000 gown would cost you $120 to rent for five days."

Built-in embellishments and detail backs are very popular this year, as is being bold with color, Porreca and Rosen say. "We have had an overwhelming response to renting prom dresses this year," Rosen says. "Parents are loving the fact that they can rent a dress and not have to have it sit in their daughter's closet."

Other cost-saving options include buying a dress from a discount department store -- such as Ross, T.J. Maxx or Marshalls -- or from a thrift shop, such as Goodwill or The Salvation Army, which would have a dress for less than $10. Those stores also have lots of low-priced accessories -- such as shoes, purses and jewelry -- from which to choose.

For those a bit more daring and creative, there's always the option to make the dress yourself. Aryn Diffenderffer did just that in 1996. She said she decided to make it rather than buy it because she knew she couldn't find what she was looking for in a store.

"I had an image of what I wanted in my head -- a very ethereal, underwater-looking full dress with a romantic top," she says. "I wanted it to look like being underwater. I wanted to look like a mermaid."

Diffenderffer says she had taken a sewing class a few years prior, in which she constructed a backpack, and thought making a dress would be a snap.

She spent about $50 on the material and created a two-piece ensemble made of blue taffeta with an iridescent chiffon overlay. She accented the look with pieces of blue tinfoil she used to fashion into a bow tie around her neck and to tie in bows around several tiny buns in her hair.

Diffenderffer says she underestimated the difficulty of sewing an actual dress, especially seeing as she chose really complicated material and the only pattern she could find for the top was a Renaissance style. She said the result was a dress that was really bulky on top and much too big on the bottom.

Still, "I thought I looked amazing," she says, adding that she would make her prom dress all over again if she had to. "I would choose a much simpler style, something not so garish, and probably not choose tinfoil."

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