PICTURE PERFECT PROM Girls never forget that special dress


Years later, after countless other party dresses have been worn, discarded and forgotten, somehow the memory of that very first prom dress remains clearest of all.

You remember how you were the only one who wore lace, when everyone else wore satin. Or how your worst enemy turned up in exactly the same dress.

For retailer Elaine Suls of John Sims, the recollection of her

senior prom gown is one of her happiest.

"It was the most beautiful dress I've ever had," she muses. It was close to 50 years ago, but, she says, "I'll never forget it -- it was my senior prom at the Belvedere Hotel.

"My dress was white organza, speckled with silver sequins and it had pink velvet straps with a bow on each shoulder. Times were tough, and it didn't look like I'd be able to have it at first, but my father worked hard to get the money together for it."

Such fond memories are what give her and other salespeople the extra patience necessary this time of year when flocks of young girls descend in search of that perfect prom dress. They arrive with as many as 10 of their best friends, not once, but twice or more, and then often again with mother and father for final approval.

While certain styles and colors are definitely more fashionable this year than others, one of the greatest influences in choice of dress remains a girl's individual circle of friends and high school. Area stores are prepared with a variety that ranges from the frilly romantic to the short and sexy.

When Seventeen magazine holds its Prom Style fashion show at Owings Mills Mall next month (at 7 p.m. April 5 and 3 p.m. April 6), it'll cover all the options with five individual segments -- including flouncy Southern belle dresses; chic numbers in gold and silver lame, Lycra and sequins; full-skirted, pastel, floral tea-length dresses, as well as empire and halter styles inspired by the '50s and '60s and a dramatic series of dresses in black and white.

While diversity is the rule, there is a general trend toward barer, more tightly fitting prom gowns.

Recalling her own senior prom back in 1984, Laura Sheehan, merchandise coordinator of Seventeen, says, "Dresses were more conservative then, mostly lace and taffeta, but now you see sequined dresses and lots of bright colors. It's more chic and dramatic."

Last season Merry-Go-Round stores still carried a significant number of lace-trimmed Southern belle styles, says buyer Tammy Levine, "but this year we only bought a few, and from what we've seen so far, that was the right decision."

Hemlines cut short in the front and long at the back are one of the most popular new options, says Ms. Levine, but increasing numbers of short dresses are also selling.

Short does not mean the thigh-high of sportswear dresses, however.

"The newest length is to the knee with a full skirt." she says. "The prom customer is a little more conservative and more parentally influenced because it's a big purchase." (The average price is $150, although some dresses are much more.)

Whatever the style or length of the gown, bright shades like fuchsia, jade and royal or some bold combination of black and white are big hits this spring. In these striking combinations, the FTC bodice may be black and the skirt white, or the bodice may be white and trimmed in black satin. Graphic black-and-white polka dots offer one of the few new print alternatives to the usual prom florals.

The great majority of area prom-goers probably will still opt for something romantic and tradition

al, says Ginny Rupp, fashion director of Woodward & Lothrop, but for the fashionably inclined, the very newest direction for proms this spring will be a dress with a '60s flavor, perhaps an empire cut in a bright fuchsia shade.

Extra, extra

The finishing touches for prom perfection:

* Hair swept up into a version of the French twist, but soft, with a few tendrils hanging down. This month's special prom issue of Seventeen magazine offers step-by-step directions.

* Long, full hair caught up at the side or back with a jeweled hair ornament.

* For the very modern -- sleek, straight hair, teased at the crown to give it height and pulled back with a wide satin or sequined headband.

*Makeup tends to be in the pink, with pale lips and more obvious eyeliner popular, but much depends on complexion and the color of the dress -- bright red lips or earth tones might be more flattering.

* Long earrings are essential accessories for strapless and off-the-shoulder gowns -- ranging from sequins to rhinestones, pearls and crystal balls.

* Multiple strand pearl necklaces and bracelets, often oversized.

*Satin elbow gloves with strapless dresses can add individual -- -- try fuchsia satin gloves and pumps with a simple black dress.

* Shoes tend to be dyed-to-match satin pumps with a 3-inch heel, with occasional sequin trim.

* If the night is warm, a chiffon stole wraps it up.


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