The Perfect Dress A girl's dream of the ultimate prom begins long before the night of the party. It starts with a search that can take weeks or months, and demands imagination; RITES OF SPRING


This week, five Today writers document signs of spring.

Ciara DiSeta wants to be president of the United States. She wants to go to college and study international relations and neurosurgery. She wants to travel, she wants to master Spanish, although she already speaks it pretty well. She wants to dance and perform in plays at Kenwood High School, where she's one of the students in the rigorous International Baccalaureate program.

But right now, on this gloomy, rain-soaked Saturday in April, all she wants to accomplish is finding a dress. The dress. Pale blue or pale green, something ballerina-ish, like the pictures she studied in Seventeen magazine.

Ciara is shopping for her first prom dress, for Kenwood's junior prom. It should go without saying that it has to be perfect. Did any girl ever shop for a prom dress saying, "Oh, any old thing will do." Or: "I don't really care what I wear, as long as it's machine-washable and practical."

"Mom, do they have any tiaras?" Ciara calls from the dressing room at Nordstrom.

"A tiara for our princess," says her mother, Deborah. Her voice is at once teasing and fond. Because she wants it to be perfect, too. Thirty years ago, she shopped the length of Eastern Avenue looking for her dress to the Kenwood prom, finally finding it at Hochschild Kohn in Eastpoint. It was tea-length, a maverick choice in 1968, and covered with bright flowers.

The dress is long gone, although it would probably be in fashion today.

The date was not the love of her life. But Mrs. DiSeta remembers the feeling, as she stands here in the hallway of Nordstrom's dressing room. She knows what it's like, when the dress has to be perfect.

The only problem is that Mrs. DiSeta and Ciara may not have the same definition of perfect.

Beginning the search

"Prom" comes from promenade; its usage as a synonym for a dance, or ball, dates to 1894, according to one dictionary. It can be used for any school-affiliated dance, but it is generally associated with those high school dances held in spring.

Prom dresses began arriving in local stores in late January and some girls start their shopping then, according to the sales staff at Nordstrom. (Let's pause for a moment and consider the terrifying self-confidence or desperate yearning that leads to trying on a prom dress in January.)

A sophomore, Ciara was asked to Kenwood's junior prom in late March by Kenn Popp, the drama club president. She's the vice president and they have known each other since middle school.

Now the dance is just three weeks away and she's making her first shopping trip. She leads a complicated life, Ciara does. Weekends are taken up by myriad activities.

On the way to Towson Town Center -- White Marsh is much closer to their house, but Mrs. DiSeta likes Nordstrom -- Ciara grabs the car phone and makes a quick call. Might as well book the hair appointment now, while she's thinking about it.

Going into the Brass Plum -- Nordstrom's name for the juniors department -- Ciara quickly gathers up an armful of dresses. Two blue, two black, one green, one pink. Her taste, like the store's selection, runs the gamut. There are the pastel ball gowns of her dreams, and slinky black knits. Ankle-length sheaths and thigh-grazing minis. But Ciara is sure she wants something long.

She tries the pink first. "Well, it's different," Mrs. DiSeta says. Ciara doesn't care for it, either, although the pale color glows against her olive skin. She's beautiful. All the girls here are beautiful, one realizes. Is it possible that most high school girls are beautiful and just don't know it?

Hard-working and articulate, with dark brows that give a serious cast to her face, Ciara also loves clothes. She celebrated her 12th birthday in this very store, with cake and a fashion show. Appearances count when you're the kind of student who calls on elected officials, and Ciara is that kind of student.

"Tailored, classic, preppie," she says, describing her style.

As Ciara disappears back into the dressing room Mrs. DiSeta tells a story: Once, Ciara was in the cafeteria, which had been decorated with flags from around the world for International Evening. But there was no U.S. flag. So Ciara called state Sen. Michael Collins, and Kenwood got a new flag.

Ciara comes out of the dressing room in a black knit, shot through with silver. "Oh, but that's elegant," her mother says. Then, "Is it supposed to fit like that?" It is, the sales clerk assures her. "Black is very sophisticated. Is this the dress?"

Ciara thinks not. Nor is the pink. And Mrs. DiSeta's favorite, the celery green with the tulle stole, is available only in a size 14, way too big for 5-foot Ciara. Mrs. DiSeta eyes another girl in the exact same dress, a tall redhead who is so embarrassed by her boyfriend's admiring glances that she blushes all over. Face, neck, shoulders and arms -- all are bright red as she turns in front of him.

"That's it, that's it, that's really it," her boyfriend keeps repeating and she keeps twirling and blushing and every female in the Brass Plum is transfixed. Some are so teary-eyed that they're beginning to think they actually had a good time at their own proms.

The sky's not the limit

How do you put a price on perfection? Then again, how can you rationalize spending several hundred dollars on a one-night ensemble? These are not theoretical questions in a household like the DiSetas', where the desire to give a daughter the moon and the stars collides with the earthly realities of budgets.

Mrs. DiSeta and Ciara had a talk on the way to the mall. They have to be practical, her mother said. Well, not practical, but reasonable. It's one thing to splurge on a dress, another to go crazy on shoes. Even with the dress, there has to be limits. They called one store, only to find most dresses there started at $350. Scratch that store off the list.

Then there are other things, things you don't even think about -- an underwire bra, a handbag, the hair appointment.

And the tiara. Don't forget the tiara.

Ciara comes out in a pale blue dress. It's too long by several inches, but otherwise fits perfectly. And the price is right -- $130. Imagine it without the clunky black shoes. Imagine it hemmed, with silver sandals and a strapless bra. Imagine a choker at her neck, and her long, long hair arranged on top of her head. Imagine the perfect earrings and makeup, a corsage on her wrist. Imagine her dancing to "My Heart Will Go On," the inevitable theme of this year's junior prom at Kenwood High School.

It is all so easy to imagine.

Six dresses and one hour into the trip, and the ever-efficient Ciara has aced prom-shopping with her usual aplomb.

"This is it," she tells her mother.

Her mother knows it is. This is it. This is her 15-year-old daughter, standing in front of her, looking every inch the princess that her parents have always believed her to be. The princess who wants to be president and install an ice skating rink in the Rose Garden.

Look, it's Ciara. Anything could happen.

Pub Date: 5/22/98

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