Prom Dress Inspiration to Last You Decades – Literally

I knew right when I saw a freeway overpass adorned with a poster that read, “LEXI. PROM?” – it was time. Whether you’re going this year, went years ago or never went at all, each of us has some sort of relationship with prom. For me, the only thing more difficult than pinning on that damn boutineer was finding a dress. Everything I did, I did begrudgingly. I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to take pictures. I didn’t want to climb into a bus and travel 45 minutes out of the way to go to the prom location. And yes, my school had a bus take us IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER because they didn’t want people arriving in limos (for fear of drinking). But looking back, I wish I would’ve had a more positive outlook on it. It’s just a social night where you get to dress up and be with your friends! In fact, the dressing up part is [now] the most inspirational element to me.

Did you know that prom, originally called “promenade” (fancy), started in the 19th century? It picked up a little steam in the ’20s and, by the 1940s, prom became the rite of passage we know it to be today. So whether you’re going to prom, maybe going to the prom, not going to the prom or wanting to relive your prom, I think we could all use a little wardrobe inspiration. Besides, browsing your local department store is more fun when you have a few styles in mind.

Disclaimer: Even if some of these dresses aren’t particularly your style, my hope is that you’re able to find a little inspiration from the past

Josephine Baker, Louise Brooks, Woman in Coco Chanel dress

What was going on?

  • World War I had ended, Harlem Renaissance was on the rise and women won the right to vote
  • Women took on a more youthful, free-spirited persona
  • Instead of wearing the stuffy, head-to-toe fashions from older generations, ladies opted for sleeveless dresses that were shorter and looser than ever before

What’s “in”

  • Loose fit, sleeveless dresses adorned with beads feathers
  • Art Deco designs – think top of the Chrysler Building (built in 1928)
  • Waistlines starting at the hip – waistlines disappeared altogether toward the end of the decade
  • Youthfulness – as in, pubescent youthfulness.

Fun Fact: In order to maintain the look of a youthful figure, women actually wanted to conceal their breasts as much as possible.

Louise Brooks, Sue Wong Ruffle Skirt Dress

Woman in Coco Chanel, Maxstudio Silk Chiffon Dress

Feathered Hemlines: Josephine Baker, Sue Wong Feather Hem Dress

Marlene Dietrtich, Topshop Preppy Fleck Blazer & Trousers

– – – – –

Kitty Carlisle, The Goldwyn Girls, Jean Harlow

What was going on?

  • October 24, 1929 – the stock market crashed
  • Great Depression began
  • Money was scarce, so people had to get creative by adding onto old garments they already had

What’s “in”

  • Long, sleek dresses (thanks to Hollywood movies)
  • Dresses with slightly bloused bodices and empire waistlines
  • Bows and fabric flowers – used to decorate dresses
  • Silky fabrics made an appearance toward the end of the decade

Carol Lombard, Adrianna Papell Beaded Gown

Kitty Carlisle, Sue Wong Beaded Gown

Jean Harlow, Aidan Mattox Beaded Gown

 – – – – –

Lauren Bacall, Gene Tierney, Katharine Hepburn

What was going on?

  • 1939 – WWII rears its head in Europe
  • By 1941, the United States officially entered WWII after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor
  • Rather than relying on European designers for inspiration, the war forced the US to be more creatively independent with their clothing
  • Many textiles and fabrics were rationed – limited fashion design significantly

What’s “in”

  • Square, often padded shoulders on long gowns
  • Fitted neckline dresses with less structured bodices
  • Simple, short dresses
  • Less beading, more simplistic designs and colors
  • Evening wear separates like skirts and blouses were also “in”
  • Sweetheart necklines were incorporated a little later in the decade

Billie Holiday, BCBGMAXAZRIA Gown

Lauren Bacall, Aidan Mattox Split Sleeve Gown

Betty Grable, ABS V-Neck Gown

– – – – –

Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn, Mary Jane Russell

What was going on?

  • Fabric restrictions from the war finally ceased; more fabric = more fashion
  • Both designers and consumers wanted to move from the restricted silhouette of the 1940s to a more playful, casual style
  • Christian Dior’s “New Look” of the late ’40s helped catapult women’s fashion into the next decade

What’s “in”

  • Tiny waists, full skirts and full bodices
  • Baby doll dresses with playful patterns and pastel colors
  • A-line skirts, tight blouses
  • Cinched-at-the-waist gowns that enhanced hourglass silhouette

Elizabeth Taylor, Oasis Midi Dress

Grace Kelly. MsDressy Princess Dress

Audrey Hepburn, Faviana Gown

– – – – –

Sophia Loren, Jean Shrimpton, Peggy Moffitt

What was going on?

  • Social change abound – feminist movement of the 1960s caught momentum
  • Youth culture of baby boomers wanted their own style
  • Rather than having clothes for each occasion (e.g. formal wear, casual wear), the ’60s made no distinctions
  • Synthetic materials introduced to fashion design
  • “Mod” style – started in London and picked up steam in America and the rest of Europe a little later. It focused on innovative, never-before-seen styles that were inspired by art of that time

What’s “in”

  • ’50s-inspired dresses with cinched waists, full skirts and full bodices were still seen in the early 1960s
  • Short, slim dresses – often minimalistic
  • Geometric designs, unique color combinations
  • Miniskirts – hemlines started creeping up above the knee (something we hadn’t really seen before)

Jackie O, Anne Klein Belted Sheath Dress

Twiggy, Diane Von Furstenberg Gradual Stripe Dress

Peggy Moffitt, BCBGMAXAZRIA Viviane Jeweled Halter Gown

Jean Shrimpton, Cynthia Steffe Color Block Dress

 – – – – – 

Diane Von Furstenberg, Pam Grier, Farrah Fawcett

What was going on?

  • The social change experienced in the ’60s carried over into this next decade – people gave attention to civil rights, women’s movement, environmental issues
  • Disenchantment with politics, religion and other institutions
  • Disco!

What’s “in”

  • Wrap dresses, made famous by Diane Von Furstenberg, – women could wear them from work to the disco – sign of women’s liberation
  • Flowing, loose skirts of various hemlines and styles
  • Wide collared suits (as seen on Bianca Jagger below)

Bianca Jagger, Acne Suit

Pam Grier, BCBGMAXAZRIA dress

Lauren Hutton, Adriana Papell Gown

 – – – – –

Sheila E, Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, Cyndi Lauper

What was going on?

  • Music genres fully emerged – goth, grunge, punk, dance, hip-hop (just to name a few)
  • MTV launched – emergence of the music video – people could see what singers were wearing
  • More accessible cable TV – the majority of Americans now had easy access to TV shows and films

What’s “in”

  • Clothing proportions from the ’70s remained: smaller, tighter tops with loose fitting bottoms. This switched later in the decade
  • Colorful and shiny spandex
  • Lace details
  • Shoulder pads
  • Mini skirts

Heathers, Topshop Midi Dress

River Island Prom Dress, Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion, Ginger Fizz Dress

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