Different By Design

Ultimate Guide to Mother-Daughter Prom Dress Shopping

by Lani Kim


shopping for a prom dress with teen daughter

By Jorie Mark

When you first find out you’re having a girl, you might have fantasies of what it will be like to dress your adorable bundle of joy, as if she’s a baby doll come-to-life. You stock that layette replete with lacy onesies, grosgrain hair bows, tiny patent leather shoes, and an endless supply of soft pale pink.

But when your daughter at long last arrives, she lets you know who’s really in charge of her appearance, by promptly spitting up on that onesie, pulling the bows out of her curls as soon as she’s mastered the pincher grasp, wriggling out of those shiny shoes, and by the time she’s a toddler, declaring that pink is her least favorite color.

This sure is frustrating when you’re a new mom, but it’s actually great preparation for what it’s like to go prom dress shopping with her a decade and a half later. If you’ve had friends go through this experience, surely you’ve heard hair-raising tales of fights within the fitting room about everything from hemlines to budget to, “I always knew you thought I was ugly!” Ah, the teen years.

But prom dressing doesn’t have to be an emotionally overwrought, friction-filled experience for a mom and her daughter. Follow this guide to avoid potential landmines—and to help your daughter find a prom dress that’s as special and beautiful as she is.

Why is Prom Dress Shopping So Emotionally Charged?

“Pretty in Pink” was about the importance of a prom dress

Why do moms and their daughters so often come to emotional blows when prom dress shopping? There can be no overstating how emotionally charged the prom dress is to an American teen—and her mom. The history of the prom dates back to the 18th century, and while traditions and fashions have changed, it’s always been a big coming of age moment, particularly for the young women, many of whom are wearing “fancy” dresses for the first time. From Pretty in Pink to Twilight, some of our most epic movies are about a young woman first being seen for the person she truly is, as she emerges on the dance floor, all eyes on her. Indeed, “prom” comes from the word “promenade,” which is a French-derived word that means “to take a public walk for display.”

That’s why, in many ways, how you look at your prom can be as high-stakes as how you look at your wedding. But while today’s bride is a grown woman who can (hopefully) handle this scrutiny, let’s not forget that a girl attending her first prom is exactly that: a girl, who might still be uncomfortable with attention, and really craves the approval of friends, boys, and (even if she doesn’t admit it) her parents.

Plus, the teenage years are a time when young people are trying to assert an identity that’s distinct from that of their parents’, and girls may choose a dress that says to their mothers, “You and I are not the same.” This can be hard, as a mother, to take. Meanwhile, our own prom nights probably don’t seem like they happened all that long ago…and many of us still have big feelings about them. Maybe that means we want to ensure our girls have the magical “Night Under the Stars” we remember so fondly…or perhaps we want to protect them from a prom night gone wrong–or a poor dress shopping decision we still regret, dozens of years later!

Tips for Helping Your Daughter Find the Perfect Dress

Needless to say, mom and daughter both have a lot on the line when they step into that first boutique or department store together. Follow these tips to make sure that experience is one that brings you closer together—rather than deepens any existing relationship rifts (which are so typical in adolescence, even without the pressure of shopping for a prom dress!)

DO: Have a Game Plan Before You Set Foot in a Store

Do some online shopping together before you hit the stores

The best way to avoid dressing room arguments is to do some pre-shopping together. Grab some hot cocoa and sit together on the couch with a laptop or tablet handy, and look through prom dress options online to get a sense of what you each like. Alternatively, share Pinterest boards of dresses with one another. For all you know, your tastes may be more alike than you think!

While you’re browsing, take this opportunity to establish:

  • The budget — Let her know how much you’re willing to spend, so that she can either chip in her babysitting money if she sees something she likes that’s outside of that range, or to manage expectations so she doesn’t even try on dresses that are too expensive. Be transparent as well about additional expenses you’ll be covering, such as hair, makeup, shoes, jewelry, etc.
  • The timing — If you’re limited on time (either because you procrastinated on shopping or have a jam-packed schedule), understand that may change your dress shopping strategy. Some dresses need to be ordered and can take weeks to come in, so you’ll need to avoid custom boutiques if you waited till the last minute. White House Black Market offers ready to wear, special event dresses in sizes 00-22, and with both petite and standard sizes, might not even need a basic alternation.
  • The entourage — Who will be on this shopping outing with you and your daughter? Her best friends? Her father, siblings, grandparents? Agree in advance on who will be part of the dress shopping experience. Word to the wise: smaller groups are always better…you know what they say about too many cooks in the kitchen!
  • Modesty expectations — If you’re opposed to a dress that reveals too much cleavage, is transparent, or is too short, get that on the table before you leave the house, so that she doesn’t even try those more risqué garments on. It’s better to have arguments about hemlines and necklines from the comfort of your own home than inside the store. Plus, this will give you a little time to consult with her father and maybe even reconsider whether you’re holding too firm of a line (come on, Mom, she’s not a toddler anymore!).
  • Her boundaries — Your daughter may be concerned how much of a say you’re attempting to have in this important purchase—it is, after all, her body, and her identity. Allay her fears by reassuring her that you won’t:
    • Insist that she buy anything she doesn’t feel uncomfortable in
    • Go into the dressing room while she’s changing unless she asks you to
    • Take any photos of her without her permission, or share photos on social media without her approval (this is something are daughters are rightfully concerned about!)

DON’T: Focus on Her Body

don’t criticize your daughter’s appearance while prom dress shopping

Once you’ve got your game plan, it’s time to hit the mall and have fun! To keep the dress shopping experience positive, you’ve got one key job throughout this entire process: to remain body-positive. That’s because there are few moments when a girl will be as vulnerable as when she tries on a prom dress for the first time.  So, think very carefully about the first words that leave your mouth when she’s standing there, waiting for your approval. No pressure here, but if you botch this one up, she might think twice about bringing you to a second store, and it could even influence whether she chooses you or her BFF to go wedding dress shopping.

Here’s a cheat-sheet of what not to talk about:

  • Don’t talk about her size/weight. You can suggest that she try on the dress in a few different sizes to get the best fit, but suggesting that she lose or gain weight is off-limits, even if she brings this up herself. Try not to “moralize” dress sizes in general, implying that a 6 is “better” than an 8. For the purposes of prom dress shopping, the best size is the one that looks best on your daughter.
  • Don’t talk about her breast development. Seeing your daughter in a body-conscious dress might make you conscious of the fact that her training bra days are long gone…or, alternatively, that she didn’t inherit your well-endowed bustline. Keep those observations to yourself, focusing on whether the dress fits properly and does her beautiful body justice.
  • Don’t compare her body or looks to anyone else. This day is about her, so don’t bring up how her sister, cousins or friends looked in their prom dress. That includes you!

DO: Venture Beyond the Usual “Teen” Dress Shops

White House Black Market dress that’s perfect for a prom

You might find a lot of trendy prom dresses at the teen-focused clothing stores in the mall, or in a department store junior’s section. But you know what else you’ll find there? A lot of other teens, shopping with their moms, possibly engaging in their own dressing room warfare! Who needs that kind of drama?

Certainly you can give these stores a shot (enter at your own risk), but a venue with a higher level of customer support and a more mature clientele will elevate your entire dress shopping experience…even if you ultimately end up finding “the one” at the same store where half of the junior class got their gown.

Case in point: White House Black Market is a boutique where you may have only shopped for yourself, or maybe for a gift for a friend. But you can find special-occasion dresses like this Sleeveless Embroidered Mesh Dress that will make your daughter the most elegant girl at the prom!

DON’T: Take It Personally If She Wants to Go Shopping Without You

Teenagers going prom dress shopping at the mall

What if your daughter just wants to prom dress shop with her friends? We can feel the dagger in your heart, Mom! But do your very best not to get angry if this is her choice. Because: teenagers!

While prom dress shopping traditionally is a rite of passage for moms and their daughters, the real Kodak moment is when you see your little girl all dressed up and ready for the big day, look her in the eye, and tell her how beautiful she is. That love and support is what she’ll remember, long after the corsage has wilted.

Explore special occasion dresses at WhiteHouseBlackMarket.com.

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