Guest blogger Marian Merritt, member of Family Circle’s Tween/Teen Advisory Board, on her “prom mom” experiences.
So let’s get caught up. M and I have been on the prowl for the perfect prom dress. Her stated requirements were that it be a flowing gown style with a fitted bodice. She prefers jewel colors like blue, green and purple. And we’d probably tried on or viewed online every blue, green or purple gown in Los Angeles and New York to no avail. At least until now.
Since I last wrote, we completed our amazing East Coast college tour. And it really was amazing: four colleges in upstate New York, New York’s Long Island and Philadelphia. We rode planes, trains and rented an automobile. We met eager tour guides and solicitous admissions officers. We asked a lot of questions and apparently toured the same cinder block dorm room four times.
And in between we shopped dresses. And then we went home, back to Los Angeles.
We then decided to ditch the suburban malls and department stores we’d been relying on. We headed downtown to the garment district where there were at least two massive bridal/prom dress emporia M had heard about. I was thrilled because downtown L.A. means wholesale and wholesale means discount prices, right?
It’s been a while since I wandered through the stalls and shops of Santee Street in downtown Los Angeles. I actually love the whole downtown shopping experience and many years ago, I even managed a wholesale clothes shop for a friend’s mom as a summer college job. I thought I was pretty cool with a key to open and close the store, manage the register and carry the zippered receipts bag back to their home each night. While much is the same in the “schmata district,” some had changed. Whereas before it seemed everyone spoke Spanish, Korean or Hebrew, this time I heard a lot of Farsi added to the spicy mix.
We chose to begin with the store with the more glamorous storefront. Two stories of open stock and a big crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling’s center. We were greeted by a nice, chicly dressed lady who quickly disappeared on us. Another bored but equally well appointed sales woman informed us we could only try on five dresses. Something about the stacks and stacks of dress racks and the little to no sales assistance and I was pretty unhappy. The disinterested staff only added to my confusion and disappointment. We drove all this way to be overwhelmed and left to search without help? It was almost a physical depiction of shopping on the internet gone wrong. The site might have a great home page, but then you find no system to help you locate what you need from the thousands of items listed on the site.
So we left and headed to the second store. Here, the entry was a little shabby and the security alarm beeped with each customer’s entrance. “Beep, beep,” as we walked in. No chandelier and the carpet was old and frayed. The sales staff didn’t appear as glamorous as at the first store but their smiles felt genuine, even if the stress of helping so many teens and their crazed moms was beginning to show.
The thousands of prom dresses hung in two levels of racks, extended both up to the high industrial ceiling and then back, back, back hundreds of feet in a nightmare-inducing fantasy of tulle and chiffon. The store manager played triage nurse and asked if we had an idea what we were looking for before she handed us off to another saleswoman. This gal was very young, terribly sweet and though she had trouble reaching the dresses on the higher tier, she never complained. Using a metal hook and bar device, she pulled a selection of beautiful teal, blue and purple gowns for us.
Then, M headed back to the dressing area under the supervision of a third and more seasoned saleswoman. The dressing area was a grouping of small dressing rooms, big enough only for one person and tucked in the farthest corner of the showroom. Each dressing room had a cafe door that allowed you to see the girl’s feet at the bottom and her head and shoulders at the top. To get in and out of each dress, the staff insisted on zipping and unzipping the dresses themselves, to prevent undue damage to the material. This meant each girl was compelled to step out of the changing room for assistance, and in many cases had much of their bare torso visible, at least on the side where the zipper was as they moved in and out of the dressing room.
There was by now a large assembly of about 20 people standing and sitting just a few feet away. Mothers, girlfriends, sisters were gathered to provide encouragement and advice. There were also a few young men (the prom dates, I suspect) and fathers standing around. It didn’t seem appropriate for each girl’s progress to be viewed by these men and boys so I turned to them, and as firmly and politely as possible said, “Please, all you men please step back and give our girls some privacy.” I was a little worried that I would offend someone but all the men stepped back quickly, almost relieved to put some distance between themselves and all the dress drama in this particular corner of the store. M was also happy I’d said something, though a little embarrassed I’d done it, too.
Dress on, dress off. Zippers down and up in rapid succession. I had some time between dress reviews for M so I started looking at the other girls and their dress choices. I didn’t mean to, but I found myself getting drawn into discussions with other shoppers about prom expenses and other concerns. One mother asked the price of her daughter’s dress and was told $450. She said, “I’ve never spent that much on a dress for myself!” then sank back in her chair dejectedly. Another girl, with an enviably sleek figure, was trying on a nude sheath dress, covered in small crystals that gave every inch a subtle and sexy shimmer. It was the dress a movie star might wear, a modern Marilyn Monroe singing to the President outfit. The gown was far more sexy than I could imagine on my own child but I had to admire how well the young woman looked in it. She was still hesitating over the purchase, despite her mother’s approval, and she wanted to see the dress in other color choices. Sighing, the group of middle-aged moms sitting around agreed, the girls were at the height of their beauty and wasn’t it great to see them so dressed up?
And then, M found it. The dress that made her smile and stand up a little taller. The saleswoman gave a sigh of pleasure and said, oh look, how pretty! It wasn’t exactly what M had described as her perfect dress. Far more crystals, and a natural, not empire waist. And it was quite a bit more expensive than I’d hoped. But otherwise, yes, it was a goddess confection of flowing fabric with two shades of teal blue that shift and dance in the light. The bodice is encrusted with chunky rhinestones. M stood there, surrounded by the other girls and the admiring glances of my fellow prom moms. She gave a shy spin in the dress and asked if I could see the changes in color as she moved. I did, not only in the fabric but in the flush of excitement on her face. I asked her if this was the dress. She hesitated for the barest second and almost seemed surprised to nod back at me, yes. This is it. This is my prom dress.
Marian Merritt is a mother of three (two teens and a tween) and works for security company Norton by Symantec. You can read her internet safety blog atwww.norton.com/askmarian. She serves on Family Circle’s Tween/Teen Advisory Board and has written the award-winning Norton Family Online Safety Guide, now in its third edition.