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Bare necessities: In search of a modest prom dress

A date to the prom used to mean finding a dress that fit your body and budget. Now there's the added challenge of combing the stores for a dress that's not too revealing.

Yesteryear's puffy-sleeved Little Bo Peep has been replaced with sleeker, sophisticated looks. The strapless and backless styles, bare midriffs, side slits and plunging necklines featured in the 2001 Teen Prom magazine could easily be dubbed "Skinderella Goes to the Ball." Only one of the 163 "Perfect Prom Looks" in that publication has sleeves; very few have anything wider than spaghetti straps.

The Hollywood look is big even in Utah, where you can walk through local department stores and most formal wear shops and find only three or four different styles with sleeves, wide straps or high necklines.

"It's really hard to get them in because the style right now is strapless," said Jennifer Crayk, manager of The Perfect Dress at 6973 S. 1300 East. "When we go to market and we tell companies that a certain dress is too bare, they say we're nuts because it's their best seller."

In fact, the search for modest prom dresses inspired a contest by a Web site clothing company called Modest By Design of Midvale. As a way to launch their new line of formal gowns, Eddie and Heather Gist asked girls to log on to their site modestbydesign.com and design their dream dress. The winner, Carol Tomkinson, a senior at Provo High School, gets her dream dress made for her by Gist, who is a certified tailor. The Gists said they received about 60 entries from all over the United States, which led them to believe that teens all over the country, not just in Utah, are seeking less revealing evening wear.

"What's coming out for prom season is about half a dress," observed Kathleen Clifford of Kathleen's Career and Formal Wear in Kaysville. "But vendors make what will be purchased. We in Utah are a minority. We can't expect to change the rest of the world. But we can change the dresses when they come in."

For the past eight years, that's what Clifford has been doing. In addition to ordering as many modest dresses as she can find, she will alter the barer dresses in her inventory — raising a back or a neckline, adding sleeves or wide shoulder straps, according to the buyer's specifications. Unlike tacking on a generic ruffle here and there, the dresses look as if they were originally made that way.

"Unless the company will sell me extra fabric with the dress so that it can be altered, I won't buy it," she said.

Clifford's reputation has grown to the point that she not only sells hundreds of prom dresses each season; she also dresses beauty pageant contestants who want modest sophistication. Clients include Miss Utah, Jami Palmer, as well as the current Miss Wyoming and Miss Idaho. She also outfits classical musicians, who need evening gowns that accommodate the instrument they play.

"I was referred here by people who told me they have an excellent seamstress here," said Trisha Nilsson, currently Miss Murray, who was in the shop two weeks ago being fitted for the upcoming Miss Utah competition. Nilsson wanted her bright orange beaded gown altered by raising the neckline, adding sleeves and continuing the beadwork on the additions to match the look of the rest of the gown.

Nilsson said the dress cost $250, but with alternations it was $340. She thought it was worth the price to get something elegant, yet covered, for the beauty pageant.

Clifford's sewing skills first got her into the business. Since she sewed clothes for all three of her daughters, she was asked to alter ready-made dresses for other girls. She began buying dresses and renting them out of her home but found that most people wanted to buy them instead.

Three years ago, she set up a shop, offering bridal dresses and career wear as well as formal evening gowns. The shop maintains a registry and only sells one dress of each color to girls going to the same high school to avoid the embarrassment of look-alike gowns at the same dance.

Some dresses are better suited to alterations, Clifford said. For example, most strapless gowns have higher necklines that accommodate wide shoulder straps or capped sleeves. Some come with shawls that the sleeves or straps can be made from. But dresses with beading around the armholes must be unbeaded in order to add sleeves. Sometimes zippers have to be taken out in order to raise the back of the dress. Sometimes a section of fabric can be sewn across a neckline; other times, the neckline must be be raised from the shoulders and the sleeves reset.

"Often it's a judgment call, depending on the girl's body type. Some dresses will fit lower than others," Clifford said. "The biggest problem is that before they come in, the families haven't sat down to decide what their values are going to be. You'll have girls who want to be more modest, and moms who think they should be more bare. And some extremes where the parents want the girls' arms to be covered right to the wrist. Yet a lot of times, the tank tops the girls wear nowadays are more revealing."

Employees are trained to listen to what the customers want.

"Sometimes we'll try to help to explain how more coverage might be more flattering on her particular body type," Clifford said. "I've interviewed teenage boys and they said they felt uncomfortable about bare dresses, they said they didn't know where they could put their eyes or their hands. But I can't force my religious beliefs on young women that are here in the shop. If they want a dress that's more bare, we will sell it to them."

Clifford employs one full-time seamstress and a couple of part-timers during prom season. Customers need to allow at least a week for alterations — you can't expect to buy a dress and walk out with the altered version to wear that evening.

Prices range from just over $100 to thousands of dollars (for some pageant dresses), with the average dress running around $275.

"I know our dresses are more expensive, but I try to have things they're not going to find in the mall," she said. "For some families they are too much, but a lot of our clients say it's worth it for the modesty level. Before they go shopping, the family should sit down and decide what will fit the budget."

For those whose budget doesn't stretch that far, there are other options.

WRAP IT: If a spaghetti-strapped dress comes with a wrap or shawl, you can make use of that extra fabric, said Abbie Waggoner, manager of Bliss at the ZCMI Mall. She demonstrated how the shawl can be tied or hand-stitched onto the shoulder straps and draped strategically to give the illusion of sleeves, with the scarf ends tucked into the dress.

Bliss, owned by Shara Leonard and Marcia Waggoner, sells special occasion dresses at the South Towne and ZCMI malls. The stores offer several styles with sheer sleeves, elbow-length sleeves, and wider shoulder straps, in the $100 to $150 range. The stores don't do alterations but carry a referral list of several seamstresses. Leonard said many dry cleaning businesses also have seamstresses that can do alterations.

Abbie Waggoner said she sold three prom dresses the day Bliss opened two weeks ago at the ZCMI Mall. All three had sleeves.

"At least half of the customers coming in ask about getting sleeves or some type of alteration — especially if they're bridesmaid dresses," Waggoner said. "But a lot of the prom girls don't care; it's their moms who make them."

The Perfect Dress gowns average $100 to $150, with the most expensive at $400, said Jennifer Crayk. The store also offers some alterations, such as making sleeves from a matching wrap.

SEW IT: For those who can sew, or are willing to try, making your own prom dress is an alternative. There's creative satisfaction as well as having the coverage desired. Katie Hickman, a Tooele High junior, enlisted the help of her aunt, Christi Nash, an experienced home seamstress. They picked out a pattern and fabric and are sewing the dress together.

Besides the modesty factor, Hickman wanted to have something unique.

"Nobody else will have something like mine, and when people ask where I got it, I can say I made it myself," she said.

And the price was right — under $30, excluding the labor.

COVER IT: A bare top can be covered with a sparkly sweater or blouse for a two-piece look. Or it can be teamed with a black velvet bolero jacket (Bliss, Kathleen's and other stores carry these).

ORDER IT: If you're not hard to fit, you might find luck on the Internet. The Gallery in Logan, which offers bridal, and bridesmaid/prom gowns, has a Web site at www.lynettes.com for those who can't make the drive to the shop.

LatterDayBride latterdaybride.com also offers prom dresses. The company is launching a new site with a new line of dresses on April 14, and a mail-order catalog in June, said Lynette Oldroyd.

"We'll probably have about 15 styles," she said. "We offer basic styles that will fit any figure in a variety of colors, so if you want a black prom dress, you can have it. Or if you want a pink bridesmaid dress, you can have it."

The dresses cost between $100 and $200.

"The girls in my neighborhood are always complaining that they can't find a modest prom dress," she said. "But only about 30 percent of the people who order from us are from Utah, which tells us there's a huge need elsewhere. We sell a lot to to California, Arizona, Nevada, and New York is really big."

Great Lengths greatlengths.com, a site that sells shorts, also carries a line of modest formal wear. The short-sleeved dresses range from $89 to $158.

Modest By Design modestbydesign.com offers two different dress styles that run from $109 to $129, and a "build your dream gown" concept with separate skirts in several different fabrics and colors, and velvet tops.

"Sometimes the girls are going to two different proms, and they don't want to wear the same dress, and this way they can change a top or bottom and have two different dresses," said Eddie Gist.

His company ran the design-a-dress contest to get an idea of what teen girls are looking for. "And then we went out and found something," he said. "It's one of those things where the demand is high, but nobody caters to it, so we thought we'd tap into it."

Carol Tomkinson's winning dress is made of powder-blue satin. It has a high boat-neck and short sleeves. The empire waist and neckline each slope down into a gentle "V" in the back. It is floor length with a small sweep train. White chiffon drapes across the front and back neckline, and falls down the back in a long sash. Small rhinestones trim the neckline, waistline and sleeves.

"There are plenty of reasons for me to dress modestly," Tomkinson wrote in her winning entry. "But I feel that the best reason for me to dress modestly is because it gives me a feeling of self worth. It is said in the Bible, 'Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.' I've always wanted to be a woman who was more valuable than the riches of the earth."


E-MAIL: vphillips@desnews.com