In the complicated teenage world of high school, a number of things can get you excited, and one of them is prom. The occasion has long been deemed as an important milestone in life, and is often perceived as equally significant as one's Sweet 16 or debut. Prom isn't just a school event but a coming-of-age celebration. It's probably the first time, for many high school students, to wear a 'real' grown-up gown (because being a flower girl at your aunt's wedding doesn't count), the first time to bring a date, the first time to experience a formal event of such a scale.
That said, proms are treated and planned with utmost care, but things have changed since the humble proms of the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s. Now, the prom is a huge production number where every little detail is discerned by the students and the hands-on parents in their batch. It is this intensive planning that often characterizes proms that are hosted by students from top-tier private schools, where a majority of the student population belongs to the upper echelons of society.
But aside from the fanfare, something else about prom has changed: the prom dress. If before, one would simply show a photo of a celebrity or a runway look (hi, fashion girls!) to your family mananahi or seamstress, the prom dress designing process of today is entirely different. These days, more and more girls are sporting big-name designers like Rajo Laurel, known for his classic and elegant designs, Vania Romoff, known for her romantic aesthetic, Mark Bumgarner, known for his modern sensibilities, Patricia Santos, known for her grand bridal gowns, and Monique Lhuillier, internationally renowned fashion designer.
To put things into perspective, buying a simple ready-to-wear gown from Monique Lhuillier's official website starts at around P26,200, with more extravagant ones fetching P600,000. An off-the-rack bridal gown from Vania Romoff starts at approximately P60,000. Based on recent research, a ready-to-wear piece from Mark Bumgarner could cost you as much as P18,000, while a retail piece from Rajo Laurel could fetch P12,000. Having a dress custom-made would command a higher price.
As someone who experienced prom in the same setting (an all-girls private school) less than a decade ago, the frenzied regard for prom and the prom dress is familiar territory. However, hearing about the increasing number of girls donning designer gowns piqued my curiosity. Back when I had my prom in 2014, copping a dress for P20,000 was already considered high on the price scale, and only a handful of my batchmates enlisted the help of famous local designers.
It isn't just the appetite for designer that has changed but the general desire for the grandiose, and the little sacrifices they'd make to achieve it. I've heard stories of girls wearing gowns too big, they can't get into their own car or walk without their date holding up their train. Some couldn't even sit well, least of all try to slow dance. There was even one mention of a girl who had her gown flown in from a designer based abroad.
But these are just manifestations of how prom is—as it has always been—a big fashion moment. Perhaps for some students, it would be the first and last time in their teenage life (unless their batch hosts a senior graduation ball) that they would be wearing a formal gown. Others may get to host their own debut and wear another showstopping dress, but for most, prom is the only chance they'll get to make a sartorial statement.
To better understand why students nowadays choose to go big or go home for their prom fashion moment, I talked to a few students who have recently attended their prom, and had gone through the painstaking process of coming up with their own designs.
In It to Win It
One of the students I interviewed was Bea, who comes from an all-girls private school. Although she did not tap a big-name designer to make her gown, she did conceptualize her entire dress all by herself, and asked their family's go-to designer to make her dream gown.
“I wanted to control what I would be wearing. I didn’t want a designer to dictate the design. I’d rather just base it on something I found online and be confident with my own design,” she says of her Pia Wurtzbach and Ria Atayde-inspired gown.
Bea admits that she wanted a great-looking prom dress to look back to with no regrets. That said, a lot of thought (or better yet, tactics) went into her design process.
First, Bea collected photos of designs she liked on Pinterest and also saved posts she saw on Instagram. She even scoured through previous proms and saved designs she admired (and didn’t admire). “I took screenshots of the outfits I didn’t want to look like,” she admits. After eliminating the details she didn't like, her ultimate peg boiled down to a strapless midnight blue ball gown that was quite different from the initial Pia Wurtzbach look.
But even though she was set on the idea, she was still open to changing it, just to make sure that her prom dress was better than others. “I was competitive,” she admits. “I would ask people for the color or cut of their designs, and I’d make sure that mine was better.” She didn’t even show them photos of her own design!
At Bea's school, prom isn’t just a competition with other high schools but amongst the students themselves, but Bea says that her batch has been particularly intense as compared to previous batches. “My batch was competitive [when it came to prom dresses]. I could just feel it,” Bea shares.
“Everyone was asking everyone for each other’s designs. And come prom night, you could tell that lots of people were vying to win the Head-Turner Award.” The prom head-turner is quite self-explanatory—it’s the most showstopping look of the evening, so imagine dozens of girls dressed to the nines all vying for the title.
As it turned out, most of these contenders sported dresses designed by popular local designers such as the ones previously mentioned. Bea showed me photos and most of them wore grand ball gowns fit for a red carpet event or a celebrity ball, and it seemed that the general notion was this: the bigger the skirt, the better.
There was one student whose skirt was reportedly so huge that she had trouble getting into her own car. Another student’s voluminous ball gown was so constricting that she couldn’t even step on stage to receive her award.
Others had trains so long and delicate that their dates scurried behind them to hold it up, lest it be snagged, stained, or—gasp!—both. All the grandeur must have been such a sight, compared to the simple serpentina skirt dresses that dominated my prom back in the day. (I won't even get into the proliferation of lace appliqué.)
I interviewed designer Mark Bumgarner, who has had his fair share of designing ball gowns, on the subject through email. “I have been making prom dresses for a few years now. Designs vary from school to school, because each one has [its own] requirements. Most prom dresses I’ve done in the past were ball gowns, and recently it has become tea-length versions of the ball dresses.”
If the head-turning contenders were any indication, there’s an evident desire to stand out, so much so that some students would dare to break the rules to get their once-in-a-lifetime dresses.
More often than not, proms that are sanctioned by the school implement a dress code to discourage students from exposing too much skin. Typical rules are as follows: no plunging necklines, no cutouts, slits should only expose until the knee, no nude sheer fabric, heels shouldn't be more than three to four inches. What happens when a student violates the rules? "She could get sanctioned and there's a possibility that her grades will be affected," Bea says.
Aside from the skin exposure, schools also try to regulate students' spending by putting a cap on their dress expense. Some schools even require you to present your receipt for proof that you didn't exceed the budget.
But, Bea says that quite a few of her batchmates still designed gowns that broke all of those rules. One person even came in wearing a mullet skirt—cropped really short in the front—with nothing but shorts underneath. An upperclassman in Bea's school once told her, "Break the dress code, it's worth it."
On Being Extra
While some girls were competitive, others are just naturally "extra" or bongga, as Bea puts it. These students have always been known for their larger-than-life taste in evening gowns and have sported big-name designers during previous major occasions like their sixteenth birthdays. When asked why she thinks her batchmates chose such famous designers, Bea says, “I feel like they did it for the clout. Or, maybe they thought that getting these designers would immediately mean they’d have beautiful dresses."
Bea expounds that for these classmates, going with a top designer is synonymous with major impact. Since these designers are known for dressing up the hottest celebrities, not to mention are artistic geniuses in the fashion industry, to be able to commission them for the prom is already statement-making in itself. For these students, the designer name is impact enough.
Even though such species of well-monied students (who can afford Lhuillier, Laurel, and Bumgarner) comprise just a handful of the student populace, Bea shares that her batch, in general, is inherently "extra" or would always go the extra mile to put their best foot forward, whatever the occasion may be. “We’re more ‘extra’ than other batches,” she says and even cites batches whose dresses weren’t noteworthy.
But where does this culture of being "extra" come from? After talking to another student, Claire, who studies in an international school and had her prom last year, one possibility surfaced. “A lot of parents are willing to invest money in dressing their kids up. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed,” she says. “More than the competition, I think there’s the pressure to conform and make a big deal out of prom because the parents make a big deal out of it. A lot of parents donate money to the prom. That’s what makes the event bongga.”
The same can be said about Bea’s school where many parents are passionate about prom and simply want nothing but the best experience for their daughters.
Consequently, some parents are not only hands-on with the event itself (the types who end up joining the prom committee) but are especially meticulous when it comes to managing their daughter’s personal matters, like say, the dress itself. But, of course, it’s only natural for moms to guide their daughters in the design process for they’ve been there before and they know what they’re doing—mother knows best, and they're footing the bill, after all!
Mark Bumgarner affirms this: “I usually consult with the students and the moms. Most of them are very hands-on.” Such was the case of Andrea, another student I interviewed, who studies in the same school as Bea. She enlisted Vania Romoff to design her prom dress precisely because her mother has been a loyal client. As for Bea, her mom provided much useful input, too, even though it was far from what she had initially planned.
Take the parental input with the competitive spirit, and it can rattle a student who wants nothing more than perfection. Bea confesses to not getting some sleep at night because she couldn’t get some details out of her head: “I couldn’t sleep sometimes because I wanted my dress to be perfect. A few days before prom, I didn’t like my dress. I wasn’t vibing it. Everything I wanted in my prom dress wasn’t there. I wanted it to be a really big ball gown in midnight blue. Instead, I got glitter and a long train," she says.
As much as Bea wanted full control of her dream gown, she explains that her family's go-to designer, as well as her mom, ended up providing her with input to make sure the dress really stood out. In the end, she wore a cobalt blue gown with an overlay of glittery tulle. She may not have achieved her initial peg, but she was happy with the result. It's proof that a lot of external factors can come into play in the path to perfection.
For The 'Gram
Whether the girls are in it to win it, were born "extra," or are influenced by their moms, there’s one common denominator that greatly influences how and why they want to glam it up come prom night: social media. As part of the tech-savvy Generation Z, these students treat social media as an integral part of their lives. They’re the generation who religiously share snippets of their daily lives on Instagram stories, and post monumental occasions directly on their feeds, whether it’s on Instagram or Facebook.
A milestone such as prom is definitely one for the 'gram, and that's something that affects the way they design their prom dresses. In yesteryears, only a handful of people would get to see one's prom dress. Now, dress appreciation is no longer limited to those present at the event, because one's prom look is posted on the 'gram for everyone to see.
Both Bea and Andrea said that taking photos was an important factor they considered when they designed their prom dresses. “I changed details so that it would look better in photos. For example, that’s why I didn’t know if I wanted to go for a straight neckline or a sweetheart one. I also decided on the boning in the bodice so that it looks better in photos. That’s why I added a petticoat and a train as well,” Bea explains. “Your dress is gonna make a big difference at prom because people will take photos of you, so that affects what people will think about your look.”
On the other hand, Andrea also mentioned that she and her mom took plenty of photos before finalizing the gown’s design. It then makes sense that these girls use social media as their primary source for design pegs. Most of these pegs are celebrity looks pulled from red carpet events, whether local or international. For example, Bea's inspo included Pia Wurtzbach and Ria Atayde, while Andrea's inspo included Claudia Barretto and Maxene Magalona-Mananquil.
So great is their trust in these red carpet-ready looks that Bea even mentions that an upperclassman once straight up copied Gigi Hadid's butterfly Versace gown that she wore to the 2018 Met Gala. "It didn't turn out nice, though," Bea says. Perhaps it is because of these celebrity images that ball gowns have become the standard that students subscribe to nowadays. And since these celebrities clad in grand gowns always successfully turn heads, then why would you settle for anything less when you want to achieve the same effect?
Aside from famous faces, soon-to-be prom attendees also refer to real students (upperclassmen) for fashion inspiration, often pulling up award-winning dresses from previous years, or, in Bea's case, refering to looks that didn't work out so she wouldn't commit the same mistake—Instagram helps to make the right decisions.
Even Mark has regarded social media as what prompts students to go big or go home: “I think it has something to do with social media and the kind of dresses they see online. Most of them come to me with a picture of the dress they want. I love making their dream dresses, but I always consider the set rules of each school. Recently though, I have noticed less extravagant requests for proms. But, I also think that schools should also understand that this only happens once or twice in their lives, so they should be able to go for their dream gowns... but obviously, setting rules or guidelines eliminate unnecessary issues.”
On Flexing Their Creative Freedom
Much of what influences these students can be traced back to their digital lifestyle. They are exposed to boundless sources of content that they can draw inspiration from and subsequently use to create and curate their own aesthetic, whether it's their Instagram feeds or the way they dress. Living in the age of social media has allowed them to explore their creativity—to be extra—and the prom is another outlet for this to take place. Thus, designing a prom dress isn't just a big fashion moment but a creative pursuit as well. Perhaps it can even be called a creative challenge, what with prom's competitive landscape.
Case in point: Bea mixed and matched elements to create her own original look with the help of her mom and her designer. Even though she didn’t enlist the help of a big-name local designer as her other batchmates did, Bea was still satisfied with the outcome of her dress because it had her own personal touch. “I think the reason that people get big designers is because they like that designer's unique aesthetic and they resonate with it. As for me, I prefer to try my hand at coming up with a design myself so that I can add my own twist.”
On the other hand, Andrea, who again went to Vania Romoff for her gown, was perfectly happy with her dress because it still reflected her personal aesthetic. “I collected different pegs of dresses that I liked and got parts from it that I wanted to incorporate. Then, I asked her to combine the different pegs to make my dress. She also added her own style to it as well. The gown that I originally wanted was sheer but then she added the flower appliqué to hide my skin because of the school’s dress code, and to make it a little bit more unique and feminine.” She also affirms how her batchmates got to show their individuality through their dresses, "Most of the gowns of my classmates were different and each of them had their own unique styles."
"Extra" Is a Mindset
In a word, today's crop of dazzling prom dresses is merely a byproduct of the social media landscape that this generation has grown up with, an environment where being bold and standing out is the norm. This has resulted in a climate of competitiveness that only challenges these students to dig deeper into their creative depths and to put their best foot forward, not only during the event itself but also for their Instagram followers to see.
In fact, they've grown so used to letting their best selves shine (whether online or offline) that they understand their personal preferences well enough to know what kind of "extra" best suits them. This could mean donning a dress by their dream designer, wearing the biggest ball gown imaginable, or even as simple as rocking a dress like their favorite runway model Gigi Hadid.
These days, standing out doesn't just mean paying the price that comes with going to the best designers. It also means putting in the effort to come up with a unique design that's entirely yours, that reflects your personality. Prom comes just once in a lifetime after all. As Bea puts it, "Honestly, when you’re designing your prom dress, the best thing to do is to just do your own thing.”