On Looking at Dresses In A New Way

Screen Shot 2014-04-21 at 5.11.07 PM(Photo Credit: Jan’s Boutique online)

Dresses have always been my arch nemesis. Between my short waist, healthy curves, petite stature, and the unrealistic expectations of the fashion industry, I can never find a dress that fits. I have a wedding to attend this summer and it took two full days, two Lord & Taylor’s, two Macy’s, and a Kohl’s before I put something on that I could walk out with. I very much dislike dress shopping.

The front of the shop is plain, white-washed stone with a cheerful red sign with a yellow butterfly. A demure exterior that gives nothing of the world inside. Walking through the doors is kind of like entering Narnia, but instead of snow covered trees, it’s a forest of fabric. Glittering, shimmering, billowing fabric that sends my inner-child squealing for Dress Up Time. I try not to outwardly gawk, but my attempt is half-hearted at best. I may dislike trying on dresses for myself, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate them.

“You must be Jessica,” an older woman says from behind the nearby counter. I imagine my notebook gave it away. She comes around the counter and we shake hands. Her name is Joann. I place her in her late-thirties, her frame slim, her eyes bright, a perfect application of make-up highlighting her face. I can tell she was once a stunning young woman, and I wonder just how many pageant titles she’s walked away with. 

“Yes, thank you so much for letting me bother you,” I smile. She chuckles. That’s really what I’m doing, since Jan’s Boutique often works off appointment and time is money to these employees. There’s no one in the store now, besides us, and I’m slightly disappointed. I understand Joann’s desire to keep me away from clients, though, no one likes nosey college students, least of all stressing pageant girls.

“So how can I help you,” Joann asks.

“Well, for all intents and purposes, I’m here to pretend to buy a dress. Could you walk me through that?”

Joann grins, and I get the feeling she’s grateful I’ve made such an easy request. “That I can do.”

She leads the way deeper into the store, weaving between racks, and I feel like my Narnia adventure begins.

To start, Joann says, always crunch the numbers first. Pageant dresses and prom dresses are, apparently, in two different leagues and the prices reflect that. She gestures to a tall rack holding what I can easily recognize as prom dresses. A few of them bring back memories of my high school days.

These dresses are expensive, but not overtly so. Anything from under $100 to just over  $400, they’re actually considered “budget friendly.” That’s also because very few girls have prom dresses tailored beyond a bit of hemming, so the gowns are bought as-is. Pageant gowns, on the other hand, are almost always custom.

“The girls want to glitter, and they want to display themselves appropriately, so there are always alterations and changes,” Joann says, moving to a different rack. It was of pageant gowns, and let me tell you, it glowed from all the sparkle. The girls need to stand out on stage, she explains, and crystals give that effect. She pulls out one in specific, pointing out the pattern of the crystals. “They’re made to draw the eye.” Meaning that different patterns would help or hurt different body types.

So what’s the price? Where prom dresses stop, pageant gowns begin. From around $500 for the most basic styles, to up to several thousand, a girl can easily drop $1,500-3,000 on a pageant dress. More if it’s being custom made. The sticker shock must show on my face because Joann waves a hand. If a girl has made it to the point in her pageant career that she needs the next step of attire, it’s a necessary and rewarding investment. I also realize that, if the gown plays a hand in the contestant winning, the cash prize would most likely pay for the gown and then some.

Once a client has decided their budget, the next choices are, of course, cut, color, and fabric. That, Joann says, is where her team comes in. Experienced consultants can help judge the right styles for a client’s body type, as well as what colors would be best for skin tone. “We also take into account a client’s preferred hairstyles,” Joann points out, explaining that if a girl prefers her hair down, that effects what the back of the dress will be. Joann waxes on about how so many of the girls, for all they focus on their physical appearance, often have little idea what their “strengths” are on their bodies. She says that it is often their most prominent, and as such often highlighted features that the girls’ are insecure about and try to cover up.

The type of pageant the client is participating in also effects style. It’s understandable; you wouldn’t want to show up at a Miss event in a junior Teen gown. What a fashion faux pas!

Some clients have a preferred designer, and the consultants will work with those styles, and sometimes, after trying on what’s on the rack, the client will decide she wants a custom dress.

Then it all comes down to timing. Joann leans against a changing booth, waving with her hands. “The worst thing, the worst, is when they don’t think timeline,” her voice is laughing, but there’s an undercurrent of frustration. A custom dress can take a month or more to create and finish with fittings, so if a client has a competition at the end of May, she must place the order in the beginning of April. That, too, depends on who’s creating the dress and how quickly they can produce it.

But all that is just the details. “Choosing a pageant gown is a little bit like the search for a wedding gown for some,” Joann says, “It can be emotional or crazy or the client could have no idea what they want, just that they need something better than what stores like Deb or Forever twenty-two or wherever,” she smiles wide, pride in her chosen fashion field evident.

I left soon after that, Joann claiming not to have done pageants herself, but had a daughter who did. I asked if the dress really made such a difference on stage.

“Oh, definitely, definitely, the dress matters.”

So maybe my strike outs with dress shopping are due to not looking in the right places. Or maybe not having the right budget. Or my lack of a tailor. Still, being in a place where the right cut, fit, and color are so important lifts a bit of the dislike from my heart. My next dress shopping adventure will most definitely feature consultants.


One thought on “On Looking at Dresses In A New Way

  1. This reminds me of when I had to go with my daughter to find a wedding dress. They were so expensive, but I never thought that pageant dresses would be so expensive. This is really eye-opening. Someone with more than one daughter would have to spend twice as much–let alone being able to afford one dress. And when you consider all of the other accessories like shoes, make-up, jewelry, etc., the expense skyrockets. You did an excellent job researching this.

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