What I Should’ve Worn to Prom

The cliché of a “bad prom dress” is such a thing


My high school didn’t have an official prom. Instead, it was tradition for the senior class to organize an “anti-prom” of sorts, at which you were supposed to wear something absolutely ridiculous like a Halloween costume or an intentionally terrible gown. (What? We were angsty teens.) There were no limos, no corsages, no photos on stairwells — just a bunch of pimply youths lounging around a shabby student center with a dance floor the size of a large elevator and a makeshift DJ booth. The golden years, amirite?

Harling, Social Media Editor Prom 2010 "My high school didn't have a real prom so we had a 'fake prom that made fun of proms' instead, because we were first-class teen rebels. Looking ridiculous was the whole point of fake prom, so I wore my aunt's actual prom dress from 1986, which happened to be the perfect mashup of Little House on the Prairie and Toddlers & Tiaras."

I wore my aunt’s prom dress, which I’m sure was very chic in 1987, but in 2010 looked like a cross between Toddlers & Tiaras and a haunted version of Little House on the Prairie. It was perfectly atrocious.

The cliche of a “bad prom dress” is such a thing. It’s almost a rite of passage at this point, not to mention a source of instant future camaraderie. All you have to do is say the word prom and people will launch into a self-conscious tirade about how awkward they looked.

Why is the bad prom dress trope so universal, though? I have a theory. Prom dresses are bad for the same two reasons red carpet dresses typically fall flat: 1) the whole concept of “putting together an outfit” is thrown out the window in favor of allowing a single garment (usually a dress) to do all the talking and 2) flattery (which can be equated to sex appeal on these occasions) is prioritized over fun.

Given these revelations, I started thinking about what I would wear to prom if I were going now — in the vein of Leandra’s wedding do-over — and devised the following strategic approach:

If I was wearing a dress…

What I'd Wear To Prom May 2017 Man Repeller1.0 (9 of 23)

I would pair it with a tweed jacket for a healthy dose of octogenarian chic, thereby diminishing the ingenue factor in favor of the wizened cool factor. I would turn up the fun volume with a wide range of quirky accessories, like a clutch that thinks it’s a piece of fruit and bracelets that give normcore the stink eye.

If I was wearing a skirt…

What I'd Wear To Prom May 2017 Man Repeller1.0 (1 of 23)

I would make sure it was nice and noisy, something that swished with every step and twirl, making you smile with your teeth at the sound of it. My top would carry a megaphone of its own — an additional swingy layer on the mille-feuille masterpiece of my ensemble. My hair would be tied back with a silk scarf because I have people to see and dancing to do and can’t be bothered to tuck it behind my ears. Plus, I would want to show off my lily-pad earrings.

If I was wearing neither…

What I'd Wear To Prom May 2017 Man Repeller1.0 (20 of 23)

And pantslessness was banned by the school board, I would channel Elton John in a white suit. I would embrace the deep-V of the blazer and wear nothing underneath because YOGTPO (You Only Go To Prom Once), and applying boob tape in the back of a stretch limo is an important character-building experience. I would pin not one but two flower brooches to my lapel in an ode to both corsages and Carrie Bradshaw, and I would make sure my shoes took full advantage of the opportunity to stand out underneath my snow-capped ankles.

Modeled by Nianga Niang, follow her on Instagram @nianganiang. Photos by Edith Young.

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  • The white suit is especially great! Also, I will be using the expression “octogenarian chic” daily from now on – it describes so many things! Thank you.

  • Amelia Diamond

    Harling I love this

    • Harling Ross


  • Áine Hegarty

    The red skirt and that top are amazing!!!

    • Harling Ross

      doesn’t that red skirt make you want to twirl around and around and around and around (in your desk chair or otherwise)

  • While I still like my simple prom look, my father’s was so bad! He wore the powder blue suit (plus white ruffled shirt) that was part of his jazz band uniform, and with his hair like it was in the ’70s, he looked exactly like Napoleon Dynamite. EXACTLY.

    I think the great thing about the “horrible prom photos” is we get to look back and laugh at our style choices like they were a manifestation of the things we thought were super important back then that weren’t.

    • Harling Ross

      now i want a powder blue suit

  • Imaiya Ravichandran

    “Prom dresses are bad for the same two reasons red carpet dresses typically fall flat: 1) the whole concept of “putting together an outfit” is thrown out the window in favor of allowing a single garment (usually a dress) to do all the talking”

    woaaah, this is such a good point! i spent weeks hustling back and forth between every bcbg outlet in the city in search of the perfect dress, but spent all of 10 minutes choosing my jewellery and shoes (silver glittery stripper heels, in case u were curious.) and while i enjoyed the overall ~lük~ in the end, i wish i’d put more energy into achieving a cool outfit vs a pretty dress.

    • Harling Ross

      it’s my new black tie philosophy

  • Kirby

    i would do anything to go back to prom so i could justify buying any reformation dress

  • Helen

    My prom dress was a v brown 70s tablecloth that I sewed onto my body. It was £3 and I regret nothing.

    • Harling Ross

      that is amazing

  • Bogey

    These outfits are all very cool;I don’t think they represent the tastes of someone who is 17/18 at the time of prom though? Like, if this were RuPaul’s drag race, these are not giving me Senior Prom Realness, y’know?

  • Lil

    I wore a simple, black strapless floor length gown with black flats and a statement necklace. I don’t regret my outfit. I only regret getting my make up done by a friend’s aunt who, “used to be a make up artist.”
    I ended up with caterpillar eyebrows and with no time to fix them…

  • alexa11221

    I am applying a similar philosophy to my upcoming college reunion

  • Kay Nguyen

    I’m in love with all of the shoes! I wish I could have worn something cooler for prom as well <3


  • Isabella

    Can someone please get me a time machine so I can change the tragedy that was my prom dress???? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/7e74dd2566d33461f4ffb429cad645e777cb972d3159d5370ef72b2dca416683.gif

  • Hannah Cole

    And that is why I struggle so much with event dressing – “the whole concept of “putting together an outfit” is thrown out the window in favor of allowing a single garment (usually a dress) to do all the talking”. Bland.

  • Dorinela Hamamci

    I don’t regret for a bit what I wore that my prom – a red bodycon midi dress with open back and wild asymmetric frills. It was edgy for an Eastern European small town prom in 2004 and I wore it in a defying, ‘I’m done with you people anyway’ kind of way. My only regret is being shy af and not getting up all night from my chair (there’s only so much social defiance from a teenage nerdy bookworm). If I got to do it all again, I would add accessories, a wild clutch to match (or not to match) and with my 30-or-so self confidence(and my tall&skinny teenage body which I loathed back then and miss now, every time I look at my muffin top) , I would dance and prance all night and make passes at that cute American teacher I had a crush on.