How to Make a Formal Dress Un-Basic

The other day we received an email from a reader who fortuitously received a hand-me-down dress. She had an event coming up that required formal attire, and since she was low on funds (I’m going to assume she blew her allowance where all of us have before: on a life-sized Thomas Jefferson statue made completely out of Reece’s) she couldn’t exactly buy a new one.

The problem was, she wasn’t in love with her dress. She thought it was basic, that it was nice, but not THE ONE. She had faith that it could be, however, if only through the force of the best accessory known to date: aka, good advice.

“How do I make this floor-length prom dress un-basic,” she asked. “I like the shape, and the color, but it’s plain.”

So assuming that each of us has one of these somewhere deep in the depths of our closets, stored away for occasions when we suddenly need to look glamorous, all you need are a few things, and I promise we can do this whole hoo-ha in under $300 total.

First, let’s talk hair. The great thing about hair is it’s ON YO HEAD. You already have it, you lucky Mallard. Pairing artfully messy hair with a fancy dress adds instant IDGAF-osity. Put it in a low bun and then scratch like you have lice. Or, keep it loose and rub the strands like you’re drying it after a shower. Muss that baby up, you J. Crew model you. And use a few products to help.

Now it’s lipstick time. Add color!

Next, make like Superwoman and cuff the shit out of your wrists. (These will come in handy later.) Then add a choker, and a funky earring. You’re starting to look cool, aren’t you?

Now, I often think that spending money on a clutch for a formal event is a HUGE waste of time. You’re going to leave it on your table all evening anyway, especially while taking pictures or shaking your groove thang on the dance floor. That said, the weirder the clutch, the less basic the dress.

Finally, I think this is the only time I’m going to say it, but if your dress is super long (as was the reader who submitted this question) then shoes don’t matter. Choose a comfortable pair and get a good pedicure. Only your toes are going to show anyway and dancing, to me, is priority.

I’m dropping the mic here because I’m sure you’ll look great. And if you have any other tips, sprinkle them in the comments section like its a giant bowl of gelato. Mmm. Sprinkles.

— Amelia Diamond

  • Marissa P

    An added dose of advice that I think you don’t expressly say is color/print mixing. Funking up a dress with some odd color choice accessories makes all the difference. Purple dress? Add cobalt, silver, peach and a paisley print. Or whatever.

    Not looking like you’re going to Winter Formal is the point. No matchy matchy-ness! 🙂

    • Amelia Diamond

      That’s a great call!

  • Kelly’s Gross-o

    I’m about to do this for a wedding with a champagne colored floor length number I wore almost a decade ago to winter formal (ugh).

    My solution (thus far) is going to be wearing a satin ribbon in teal or cobalt– haven’t decided yet– as a belt, which instantly changes the shape and adds pizzazz, or so I’m hoping.

    I may or may not use a silk foulard as a headband sort of thing with my updo, the jury is still out in that regard. I’m toying with the option of wearing one of my grandma’s extra large bangles as an upper arm cuff instead.

  • this is nothing a “Dannijo” can’t fix. And similarly to @leandramedine:disqus I dont wear a lot of makeup but lipstick is a MUST. it will change YO FACE

  • hi_itsgabby

    It’s all in the jewels doll.

  • Love the lipstick selection!!!

  • Aubrey Green

    Amelia, you are so funny. I love you, as well as your writing style. You also have beautiful hair.

    • Amelia Diamond

      Aubrey I love back! Thank you for the compliments! I bet you have beautiful hair also.

  • GapToothedGirl

    I add my little sweety, my jack russell, he’s super for transform all formal in non formal occasions.
    xox, Gap.

  • Maria Maria

    I missed only the trick in the photo: formal dress + fancy silk scarf. Wouldn’t these be great to make it more fun? 🙂

  • These are great tips Amelia. Gosh my Promm dress was so basic, but I designed it myself haha, I wish I had played up the dress a little more. But I agree, a cute lippie, a nice clean but still cute necklace would be awesome a lots of Arm party action, rings too.

  • Love the messy hair idea! But I would then add a brooch somewhere in the mess to put the chic in messy-chic!

  • Betsy

    I wish I could have read this before my prom!! You always know what’s up Amelia. Can I be you?

  • yuyuleroux

    I’m glad that so long are the day’s when talk show host’s (with no style) would suggest slipping a black turtle neck underneath. Like we were all headed to a reptilian fundraiser.

  • Dreamy

    I’d love to see more guides like this!