The Debate: Should Philly Schools Crack Down on Prom Dress Code?

Are prom dressing guidelines out of touch or totally necessary?

Image via Shutterstock

These dresses might not make the cut at some local high schools. | Image via Shutterstock

If you’ve been to any mall in the past few weeks, you know that it’s officially here. Prom season. The telltale signs are everywhere: stuffed dressing rooms from which emanate screeches and squeals and OMGs; moms trailing teen daughters, eyes raised to the heavens; buzzy stories about scandalous prom dresses and the resulting crack-downs on dress codes. Every year, the dresses get smaller. And every year, the dress codes get more nitpicky.

Often, these bans are warranted. (What 16-year-old needs a crotch-high dress slit?) But some schools — like Pennsylvania’s Delone Catholic School — go one step too far. This year, the school decreed that “all young women and men in attendance, whether a member of the Delone Catholic student body or a guest of a Delone Catholic student, need to be dressed in gender-specific formal wear.” The school also requires female students to email photos of the front and back of their dresses to a school administrator for approval.

If all of this seems a bit oppressive and teetering into the tyrannical, it’s because it is. Many people are outraged by the “gender-specific formal wear”requirement and see the move as discriminatory toward the LGBQT community and those who don’t adhere to prescribed gender roles. To make matters worse, the memo only indicates that young women need email photos of their prom garb. Some gowns that won’t make the cut at Delone? Ones that are “extremely short, have an extremely low cut front or back, have any excessively high cut slits, have overly revealing midriffs, or [are] inappropriately revealing — giving  the illusion of nudity.” These aren’t abnormal specifications; local Catholic schools Neumann Goretti and Cardinal O’Hara have similar policies listed on their websites:

  • “Dresses may not be cut below the bust-line in the front; this includes cut-outs below the bustline. No excessive cleavage will be permitted. Plunging necklines are not acceptable.
  • Dresses may not be cut below the natural waist in the back.
  • Dresses may not have the midriffs exposed including both the front and sides (this applies to standing straight and when in motion therefore two-piece dresses are not acceptable).
  • Dresses may not be shorter than or have a slit that exceeds 3 inches above the knee.”

Young men have strict, albeit more ambiguous, guidelines. Neumann Goretti’s policy:

  • “Clothing and appearance should be in good taste, modest, and indicative of a student who attends a Catholic school.”

Barring the inclusion of on-trend additions like low-back dresses and thigh-high slits, most of the regulations are commonplace. One Philly Mag staffer who attended Nazareth Academy in Bensalem says strapless dresses were banned during her tenure 15 years ago (they’ve since been reinstated). The rule actually poses a significant wardrobe hiccup. “Strapless forces you to cover up more cleavage than dresses with straps, where the front and back can plunge down super-low,” she says. (To wit: Jennifer Lopez’s infamous Grammy dress technically had straps).

These rules are to be expected at Catholic schools; the prom dress-code climate is decidedly less fraught at public schools. For instance, a staffer at Center City’s Central High School told us there was no prom dress code. And recent graduates of Conestoga High School in Berwyn couldn’t recall a stringently enforced dress code either. In fact, when I asked a 2014 graduate about prom dress-codes, she only said that juniors typically wore short dresses and seniors wore long dresses.

But here’s the issue with all of these guidelines — and with typical prom dresses in general: They’re inherently lacking in fashion know-how to begin with. (No one, ever, will argue that the typical prom trappings are “cool.”) Rules banning strapless dresses seem out of touch; excessive cleavage is a battle better left to parents. Maybe distasteful dresses and lack of originality is more indicative that no one is teaching kids how to dress up in the first place — corny prom magazines aside.

Perhaps a shift is occurring, though. Just last week, students from a school band made an impromptu visit to Old City’s men’s vintage shop Briar Vintage, and manager David Lochner schooled the kids in sharp prom dressing. Maybe this is what we need more of: classes in style — how to dress for an interview, how to tie a tie, how to choose a well-fitting suit, how to do ‘sexy’ without showing off everything. And if picking the brain of a smartly dressed adult isn’t possible, then girls, we implore you to reference the fun, colorful looks of age-appropriate stars like 18-year-old Hailee Steinfeld and Emma Stone. Your future self will thank you.