10 formal dress shopping tips

Editor’s note: Last year I had it fairly easy as far as school formal shopping goes because it was my eldest son’s event. We bought him a suit that will get a lot of wear this year at university balls. Now, it’s my daughter’s turn but even that’s turning out easier than I anticipated. We already have the dress – and we got it on sale! But since I know quite a few mums and daughters are out there looking and shopping with the school formal in mind, I’m very excited to have Janet Camilleri guest posting today with her tips for formal dress shopping.

School has only just gone back for the year, but it’s not too soon to start shopping for a formal dress.

That’s what we discovered when my sister and I, along with our two Year 12 daughters, visited the city recently to browse the various formal wear boutiques.

We thought we were getting in early – their formals are not until November – but far from it! According to one sales assistant, some schools have their formals as early in the year as March; while another store advised that it takes four months to have a specific dress ordered.

Shopping for formal dresses is a lot of fun, but we also learnt there are quite a few things worth keeping in mind.

10 formal dress shopping tips

10 formal dress shopping tips

1. Check if you need to make an appointment. Even though it was a quiet weekday, the first store we visited turned us away; shopping is by appointment only. In many ways, this makes sense: it allows for a more personalised consultation, and the time to try a number of gowns on.

2. Make sure the formal attendee-to-be wears minimal or no makeup, so there is little risk of staining the expensive garments.

3. Girls should dress appropriately, in a simple dress and shoes that are easy to take on and off. Don’t worry about taking high heels – many stores have a spare pair you can try on, or a small box for you to stand on, to get the full effect of the dress.

4. Wear a strapless bra. Many gowns are strapless.

5. Do not wear jewellery – rings, bracelets, etc – and make sure nails are neatly filed, so that nothing will “catch” on the delicate fabrics. In fact, at some stores you will be asked to don a pair of white gloves, to again protect the delicate fabrics.

6. Many stores do not permit photos. Although as a doting mother I was disappointed – I would have loved a photo of my daughter looking like a princess in her favourite gown, and to show her father – I can understand that it’s a good idea to keep it a secret until the big day. Also, I’m sure in the past people have taken photos and then had the dress made elsewhere, cheating the store of a sale.

7. Write down the dress details. Once you’ve found a dress you like, ask the staff to write the details – name, colour, price – on one of their business cards for you.

8. Find out if your store has a “dress registry”. This means that no other girl from your school will be sold the dress you have bought – not even in a different colour. We thought this was a great idea – there would be nothing worse than turning up to your formal, only to find somebody else wearing your outfit!

9. Do your research online first. You can save a lot of time by narrowing down the stores or designers you’d like to visit before hitting the streets.

10. It really is a case of you “just know” when you find the right dress. For my daughter, it just happened to be the first dress she tried on. For my niece, it was only at the last store, when she decided to try something a little bit different, that she found a style that was “just right”. You’ll know it’s the right dress when you try on other gowns, and realise that nothing else looks as good.

I’d love to tell you more about the dresses that my daughter and my niece ended up choosing, but I’m duty bound to keep their secrets until November!

Tell me, what did you wear to your school formal or graduation (if you’re game, share a photo in the comments below!)? Have you got any formal dress shopping tips to share?

janet camilleri Janet Camilleri has her own business providing writing, editing, social media, website and marketing services for a number of clients. She also runs the rapidly growing lifestyle blog, Redland City Living. Her work has been published across dozens of magazines, newspapers, anthologies, and websites, and she has released two books for the Christian market. A former teacher, she is supported in her endeavours and constantly encouraged by her awesome hubster of 23 years, and sometimes by her two teenagers. 

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  • Birgit

    We were on holiday the christmas before I was in grade 12 and my mum and I spontaneously bought my two formal dresses – one for my formal, one for my boyfriend at the time. Sounds crazy, but I liked the dresses and still liked them when it came time to wear them 9 or 10 months later, with the same boy and all. My mum was thrilled to get it all out of the way nice and quick and also cut-price; one dress cost $57, the other $89.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Not crazy – meant to be! And your mum would still be smiling about it, I’m sure!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Awesome bargains – and even better that you still liked them when formal time rolled around!

  • Jess

    Love number eight. The store I bought my dress from assured me nobody else would have my dress. Rock up to my formal and two people were wearing it in different colours. I loved my accessories though and we all mixed it up a bit.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Not good … but go the accessories … always the way to stand out from the crowd!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      At least they were different colours! And accessories can make a world of difference. I’d love to see Miss 16 complement her dress with a diamante necklace and long white gloves … needless to say she doesn’t agree ;-)

  • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

    Welllll ok you twisted my arm. That’s me in the middle. Horrendous isn’t it.

    • Cat

      Hi Janet, Did you go to Aspley High? What with buying your dress from Chermside and the year, we could have gone to the same formal…..:) If it is any consolation, mine was black with white spots and tiers of polyester (much like your friend on the right). And strapless… BAD idea for big busted teenager who wants to jump around to the Violent Femmes….

      • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

        OMG Cat yes I did!!!! What was your maiden name?!

        • Cat

          Dacker…..what was yours??

          • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

            Hey Cathy – I remember you – I think we were in the same Ancient History class – I was Janet Moore back in the day!

            • Cat

              OMG! Yes, I remember you. I think we also did Home Ec together. I read Nikki’s blog every day, fancy coming across a classmate like this? I hope Nikki doesn’t mind our stroll down memory lane in the middle of her blog!!

              • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

                Re-unite away Cat and Janet!

                • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

                  Thanks Nikki ;-) what a blast from the past this has been!

              • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

                LOL nope definitely wasn’t me in home ec – I failed in Grade 8 ;-) … I also am a huge fan of Nikki’s blog so was stoked to be a guest blogger!

      • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

        LOL … love the Violent Femmes!

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      So young and innocent, Janet!

      • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

        Ughghghghgh

  • Cilla
    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      LOL Cilla, can just imagine my daughter and her friends going for that! Not.

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Perfect! I’ll see if I can get Miss 16 to wear it ;-)

    • Fred

      Probably one of the biggest things to be wary of is the sales person’s assurance that “it will be easy to take in!” We had our daughter’s formal last November (and it was at my recommendation that Janet and her sister started shopping so early). My daughter (who has… ahem… generous physical attributes) found a gorgeous gown with a plunging front and a reasonably low back. I wasn’t that wild on the plunging front, and was quite concerned about what sort of bra would go under it, but we were assured that a) it would be easy to find a bra (yeah… for a girl less endowed) and b) the dress would be easy to take in! Let me just say that bra shopping was a nightmare, and the only bra suitable was roughly $100 from a specialty lingerie shop in the city. Also, had the dress needed significant altering, this would have cost about $400. The friend, a retired dressmaker, who did all the alterations for free said that had the dress needed more than 2 cm taking in, it would have required taking the bodice off the skirt – you can imagine the cost if that happened! A handy tip is to purchase a dress with a lace up back, as these require a lot less alteration or take someone “sewing-wise” with you for an honest opinion of potential alteration issues.

      • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

        It also depends on the store as well. Where I shopped for my daughter I have complete confidence in them and their advice.

      • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

        Wow, they do all say that! Miss 16 was measured so it should be a perfect fit :-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/justine.pell Justine Pell

    Janet, I’d love to see a photo of you in your formal dress… hee hee… oh well it was the 80′s. Love your little sis, Jus xxx

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Ah, sisterly love!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Fortunately the only record of it is a very blurry photo ;-)

      • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

        Which I’ve shared in another comment …

  • Jane

    Hi Nikki, what an exciting time for you! My daughter is only Year 9, so have a few years to go!! But her school has just had their Year 12 formal last Saturday! Very early, but school’s rationale is that then the girls can concentrate on their studies, which I think is a good idea. My school formal (back in1990) was in July, and I remember all us girls talked about up until the day was what we were going to wear!! My daughter is boarding,(we are on a farm) so she was watching all the Year 12 girls in the boarding house trying on their dresses and practising walking in their high heels with much interest! Best of luck with the preparations.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Very exciting – and ours is in May so that is better than later in the year, I agree. It’s also run as a fundraiser as well – the Y12s will choose a charity which they want to support and will donate a considerable about to that charity. This is a great focus – and not just about the event itself!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Miss 16 says that the formal is pretty much all anybody talks about this year at school. I wonder if they’ll be sick of it by November?!

  • Jen ( SE Qld)

    Hi Janet,

    I am so blessed in that my daughter loves Vintage clothing at the tender age of 14 and three quarters and is way ahead of me when it comes to not wanting to blend in at her age as I was at that age. She has worn one of my old Carla Zampatti dresses, an Anthea Crawford dress of mine ( from when I was 20) and another gorgeous long black sheath I packed away when I was 25 ( too many years ago) and which her Dad actually got a tear in his eye when he saw it on her. I find it hilarious that she cannot believe I was ever as tiny as she is.

    The other secret I have to share is Frock up Brisbane, with all things Vintage at the Mt Gravatt Show grounds ( I am sure Nikki will be aware of this event) where there are some gorgeously amazing bargains to be had and where I know my girl and her friends will head to for her formal dress soon enough. This is coming up in March and I think they have another one in the spring. There is also one on down the Coast usually throughout the year as well. I just cannot imagine her wearing anything other than vintage something/someone for any special occasion. You have to go with what suits you and what you love don’t you.

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Jen, my daughter is also a big fan of vintage, I love her style (but that’s a whole ‘nother post!). I’ve never heard of Frock Up, sounds great – thanks for the tip!

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Oh Jen, thanks for the heads up – I love it that so many young girls are not afraid to stand out from the crowd with what they choose to wear. At my son’s formal last year, one of the girls had had her mum’s navy and cream wedding dress altered to become her formal dress!

  • Kelly

    Wow, the formal dress and subsequent shopping has certainly changed since my formal in 1996. Ours was in the middle of the year (so it didn’t interfere with end of year exams) and I got my dress from a shop at Carindale (which was very very different to what it is now) that we popped into after doing the grocery shopping one afternoon. It was stunning and fitted me perfectly and cost about $200. I am very pleased that I don’t have to deal with formal shopping now!!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      LOL Kelly, it was much the same for me in 1983, only the shopping centre was Chermside, and it cost $130!

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      It was definitely meant to be! I’ve been lucky with my daughter – a bit similar but without the grocery shopping first!

  • Lisa Mckenzie

    I found shopping for a formal dress with my daughter a very trying time,her formal was 41/2 years ago and we went everywhere looking for dresses,she was very fussy ,still is and we tried on so many,but she didn’t want a long formal gown as you are describing and she wanted to be able to wear it again,she chose a beautiful lemon long dress and then changed her mind and we ended up in Seduce and she tried on everything in the shop,in the end I said try this one on ,it was black short,cocktail length and quite plain except for a big round diamonte accent in the middle of the dress and it looked stunning on,she is tall and leggy and with a pair of gorgoeous silver heels a $200 leather silver and black clutch and her hair and makeup done ,she looked beautiful,and not like everyone else which she likes and she is still wearing that dress to functions now and the bag is “shared ” between us ,I don’t get much of a turn but when she goes out she uses it still,so money very well spent.If you find the right dress for the girl and she feels fabulous in it ,you are on to a winner.
    I have shared my formal dress with Nikki last year and she can post the pic again if she would like to.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Oh, that dress and bag was a good buy Lisa!

      • Lisa Mckenzie

        Yes it was Nikki and it started her on her own personal style journey,much earlier than I did!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Yes, that was the only comment my hubster made when he saw THE dress – will she be able to wear it again? She chose a long dress and there is some talk of shortening it later into a tea length dress … we will see!

      • Lisa Mckenzie

        Well she could leave it long as maxi dresses will never go out of style in my books Janet or even sell it ,as a lot of people buy second hand dresses now.

  • http://www.retailtherapie.com.au/ RetailTherapie

    I didn’t go to my formal, but for an end of year event I wore an emerald green, silk dress. It had spaghetti straps and stopped at the knee.
    REALLY NOT a flattering dress for a plus sized teen with larger boobs…
    But my mum liked it

    It’s been 10 years and I haven’t been sleeveless since.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      LOL – the mum influence! Spaghetti straps are difficult to work with at the best of times thanks to need to strapless bra!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      I hated my formal dress too, but Mum loved it!

  • Thea

    I bought my daughter the most divine Morrisy dress on sale on spec which of course she wouldn’t wear. We spent a frustrating day looking for ‘the perfect’ blue dress before buying a yellow one that she only tried on as a last resort to please (shut up) the assistant and me. In the end she wore the one I had bought to her boyfriend’s formal and had worn it a couple if times since (unlike the one she chose). So the moral of this story girls is that sometimes Mum might know best! But then the one Mum chose for me to wear in the 70s was hideous, so ignore my previous advice.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      Oh, I love that story Thea … yes, mums do go ok, don’t they?!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      I think that’s one of the advantages of shopping so early – it was just for “fun” and there was no pressure. As it turned out we bought the first dress she tried on!

  • Andrea

    My daughter has hers in June which is something I only just found out about. While not hitting the panic button yet we are definitely in discussion and planning stage and she won’t be wearing the same as her friends because I will be making it. It is all very exciting. At 17, this year will be the short dress but at 18 for year 13 we will be doing the long version.

    • http://www.stylingyou.com.au/ Nikki | Styling You

      I love that you are able to make her dress Andrea – even more special!

    • http://www.redlandcityliving.com/ Janet from Redland City Living

      Your daughter is so lucky that you can sew! I’m sure it will be beautiful :-)