10 formal dress shopping tips

10 formal dress shopping tips

Janet Camilleri Fashion, How to 54 Comments

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 camilleriJanet 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. 

Comments 54

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

    1. 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….

            1. 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!!

    1. 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.

  3. 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.

    1. 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!

  4. 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.

    1. 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!

  5. 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!!

  6. 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.

      1. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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