How to Shop for the Perfect Vintage Prom Dress

By Victoria Floethe on April 25, 2013 7:12am 

NEW YORK CITY — Prom might seem like a nostalgic conceit in such a fashion-forward city, if it weren't for the hipness of vintage fashion and the growing trend among teenage girls to choose vintage for their big night. Girls in New York know how to rock the slightly punked-out prom queen look — think 1992 "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" in white tulle and Doc Martens.

This spring, Topshop and other teen-centric retail giants have been buying up 1950s and '60s formal dresses from Paradox Designs, a New York City-based vintage archive business, to find inspiration for its prom dresses.

"Right now it's all about teardrop beading, full skirts, and Jane Birkin-style mini dresses," said Paradox buyer Theo Banzon. "Girls want dreamy, romantic styles. Overtly sexy, Herve Leger-style dresses are on the wane."

Paradox caters mostly to industry looking to copy the designs from its extensive collection of textiles and vintage pieces from the early 20th century through to the 1980s. But in recent years, so many girls have made appointments at its location on 37th Street to shop for vintage evening gowns that Paradox now has an entire section devoted to prom.

Prices at Paradox start at $500, but Banzon said mothers will pay up to $2,000 for couture pieces. "Prom has become wedding-like. Girls have few other occasions to wear fantasy dresses," he said.

The experts at Paradox have done the hard work, which is factored into the price.

But if you have the time and patience to shop the city's vintage stores, you can find a lovely vintage frock for $100 to $400.

Here are a few tips to make your search a cinch:

Bring Photo References

If you have a few styles in mind, show the vintage dealer photos, and he or she will be able to help you pull pieces. Popular styles this year are long festival-style dresses (circa 1930s or '70s) worn with flower crowns or floral head wreaths. 1920s fringe and beading inspired by the new "Great Gatsby" movie, and frothy white dresses.

Search Online

Etsy and 1stdibs are the best online sources for vintage. On Etsy, try the shops Mill Street Vintage, Vintage Vortex, Melsvanity or They Roared. On a 1stdibs search for evening dresses in the $125-$500 range, I found a number of beauties. Someone should snap up this 1950s baby pink Organza dress for $375. Or how about this amazing 1960s gold-beaded pineapple motif shift dress?

Shop Local

The best bets for affordable vintage prom dresses in New York include: Le Grand Strip in Williamsburg for cool '80s looks; Narnia on the LES for '70s free-spirit styles; Resurrection in Nolita for designer '60s through to the glam '80s; Rue St. Denis in the East Village for mostly unworn '60s and '70s dresses; Stella Dallas in the West Village for '40s and '50s looks; and New York Vintage in the Flatiron District for all eras.

My favorite vintage shop in the city is Rare Vintage on 57th Street. Owner Juliana Cairone sells mostly high-end vintage couture, but she carries a small collection of dresses at a lower price point.

Try It On

It's helpful to know your measurements, especially when shopping online. (You'll naturally ignore the vintage label size.) But you'll never know how something will look until you try it on.

Alterations

Ninety-five percent of the time, you'll need to have alterations made to the dress, whether it's to raise the hem, shorten straps or take in the bust. Remember that beaded and lace fabrics are difficult in this regard. The Upper West Side's Silouhettes and Profiles is a good neighborhood option for those in Manhattan, as is Design & Alteration by Margaret (115 E. 57th St.).

Wear Modern Accessories

Take the granny out of the equation by keeping your hair young and edgy, and shoes elegant or on trend. Zara has a great selection of Spring shoes for less than $100 that will complement vintage styles.

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