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One Teen's Quest for the Ultimate Prom Dress

 Oneesha Dixon takes DNAinfo New York along on for a SoHo shopping trip.
Prom Dress Shopping
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BEDFORD-STUYVESANT — No matter what changes in the world, one thing remains true: when it comes to prom, it’s all about the dress.

That fact isn’t lost on Oneesha Dixon, an 18-year-old senior at the Urban Assembly of Math and Science in Downtown Brooklyn. The sartorially savvy Bed-Stuy resident is looking to major in fashion marketing after she graduates high school this month. Prom is the perfect opportunity to show off her eye for what’s in vogue.

Dixon is just one of thousands of New York City students about to attend their senior prom. It's a rite of passage that their parents and grandparents went through, and, unlike so many other traditions, remains as momentous as ever. But the class of 2013 is a far more sophisticated and fashion-forward bunch than their predecessors. The hunt for the perfect dress is as central to the tradition as always, but the process looks a bit different today than it has in the past.

 Oneesha Dixon's got a style all of her own, which she hopes to exhibit through the perfect prom dress.
Oneesha Dixon's got a style all of her own, which she hopes to exhibit through the perfect prom dress.
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DNAinfo/Heidi Patalano

Dixon took DNAinfo New York along with her as she began the search for the perfect prom dress in April, ahead of her prom on June 4.

“I don’t have a specific idea,” Dixon said while strolling down Broadway in SoHo. “I know that I want the dress to be higher than knee-length and maybe a lower back and something sparkly, something that I’m comfortable in. Nothing too subtle, because I’m not really a boring person.”

Given that the strip of SoHo she's in — on Broadway between Houston and Canal streets — is pretty much an outdoor mall featuring the country’s biggest brands, Dixon seems confident that she will be able to find something appealing in one of the shops.

The first stop is H&M. Due to financial help from her family, Dixon’s spending limit for her prom dress is several hundred dollars; however, the low price point of this Swedish retailer promises to fit comfortably within her budget.

Sadly, the dresses seem too casual for a formal affair, according to Dixon, with thin cotton florescent dresses dominating the inventory.

The frocks in Guess by Marciano a few doors down also fail to pique Dixon’s interest, as they seem to say more “Miami Beach Getaway” than “seminal moment in a teen girl’s life.”

Dixon decides Bloomingdale’s might have something more appropriate for the occasion. On the third floor of the department store’s SoHo location, Dixon sorts through racks of heavy, layered dresses, eventually picking out a spritely number from Alex and Olivia in pale pink, with a high mock turtleneck collar in the front, a wide open back and a flirty high hemline.

“Princess, but with an edge,” she said, describing the dress.

But unfortunately there weren’t any left in her size.

Dixon draws much of her fashion inspiration from pop singer Rihanna.

“Because she’s a mix,” Dixon said. “She’s urban, she’s couture, she’s everything in one. I kind of look up to her style and kind of borrow some of her things. It changes for me. But Rihanna at this moment, I really respect her 'steeze,' (style) if you want to call it that.”

Dixon is drawn toward vibrant colors and sparkle as she sifts through all the formal wear. In that sense, she is very much on trend for prom shopping this year, according to experts.

“Bright, bold hues like fuchsia, yellow and red are especially in demand this season, as well as ice blue. Girls are attracted to prom dresses that will really make them pop,” said Lucy Sykes Rellie, fashion director for Rent the Runway.

Sykes Rellie’s site specializes in temporarily loaning high-end garments to consumers for far less than they would pay to buy the dresses. Teens are a growing percentage of their consumer base, renting dresses for prom, graduation and birthday parties, she said.

When it comes to prom in particular, teen girls are ready to go all out.

“For the majority of high school girls, prom is the first occasion where they can wear a gown and feel like Cinderella, so they want to experiment and have fun with it,” Sykes Rellie said.

Prom Outfiters in Flatbush, Brooklyn, attracts clients from all over the world — and many start hunting for dresses as early as January. Manager and buyer Nathan Vaknin said he’s noticed a dramatic change in prom trends.

“In previous years we used to sell shorter prom dresses. But this year it’s been completely changed,” he said. “Everybody’s buying long dresses and high-to-low dresses rather than short dresses. Why? I’m really not sure. Since the high-to-low dresses came in last year, it’s picked up.”

Vaknin added that orange, ivory, coral, lime, nudes and sequins are the most popular colors he’s seeing for prom dresses this year.

Meanwhile, Dixon, unexcited by her Bloomies options, decides that Top Shop will be the last stop on this shopping trip. While this megastore’s prices are a little higher than those of H&M’s, the set-up is the same. A blinding number of racks offer all sorts of casual clothes, with just three dedicated specifically to prom garb. But the Top Shop looks are too ‘60s retro to offer enough of the edge that Dixon is looking for. She considers one of the many pastel, beaded frocks for a moment before putting it back.

“Too much,” she said of its style.

Dixon was inclined to hold out for something perfect.

A month later, she found a short black dress by Jovani at Operation Prom, a nonprofit that outfits low-income students with dresses and tuxedo rentals, in addition to providing scholarships, supplies and financial aid to those in need. Like all students who participate in the program, Dixon was nominated by her guidance counselor on account of her good grades and personal circumstances.

But two weeks after finding that dress, fashion inspiration struck.

TheCelebrityDresses.com specializes in selling knock-offs of looks worn by starlets on the red carpet. Dixon selected a copy of Hillary Swank’s 2005 Academy Awards dress, which was on sale for $158.99.

“I always wanted to do the open back,” Dixon said. “For some reason I felt that was kind of elegant and chic at the same time. The color was last minute. I’d wanted to do something beige or champagne. I just jumped to a navy blue because I felt like it was something that could be more elegant instead of too much with the open back.”

Because she still had the short cocktail dress by Jovani that she was originally going to wear, she decided to attend prom in the Swank dress and change into the Jovani number for the afterparty. Dixon had her braces taken off and dyed her hair a golden blonde two weeks before prom — the timing of the braces removal was kismet, the hair change was intentional.

In the fall, Dixon is attending SUNY Cobleskill and hopes to transfer to Fashion Institute of Technology soon after that. But for now, she’s just going to enjoy the moment.

Dixon broke into a fit of giggles when asked if she’ll be taking a date to the prom.

“If I don’t, I’m still going to go," Dixon said. "It’s more a celebration for achieving things during the year, so I’m going to look at it like that. Boys are always gonna be there.”