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Prom Dresses Reflect Pop Culture of the Times

Posted 2/26/21 (Fri)

By Kim Jondahl, Audience Engagement & Museum Director

 

What did you wear to prom?

Over the decades, the prom dress has retained its status as one of the most important gowns to wear in high school. This mainstay of teen fashion—whether sweeping and elegant or simple and thrifty—typically reflects the pop culture of the times. Our curators can usually guess the date of a prom dress within a few years based solely on style elements and fabrics.

 

8 girls wearing prom dresses jump in the air to pose for a photo between brick buildings

While the romance of the dance remains timeless, prom dresses often evoke the distinctive fashion trends of a given era. These 2013 prom dresses worn by Bismarck teens reflect the popularity of black-and-white fabrics, sequin trims, and a mix of shorter and longer styles. Submitted photo by Kimberly Jondahl.

 

We selected one prom dress from the state collection to help tell the story of 1950s milestone moments in Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style. Jackie Darling Gilbertson wore this dreamy 1959 pastel blue prom dress to the Mandan High School prom. Both the top and bottom are accented with blue nylon and white lace ruffles. A blue nylon band around the waist ties into a bow in the back. Its strapless tight bodice and tea-length wide skirt made the waist appear smaller, which mirrored the popular shape of the 1950s day dress. “Bigger is better” sums up the practice of filling out these skirts with multiple layers of petticoats underneath for support and extra volume.

 

A young woman wearing a poofy blue dress with white shoes and above the elbow gloves stands with her arm linked with a young man in a white suite coat with a black bowtie, pants, shoes, and handkerchief in the breast pocket of the coat

Jackie Darling Gilbertson and her date pose for a prom picture in 1959.
Note the volume of Gilbertson’s skirt! SHSND 1990.221.3

 

Hats, pearls, pins, footwear, and other accessories can help reveal the date of prom attire. Gilbertson, for instance, accented her frilly dress with two glamorous accessories—a matching blue nylon stole and white elbow-length gloves. She also wore white pumps to match her date’s white jacket.  

As the 2021 prom season begins in North Dakota, who could have predicted that a matching face mask would be a telltale indicator of the year in which the dress was worn?

 

Previous Articles:

Creating Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style
Colorful Exhibit Features Stunning Backdrops and Clothing
Powwow Panache
An Inside Look, Literally
Not So White Wedding Dress
A 1930s Timeless Dress Still Stuns Today
The Nitty-gritty of Nostalgia
Dressing the Mannequin
Once a Bennie, Always a Bennie
Upcoming Fashion & Function Exhibit Highlights Objects from the Jewish Faith
Hats and Hunting: Fashion and Feathers in Our Museum Collection
Western Symbols Tell Stories of Cattle Culture
Red Berry Woman, Red Berry Style
Spooktacular Fashion: Four Vintage Halloween Masks
Wouldn't It Be Wunnerful, Wunnerful
An Army of Aluminum Mannequins Takes Shape
Miss America’s Gown & Wonder Woman Boots Have Arrived!
Fashion & Function: North Dakota Style

 

If you have items or clothing to be considered as donations to the State Historical Society, go to online donation form, or for more information, contact Melissa at methompson@nd.gov or Elise at edukart@nd.gov.