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  • Writer's pictureSkyla Clarke

Are Trends an Excuse to Be Boring? A Review of Ball Dresses Over the Years.

Year 12s and 13s, it’s that time of year again. The time of year where nails are more important than upcoming chemistry internals, where shopping trips are tainted by not being able to find the perfect shoes or jewellery, where bank accounts are emptied on hair and makeup appointments. It's ball season everyone. And the most important part of ball season is the ball dress that you decide to wear to one of the most important nights of your teenage life. Hours are spent scrolling through various websites while everybody gives their two cents worth on what you will look good in, and you can’t forget to follow the trends. Trends in ball dresses over the years have varied widely, just as with all of fashion. 


You probably would be able to guess what ball dresses looked like in the 1980s, especially after seeing a bunch of awkward photos of girls with big hair being held by guys with mullets. The 1980s was all about big, poofy dresses. This very much reflected the general style and culture of the 80s, as shown by many of the big stars of the time. Madonna, Demi Moore, Cyndi Lauper, Brooke Shields, Olivia Newton-John and even Princess Diana had very ‘out-there’ styles in the 80s, and this shaped the way that teenagers thought about fashion. And so, this led to balls filled with crimped hair and dresses with puffy skirts. Colour was also something that no-one was afraid of, dresses most commonly being bright pinks, purples and blues. Each dress was also certain to have detail of sorts, whether that be funky patterns or a bit of sparkle. Balls, like the rest of the 80s, was about self-expression and having fun. Despite the fact that my mother technically went to her ball in the early 1990s, it’s clear to see that 80s fashion hadn’t faded by then, so I have a pic of her at her ball as an example of ball fashion at the time

My mother and her friends at a high school ball in 1991

Ball dresses in the 1990s were a bit less large, but a bit more detailed. 1990s ball dresses focused on slick but cute, and focused on a variety of colours that were a bit less bright than those of the 80s. The 1990s focused on more minimal, sophisticated looks, as worn by the up-and-coming supermodels and movie stars of the time. With this came a heavy focus on the ideal body type, diet culture and Kate Moss’ “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” line. This ideal of looking like iconic models like Moss, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington influenced fashion tremendously. Minimalism was embraced, as bodies started to speak more than clothes. Tops got smaller and jeans got lower. As for ball dresses, they became a lot less poofy, slits became higher and necklines plunged. You could say ball dresses went from frilly to flirty. Just as in the 80s, teens wanted to embrace the fashion of the trending celebs at the time. And so in the 90s, ball dresses became an opportunity to feel like a supermodel for a night. In the movies, this looked like Kat Stratford’s dress in 10 Things I Hate About You, or Violia’s debutante ball dress in She’s The Man.

Kat Stratford in the 1999 film 10 Things I Hate About You Viola in the 2006 film She's the Man

90s and early 2000s fashion overlapped heavily. There was still this same underlying idea about simplicity and style, as well as a heavy diet culture. Straight dresses and spaghetti straps were still heavily embraced, however more opportunities for self-expression were presented as the decade went on. As fashion became more diverse and more trends started to emerge, this was heavily reflected in the world of ball dresses. TV stars like Victoria Justice and Miley Cyrus were carrying the teen fashion industry of the 2000s, while Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan also had considerable influence. These figures preached individuality, and this started to seep into ball dress fashion. 

Britney Spears at the 2002 Milan Fashion Week Paris Hilton at the 2004 Teen Choice Awards

In the late 2000s/early 2010s, ball dresses were exactly as you would expect them to be. Totally all out. Patterns such as cheetah and zebra print, as well as bright bright colours (most frequently pink, teal and orange) were definitely ‘in’ at the time. They were the kind of dresses that, like everything else in the late 2000s, would probably make us cringe today. There was too much sparkle, too many frills, and far too many patterns going on all at the same time. But there was a lot of variety. Girls could wear short dresses, large ball gowns, or even a pantsuit. Choose a bright colour and you could wear it. This was the time for probably the largest range of ball dresses. Despite the fact that we look back at them now and think “why on earth would you wear that?” The large variety of almost-ugly dresses were in style at the time. I think this is something that is quite important about this period in fashion, particularly ball fashion. There was a large variety of trends, meaning that a girl could pick elements, such as the infamous zebra print or meringue skirt, and incorporate them into her look. It allowed girls to truly express their individuality.

Victoria Beckham at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards Taylor Swift at the 2016 Grammy Awards

And most recently, ball dresses in the 2020s have come to resemble more of a 1990s look, with a very sophisticated ‘clean girl’ feel. Most ball dresses you will come across in New Zealand nowadays are satin or silk, and are not interesting in detail but in shape. Most dresses are one solid colour, and tend to only suit girls of more hourglass and slimmer figures. Despite having come a long way in body positivity trends since the 1990s, the same ideas keep on cropping up, where it seems to be a trend to be skinny. It’s very hard to find a flattering dress that fits bigger busts or waists and is still trendy. This makes it hard for girls who aren’t a size XS to actually feel comfortable in their dress.


I also feel as if these modern dresses have limited personality. It seems as if you either have to choose a basic solid-colour satin dress or stand out significantly from the crowd. In the 80s and late 2000s/early 2010s there was a lot of room for self expression, but I feel that recently we have funnelled the trends down so that you can only really express yourself through the shape of whatever plain dress you chose.  


One thing that makes me die a little inside is watching Tiktoks of Americans in their prom dresses. Their dresses that are extravagant, detailed, and bright. And there’s a fair variety of them too. Some are straight but heavily detailed, some have larger skirts but are more plain. Most are bright in colour, and many are sparkly. Every single girl that I have seen in their prom dresses online looks absolutely gorgeous in their dress, like it truly suits them no matter what their size or shape. Every single girl has been able to express themselves in their own unique way.


School balls in New Zealand have been made to be less of a fun and more of a sophisticated affair. Girls are so focused on looking more mature that I feel like we forget that we are just girls. These are the times to have the most fun, wear whatever we want, and create a night to remember. Dresses are probably the most important part of a ball night, a night that we only get to experience twice in our entire lives. Why not go all out, and wear the dresses we truly want to wear? There are so many other opportunities in life to wear plain dresses. These are the only times we can really be youthful and have fun with our fashion. 


As teenagers, we should put less focus on looking a certain way and more focus on feeling a certain way. I see no point in buying a dress that is trendy but being underwhelmed or feeling uncomfortable when you put it on. When I was looking for dresses, the first thing I thought when I found one that I actually liked was “is this too much?” or “Am I going to stand out from everyone else?” But why are we wired to think like this? Instead of thinking about how fun or exciting a dress might be, we are almost programmed to wonder about how other people will react. Peer pressure and fear of being judged is part of being a teenager, but why have we created an environment where people feel worried about standing out? Of course, standing out is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does put you under scrutiny for much of the night. Everyone seems to talk about any dress that looks different, as if it is an expectation that you follow the trends. 


There’s nothing wrong with wearing the straight satin dresses if that is what you want to do, and what you truly feel comfortable in. But as teenagers we should stop focusing so much on what we think other people are going to think when we wear a ball dress that may be considered ‘different.’ Instead, we should turn our attention to being able to fully express our personality in the outfit we chose to construct. After all, you only live once right?


I suppose this is then a plea. A plea for you to get that ball dress that you really want. Don’t feel pressured to fall to the trends. If you want to wear that dress, wear that dress. In a world of people who are heavily influenced by others, be the one who is influenced by only your own personality. 

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