A Mothers Survival Guide to Shopping for a Formal Dress …

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Around about this time each year, many girls begin the search for their formal dress. It can be a fun time but it can also be incredibly stressful. I’ve been through it twice now and I can happily report that I survived both times, so here are a few tips to help you if you’re about to hit the shops:


  • Lay some ground rules … remind your daughter that your opinions may vary. Ask her to respect yours but remember you must do the same in return.


  • Set a budget … a School Formal can be a very expensive night … there’s shoes, underwear, makeup, jewellery, handbag, hair and let’s not forget the dress. Establish your budget before leaving home and then stand your ground once you start shopping. Don’t feel guilty, allow yourself to be manipulated or fall victim to either a tantrum or “puppy dog eyes” … your credit card will thank you for it! If your daughter wants to blow the budget, then maybe she can contribute.


  • Manage your daughters’ expectations and foster some perspective … yes she wants to look amazing and it is a special occasion BUT it is only one night!


  • Have some fun … it’s a great opportunity to bond with your daughter or, if your relationship has been strained through her teens, it could be a great way to reconnect.


  • Be adventurous … encourage her to try on a wide variety of styles and colours to see what suits her colouring, height and shape. It might open her eyes (and yours) to ideas, designs and styles that neither of you had previously considered. It costs nothing to try things on and dresses that don’t have much hanger appeal can sometimes surprise you and look fabulous. Alternatively, other dresses may look gorgeous on the hanger but mightn’t be quite right when you try them on. Get online and do some homework together before you even leave home. It will help her define what appeals to her, give you an idea so you can help during the search and also save you time from wandering the streets aimlessly.


  • Take advantage of independent advice … sometimes your daughter may be willing to take advice from someone else rather than you … Mum’s are dinosaurs after all with absolutely no taste! Consider taking a trusted friend or relative who can steer her towards something appropriate and help her avoid plunging necklines that expose her navel or some other wardrobe malfunction!


  • Be prepared … on the practical side, suggest your daughter wear minimal makeup. It would be such a shame to stain or mark what she’s trying on, particularly if she finds the dress of her dreams and then gets foundation, lipstick or deodorant all over it. The store also won’t be too thrilled if you stain or mark a dress costing hundreds of dollars. Don’t worry about taking shoes with you. Most stores will have a pair of high heels to borrow so you can get a better idea of how the dress will look and chances are you won’t buy your shoes until after you’ve picked your dress anyway. It’s a good idea for her to dress simply and comfortably in clothes and shoes that slip on and off quickly and easily as that will make her more willing to try things on.


  • BUT if all else fails and the thought of shopping with a hormonal teen sends you into a spin, let her shop with her girlfriends … you might just preserve your sanity and your relationship with your daughter in the process. As soon as she begins to behave like a “bridezilla” … bail out while you still can and let her girlfriends deal with the carnage.


Once you have found “the dress”, some girls will add a photo of it to a facebook group, which may have been created by the other Year 12 girls from school. The idea is, that once you post a photo, no-one else will buy the same dress. Some stores will also have a “Dress Register” where they record who has purchased a particular dress and then make a commitment not to sell the same dress to anyone else from the same school. I do understand the theory and motivation behind such a page or Register but I also think it removes some of the mystery and anticipation. Miss 17 has chosen not to post a photo of whichever dress she buys (or has made) as she wants the element of surprise. So, under a fate worse than death and the angst of a moody (but gorgeous) teenager, I won’t be posting a photo until after the event … and if you’ve been hanging in thinking you were going to get a sneak peek, sorry to disappoint you!


Here are photos, however, of the dresses my two beautiful, older girls chose:





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So tell me, have you ever been shopping for a formal dress before and did you enjoy the experience? Do you have any other tips you could add to the list above?






  1. I haven’t had this pleasure as yet – my eldest girl is nearly 11 so there’s still a few more years for me yet. But I will definitely be bookmarking this for future reference as I suspect I will need all the help I can get when that time comes!

    • Hi Kirsty, believe me, it will come around sooner than you think. It’s such an exciting and fun time and I’ll be posting lots more tips, so stay tuned …

  2. I like the idea of the dress register or group but I get what you are saying, it is a shame to lose some of the anticipation.

    • I agree, I think half the excitement is going along to the arrivals and watching all the girls in their beautiful gowns. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I loved formal dress shopping with my Mum…with two little boys I don’t know if I will get the experience {although another little person – sex unknown – is due any day now}.

    • Maybe when your boys go to their formal you can accompany their partners with their Mums when they go shopping … that’s always a nice idea. Good luck for your new little arrival … you must be so excited … let us know how it all goes!