Days Before Prom in Shelton, Conn., a Dress Code Adds to the Stress

SHELTON, Conn. — As surely as flowers bloom, springtime brings prom drama around the country. The dates, the dancing, the photos, the cost — it is all fraught. And the dresses. Oh, the prom dresses.

prom girl dresses

Considering the current state of undress in pop culture and the fashion world, you might think that in 2015, when it comes to styles for the prom, anything goes.

Instead, just about anything can be deemed going too far.

Girls have been told to cover up shoulders, knees and backs. They have been reprimanded for partially exposed stomachs and thighs and excessive cleavage. They have been ordered to wear jackets, ordered to go home and suspended.

Some schools have even required that students submit photos of their Evening dresses before they are allowed to buy a ticket to the dance.

Officials at Shelton High School in Connecticut may have been trying to head off any prom-night dress-code drama, but those efforts appear to have backfired.

On Friday, Beth A. Smith, the headmaster, made an announcement that was intended to remind students of the dress code for prom. Backless dresses, side cutouts and bared midriffs were among the styles that would not be permitted. Ms. Smith urged students to ask a faculty member whether their dress was acceptable.

Reaction was swift. Students were aghast. Parents who had spent hundreds of dollars on dresses, alterations and coordinating shoes and jewelry cried foul.

Students said Ms. Smith’s announcement, and the specific prohibitions, came as a surprise, and at a late date. The prom is on Saturday. More than 500 students had bought their $90 tickets as of Monday. Students and parents signed permission slips that outlined rules and regulations for the prom. Students say the rules were vague, calling for “appropriate formal dress” and warning that students dressed “inappropriately” would be sent home without a refund.

Freeman Burr, the schools superintendent, issued a news release over the weekend hoping to calm the storm, saying the public school was just restating existing policy. But the policy may not have been as clear as administrators believed.

Alexis Gerics, a junior, bought her long, black backless dress in early March. Alexis said that after Ms. Smith’s announcement last week she took her cellphone to the headmaster’s office, showed a photo of her dress and asked if it was acceptable.

Photo

Alexis Gerics, a junior, bought her long, backless dress in early March. She was told she would have to wear a camisole underneath it if she wanted to attend the prom. Credit Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Ms. Smith told her the dress was not appropriate, Alexis said. She would have to wear a camisole underneath the dress if she wanted to attend the prom.

Alexis’s mother, Tonny Montalvo, said she did not think the prom dress code unreasonable. What exasperated her, she said, was that the guidelines were not explained clearly — and early.

“They say it’s in the student handbook,” Ms. Montalvo said. “There’s no specifics anywhere.” She said she emailed Ms. Smith on Friday to ask how her daughter’s dress could be altered to make it acceptable. She has not yet received a response.

Speaking outside the school at a hastily arranged news conference on Monday, Superintendent Burr said: “Sometimes what we’re talking about here is good judgment. Honestly, I believe this incident has been blown out of proportion.”

About six or seven prom girl dresses have been vetoed by administrators so far, he noted.

“We want our young ladies to be dressed beautifully; we want them to be dressed with class and dignity,” Mr. Burr said. “But we are going to draw the line relative to attire that would be deemed overexposing oneself.”

Danielle Rieder, a junior, said her white strapless dress also got the thumbs-down from the headmaster on Friday. “I have cutouts in the back of my dress so parts of my back are visible, and she said that was inappropriate,” Danielle said.

Danielle’s mother, Fran Rieder, said the prom was already a financial strain to the family. She and her husband are divorcing, and Ms. Rieder is living with Danielle’s grandmother. The dress and alterations cost $400 on top of the $90 prom ticket, Ms. Rieder said.

The headmaster’s announcement, eight days before the prom, left Ms. Rieder and other parents without many options.

“I scrimped and saved to give my daughter this,” she said. “It’s beautiful on her. So I’m hoping they change their minds.”

Ms. Smith did not appear or speak at the news conference, and neither she nor any of the district’s school board members responded to emailed requests for comment.

The incident is not the first prom-related drama for Shelton High School. In 2011, school officials were criticized when they told a student, James Tate, that he was banned from the prom after his “promposal,” in which he hung a banner on the school inviting his date to the event.

He was suspended for trespassing after school hours. But after the story gained attention and brought a wave of sympathy for Mr. Tate, officials reversed the decision and allowed him to attend the prom after all.