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Creative Ladies Don Nontraditional Dresses for Weddings and Proms

Conventional wisdom has always held that wedding and high-school prom are time-honored traditions fraught with custom, etiquette, and dress code. But for a certain segment of the bridal and prom-going population, the dresses for these life events also are an opportunity for to make an unconventional fashion statement.

And for every bride and high-school student hunting for a completely one-of-a-kind gown, there's a dressmaker, blog, designer, or some other source of creative inspiration exists to cater to her whims.

Beth Bennett, a Fashion instructor at The Art Institute of Indianapolis, constructs custom wedding gowns, offers bridal alterations, and creates veils and headpieces through her bridal business, B Trousseau Couture. The brides who enlist Bennett’s help are typically looking for a non-traditional dress, she says, and have a penchant for vintage or old-fashioned wedding styles.

Bennett’s brides are often interested in fashion and the design process and want to share their input, she says.

“They may have an interest in historical fashion or they may have an artistic bent themselves,” Bennett says. “They have an inner urge not to wear something down the aisle that anyone else has seen or an exact design anyone else has worn.”

To appeal to brides with a flair for the dramatic, Bennett creates wedding gowns with unconventional silhouettes, such as a 1930s bias-cut shape or a 1950s cocktail-inspired gown. She also transforms wedding gowns into wearable art pieces by painting them or using a special technique called lace collage, which combines old and new lace pieces to create a new fabric that still retains a softness. And some brides are passing up the traditional white and ivory wedding gowns in favor of pink or red dresses, Bennett says.

A small population of brides wanting non-traditional dresses has always existed, says Bennett, who started making wedding gowns 20 years ago. But today, she says, the desire for an unconventional gown is more mainstream.

“You could always have a gown that’s vintage inspired 10 or 20 years ago, but you had to find people like myself to make it for you,” she says. “I think it’s more available to the mass market now, which is a great thing for brides who want to shop off the rack.”

The wedding industry has always been a big market and is only getting bigger. And the sub-industry of wedding, bridesmaid and prom dresses is evolving as female consumers’ tastes change. While wedding and prom dresses are traditionally treated with some reverence, their ugly stepsister– the bridesmaid’s dress– is only now beginning to emerge from its laughingstock status. Until recently, bridesmaids had little say in choosing their dresses, and often heard the grating cliché, “You’ll definitely wear this dress again!”

One bridesmaid turned that adage on its head and embraced a non-traditional way to re-wear her bridesmaid dress. Since 1989, Rebecca Whitlinger has worn a gold lame and gold-sequined floor-length gown to every imaginable occasion. She’s worn it to the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and into the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room. She votes, scuba-dives, skis, parasails, and hot-air balloons in it. And the dress inspired Whitlinger to organize a fund-raising event for Cancer Caring Center in Pittsburgh called “Ushers Unlimited and Bridesmaids Revisited.”

Whitlinger compiled photographs of her adventures in the dress and published a book, “Always a Bridesmaid: 89 Ways to Recycle That Bridesmaid Dress,” that brides now give as a light-hearted gift to their bridesmaids. After witnessing the international publicity, party entertainment, and all around good times that creative dress-wearing can bring, Whitlinger encourages bridal parties to express their originality in choosing dresses.

“There’s more creativity in choosing flowers or a wedding cake, but dresses, you still have a lot of bad choices in the world,” Whitlinger says.

Whitlinger’s bridesmaid dress – by now an authentic vintage piece, circa 1988 – has achieved iconic status in her closet. But some of today’s prom-goers may come across a dress of a similar vintage and aesthetic and swoon at its retro fabulousness.

Jen Benz, founder of the fashion blog, says that prom-goers who choose an authentic ‘80s piece are making as much of a statement as those who wear haute couture or gothic gowns.

“Dresses are like any consumer product,” Benz says, comparing one-of-a-kind prom gowns to customized iPhones and iPods. “That’s the trend right now, to be individualized and to personalize products.”

High-school girls aren’t stopping at dresses when it comes to making a prom fashion statement either, Benz says. From outrageous shoes and hairstyles to head-turning accessories like feathers, prom enables fashionistas to show off their individuality at a heightened level. Other teens wear creations that are more art project than formal gown, like the high-schooler who made a prom dress out of coffee filters last year.

But wearing a traditional dress can have its advantages, too. Benz, who was her high-school’s homecoming queen and a prom princess, says she’s able to wear her old prom dresses to weddings and other formal events.

"You can still make a statement in a fashionable, yet practical, dress,” says Benz, who wore a fashion-forward black Betsey Johnson wrap dress accessorized with gold shoes and jewelry to her senior prom in 2001. “That type of dress is the best financial investment because it will be as relevant today as it is in 10 years, making it wearable for many years to come."

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