Prom is a quintessential high school tradition that has evolved over the years, but the glamour and excitement of that special night has endured. While each generation puts its own spin on prom style, vintage-inspired or retro prom dresses remain perennially popular.

A retro prom dress embodies styles from past eras, often from the 1950s to the 1980s. Key characteristics include classic silhouettes, bold prints and patterns, bright colors, and vintage details like full skirts, embellishments, and pintucks. Though inspired by dresses of decades past, retro prom dresses put a modern spin on retro style. They allow today's teens to tap into nostalgic looks from previous eras while making a fashion-forward statement for prom night.

History of Prom

History of Prom Dress

The prom has been a major event at American high schools since the late 19th century, though its origins and traditions have evolved over time.

The first "promenade" dance events emerged at elite Northeast colleges like Harvard and Yale in the late 19th century. The name comes from the traditional promenade, a march into the ballroom by couples before starting the first dance of the night. By the early 20th century, prom had spread to high school campuses as a dance and social event for juniors and seniors to cap off their high school careers.

In the early decades, prom was more of an occasion for students to dress up and socialize than to have a romantic date or couple focus. Schools often held the event in the gymnasium or a banquet hall decorated with the school colors and banners. Prom grew more extravagant and gained cultural significance in the 1950s and 1960s, as shown in films like American Graffiti. Traditions evolved like nominating a prom king and queen. By the 1970s, prom had become an iconic American teen experience and rite of passage.

Classic Prom Dresses Through the Decades

Prom has been a rite of passage for American high school students since the early 20th century. As fashion changed with the times, so did prom dresses. Here's a look at the most popular prom dress styles in each decade:


1900s prom dress

In the early 1900s, prom dresses followed the trends of everyday fashion. Women wore floor-length dresses with modest necklines and small waistlines. Popular fabrics were cotton, linen, and soft silks. Decorative trim and simple embroidery were hallmarks of Edwardian style dresses.


1920s Prom Gown

The flapper styles of the roaring 20s were all the rage at proms. Dresses featured dropped waists, shorter hemlines, and beaded fringe that swayed when dancing the Charleston. Chiffon, lace, and feathers gave dresses a fun, flirty look. Cloche hats were a popular accessory.


1930s Retro Dress

The Great Depression influenced simpler gowns. Prom dresses had bias-cut slim silhouettes that flowed gracefully when dancing the waltz or foxtrot. Dresses typically had halter necklines or cap sleeves. Popular fabrics were crepe, satin, and chiffon, often in floral prints.


1940s Retro Prom Dress

World War 2 required thriftiness, so prom dresses were more utilitarian. Simple A-line and swing dresses with sweetheart or bateau necklines were common. Dresses had minimal decoration beyond some ruching or bows at the waist or neckline. Despite wartime rationing, proms continued as an important tradition.


1950s Retro Prom Dress

The 1950s saw the rise of the poodle skirt and petticoats at proms. Dresses were inspired by feminine Hollywood glamour and pink ladylike formalwear. Chiffon, taffeta, and tulle ball gowns with cinched waists and full, tea-length skirts were popular. Low heels and opera gloves completed the look.


Retro Prom Dress 1960s

Prom dresses got more stylish and risque in the swingin' 60s. Shorter hemlines with mini and mod styles were trendy. Bold geometric patterns, psychedelic prints, and vivid colors added flair. The emergence of rock n' roll music influenced edgier prom looks.


70s prom dress

The 1970s ushered in a variety of bohemian inspired prom dresses. Flowing maxi dresses, jumpsuits, and wrap dresses were chic. Gauzy cotton, fringe, bell sleeves, and ruffles gave dresses a laidback vibe. Pantsuits also became fashionable for the first time.


80s prom dress retro

Prom dresses in the 80s took note from pop music idols like Madonna. Feminine, off-the-shoulder styles with nipped waists and voluminous tulle skirts were popularized. High-low hems with short front and long back were trendy. Sequins, polka dots, and bold neon colors added fun flair.


90s retro prom dress

Minimalist and slip style dresses were common at 1990s proms. Spaghetti straps, simplistic shapes, and muted solid colors allowed the focus to be on the fabric and draping. Velvet and satin fabrics were worn by many, channeling Hollywood glam. Clear plastic accessories were a funky '90s addition.


2000s classic prom dress

Y2K fashion brought sexy backless gowns, unique cutouts, and daring slits to prom dresses. Halter tops, deep V-necks, and straps that crisscrossed the back became popular. Dresses shimmered with metallic fabrics, sequins, beads, and crystals. Trendy colors were silver, gold, and blush pink.

This journey through prom history shows how dresses reflected the style and culture of each era. Vintage-inspired retro prom dresses let you channel your favorite decade for this special event!

What Makes a Dress Retro?

What makes a dress retro

A retro prom dress draws inspiration from past eras and decades, taking cues from vintage styles, patterns, and silhouettes. Some key characteristics that give a prom dress a retro flair include:

  • Vintage cuts and shapes - Dresses with cinched waists, full skirts, sweetheart necklines, and cap sleeves harken back to classically feminine silhouettes of the 1940s and 50s. Pouf dresses and babydoll styles are also vintage-inspired.

  • Retro prints and fabrics - Bold geometric prints, polka dots, floral prints, sequins, and lace lend a retro vibe. Fabrics like tulle, chiffon, and satin were widely used in decades past for formalwear.

  • Nostalgic colors and patterns - Soft pastels, jewel tones, metallic sheens, and black and white prints recapture the visual aesthetic of previous eras. Plaid, classic stripes, and retro flower power prints are also key.

  • Vintage accessories - Gloves, fascinators, pearl jewelry, corsages, cat eye glasses, and retro hairstyles complete the old-fashioned prom ensemble.

While modern minimalist styles have their appeal, dressing in a retro prom outfit allows you to time travel back to the age of sock hops, jukeboxes, and soda fountains. A vintage-inspired look lets you channel the classy, ladylike charm of previous generations for your own special night.

Popular Retro Styles

Some of the most popular retro prom dress styles draw inspiration from iconic fashion eras like the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

1950s Full Skirts

  • Full skirts with lots of tulle crinoline underskirts were hugely popular in the 1950s, giving dresses a very full, circular silhouette.
  • Sweetheart necklines and strapless bodices were common, showing off the shoulders.
  • Fitted bodices emphasized the waist and gave way to voluminous circle skirts in fabrics like taffeta, chiffon, lace, and tulle.
  • Pastel colors like powder blue, pink, coral, mint green, and pale yellow were fashionable.
  • An elegant 1950s prom dress might include floral appliques, pearl embellishments, or a sparkly rhinestone waistband.

1960s Shifts

  • Shift dresses with straight, boxy silhouettes were a trademark look of the 1960s mod style.
  • Sleeveless shifts often had higher necklines and were worn with short white gloves.
  • Popular '60s colors included bright bold tones like royal blue, cherry red, emerald green, and bright yellow.
  • Graphic black and white geometric prints were also common.
  • Shift dresses had a youthful, rebellious vibe compared to the more feminine '50s style.

1970s Peasant Styles

  • Flowing peasant dress styles reflected the free-spirited 1970s era.
  • Dresses featured loose, billowy shapes with smocked bodices or empire waists.
  • Fluttery sleeves, ruffles, and lace trims created a soft, romantic vibe.
  • Earthy solids, floral prints, and paisley patterns embodied the decade's bohemian style.
  • Peasant gowns had an effortless, laidback feel compared to the structured formality of previous eras.

Where to Find Retro Prom Dresses

Where to Find Retro Prom Dresses

One of the best places to find an authentic retro prom dress is at vintage and resale stores. These stores specialize in clothing from previous eras, like the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. When shopping vintage, you can often find unique, one-of-a-kind dresses that capture the true retro spirit. Be sure to call the store ahead of time to see if they have any vintage prom or formal dresses in stock. Some things to look out for when vintage shopping are:

  • Cocktail dresses from the 1950s and 60s - These can easily be dressed up for prom with the right accessories. Look for tea length, swing, and wiggle silhouettes.

  • 1970s prom dresses - This decade was full of bold prints, bright colors, and florals. Expect to find lots of flowing chiffon, empire waist styles, and ruffles.

  • 1980s night-out looks - The 1980s brought sequins, dramatic sleeves, and flashy fabrics like satin. Shorter lengths and tighter fits were also popular.

In addition to vintage stores, many companies specialize in reproducing retro styles. These dresses replicate the iconic looks of the past. While not totally authentic vintage, they capture the retro vibe. Some reputable reproduction companies to check out include Unique Vintage, ModCloth, Pinup Girl Clothing, and Lindy Bop. Their selections offer a mix of 1950s, 60s, and 70s inspired prom dresses at various price points. The benefit of ordering from these companies is you can select your exact size and color preference.

Vintage shops and retro reproduction companies are the ideal places to shop when seeking an authentic retro prom dress aesthetic. With some determined searching, you're sure to find the perfect throwback look for your special night.

Accessorizing Your Retro Look

When it comes to completing your retro prom outfit, your hair, makeup, shoes and jewelry are just as important as your dress. The right accessories can take your look from drab to fab. Here are some tips for accessorizing your retro prom dress:


Hairstyles for a retro look

  • Go for a voluminous pinned updo with victory rolls or finger waves for a 1940s vibe. Use setting gel to keep everything in place. Add a decorative hair comb or crystal hair clip for extra bling.

  • Create glamorous, loose curls or waves. Brush some volume at the crown and keep the sides sleek for a 1950s bombshell look. Accessorize with a fabric flower or feathery hair piece.

  • Do a beehive with height on top and loosely curled ends. Leave a few playful pieces out to frame your face for a 1960s style.

  • Crimp your locks or go for straight, feathered layers parted deeply off-center. Add fun hair clips, a headband, or a fabric bow for a 1970s flair.


Makeup for a retro look

  • Play up your eyes with winged liquid liner and false lashes. Apply a bright red lip for a retro pin-up vibe.

  • Focus on sculpted brows, lots of mascara and a coral cheek for a fresh faced 1950s look. Go with a pinky nude lip.

  • Do a bold, graphic cat eye with thick false lashes. Wear pale, matte foundation and add a pop of color on your lids and lips for a mod 1960s style.

  • Go for a sun-kissed glow with bronzer, peach blush and glossy lips paired with thick natural brows for a 1970s feel.


Shoes for a retro look

  • Mary jane pumps, kitten heels or slingback heels are classically retro options. Look for sparkly embellishments or a pop of color.

  • Get platform sandals or espadrilles for a 1970s inspired casual vibe.

  • White go-go boots scream 1960s mod style.

  • Try cutesy saddle shoes or penny loafers for 1950s sock hop style.


Jewelry for a classic retro look
  • Add glitz with rhinestone necklaces, brooches and sparkly hair clips.

  • Get playful with big floral corsages, ornate pearl necklaces or colorful bangle bracelets.

  • Pick statement geometric earrings, buttons or circle pins for a 1960s look.

  • Layer long beaded necklaces for a 1970s boho vibe.

The right hairstyle, makeup, shoes and jewelry can pull your whole retro prom look together and really get you in the vintage spirit. Accessorize in ways that are fun, expressive and help you channel your favorite retro era for an unforgettable prom night!

DIY Retro Prom Dress

DIY Retro Prom Dress

Prom dresses can be expensive, so getting creative and DIYing your retro look is a great way to save money. Plus, turning an existing dress into something new and unique can be really fun! Here are some tips for modifying and styling a dress you already own into a fabulous retro prom look:

Modify the Silhouette

  • Take in a loose fitting dress to create a more fitted vintage silhouette. Sew darts at the bust and add princess seams to shape the waist.

  • For a 50s inspired circle skirt, remove any excess fabric from the waistline and use the leftover material to create a full, gathered skirt. Attach to the existing dress bodice.

  • Shorten a long dress or add length with coordinating fabric to get the perfect tea length or floor length retro hemline.

Add Retro Details

  • Sew on appliques, bows, flowers, ruffles or other trims for a retro vibe. Look for vintage inspired patterns and fabrics.

  • Make a sash belt for your waist. Velvet, satin or patterned fabric ribbons all work well.

  • Add a petticoat slip under a full skirt to get that perfect 50s poof.

Style it Up

  • Cinch in the waist with a wide, decorative belt. Try a sparkly rhinestone belt or a fabric corsage belt.

  • Wear vintage style gloves, jewelry and hair accessories like floral clips or pearl combs.

  • Finish off your look with classic retro heels or pumps in a fun pastel hue.

With some simple modifications and stylish accessories, you can transform any dress into a head-turning retro prom look without spending a fortune. Get creative and have fun crafting your unique vintage style!

Retro Prom Dress and Vintage Prom Dress: FAQ

Retro Prom Dress and Vintage Prom Dress: FAQ

What are the different styles of retro prom dresses?

Retro prom dresses come in a delightful array of styles, including the puffy-sleeved princess gowns of the 80s, the sleek and shimmery sequin prom numbers of the 70s, and the adorable a-line dresses of the 50s. Not to forget the iconic 90s prom dress that often featured spaghetti straps and a healthy dose of attitude. Think of them as the fashion equivalent of a time machine!

What kind of silhouette was popular for 50s/ 60s/ 70s/ 80s prom dress?

Each era had its signature silhouette that made it unforgettable. The 50s adored the cinched waist and full skirt, perfect for twirling. The 60s went shorter with the fun and flirty mini dress. The 70s embraced the flow with dreamy, draped fabrics. And the 80s? It was all about volume: think puffy sleeves, tulle prom skirts, and shoulder prom dresses that could challenge any doorway!

What colors and patterns were popular for retro prom dresses?

Retro prom dresses danced in a palette of pastels, bold neons, and classic shades. The 50s and 60s favored soft pastels and floral patterns, while the 70s and 80s turned up the volume with vibrant colors, metallics, and psychedelic prints. It was like the color wheel exploded in the most fashionable way possible.

How can I make a modern prom dress look retro?

To vintage-ify a modern prom dress, play with accessories like pearl necklaces or add a petticoat under your dress for that 50s flare. Choose a dress with retro elements like a velvet fabric or a lace overlay. It's like giving your dress a history lesson—in style.

What accessories pair well with a vintage dress?

Pair your vintage charmer with gloves for a 50s vibe, a sequined clutch for some 70s sparkle, or bold, geometric jewelry for an 80s punch. It's all about complementing the era your dress is from while making a statement that's all your own.

Where to buy retro prom party dresses?

Retro prom dresses can be found in vintage shops, online marketplaces like SMCDress, and specialty boutiques. They're like hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, so bring your map and a sense of adventure!

Are these dresses suitable for occasions other than prom?

Vintage prom dresses are perfect for homecoming, weddings, themed parties, or any event where you want to stand out. They're versatile, unique, and have already proven they can stand the test of time—just like a good classic movie.

What are considered vintage special occassion dress?

Vintage prom dresses are those gems from past decades—think 20 years old or more—that have been lovingly preserved. From the classic vintage elegance of the 50s to the bold and beautiful styles of the 80s, these dresses carry the essence of their time.

What are the bestselling vintage prom dresses on SMCDress?

The bestselling vintage prom dresses on SMCDress include the classic lace cocktail dress, the dreamy tulle prom dress, and the unforgettable sequin dress from the 90s. It's like the hall of fame for dresses, showcasing the best of bygone eras.

How do I care for and preserve a vintage prom dress?

Caring for a vintage prom dress involves gentle cleaning, proper storage in a cool, dry place, and occasional airing out to keep it in prime condition. It's like taking care of a piece of history—handle with love and a bit of expertise.

Why wear a classic formal prom dress?

Wearing a classic dress to prom is like bringing a piece of art to life. It's about embracing elegance, making a unique statement, and maybe, just maybe, feeling like you've stepped out of a time when dances were lit by disco balls or serenaded by jazz bands.


Retro Vintage Look

Prom is a rite of passage, and securing the perfect prom dress is a pivotal part of the journey. Drifting back to retro and vintage styles opens up a treasure trove of unique and stylish options, from the elegant simplicity of a 90s vintage red slip dress to the intricate details of a beaded tulle dress for a truly memorable prom night.

Key elements that define a retro prom look include full skirts, vivid colors, bold prints, and distinctive architectural details like sweetheart necklines and halter straps. Iconic retro prom styles range from 50s swing dresses with their full, twirl-worthy skirts to 60s mod shifts that boast clean lines and bold patterns, and 70s boho maxi dresses that flow with a free-spirited grace. The revival of 90s vintage, with its midi dresses, lace details, and velvet textures, offers a modern twist on retro elegance, blending vintage cocktail charm with prom formal sophistication.

When assembling your retro prom ensemble, accessories play a pivotal role in capturing the essence of the era. Consider adding gloves or a fascinator hat for a dash of vintage flair, a sparkly necklace or bold earrings to catch the light, and complete your look with classic retro heels or flats. Hairstyles such as pin curls or a beehive can further enhance your outfit, echoing the beauty standards of decades past.

For those who cherish uniqueness, creating your own vintage prom dress might be the way to go. Thrift stores can be a goldmine for materials with retro appeal, like tablecloths that can be transformed into a 50s style strapless dress or satin and tulle for a custom-made fairy dress. Adding personal touches with fun prints and embellishments will ensure your dress is one-of-a-kind.

As prom night is all about celebrating with friends before stepping into the next chapter of your lives, embracing your individual style is key. Whether you choose a sleeveless midi prom dress, a long lace dress, or a vintage 90’s red halter dress, wearing your retro prom dress with confidence will make you shine. Twirling across the dance floor in a prom dress elegant or a party wedding evening dress, you'll not only stand out from the crowd but also create unforgettable memories. With the right retro or vintage dress, complete with dress accessories and a touch of personal flair, you're set for an unforgettable prom experience.