Runway Recap: But What Do You Mean By "Prom Dress"?

There’s this basic problem with certain design challenges: on Project Runway, and in life.

The problem is when people don’t give you clear specifications for what they want — and then judge you for not having accomplished it.

This week’s PR challenge (okay, last week’s, I was on a speaking tour last week and only watched last week’s episode last night): Design a prom dress out of duct tape. This challenge wasn’t invented out of the fevered imaginations of the Project Runway producers: it’s riffing off of an existing phenomenon. Do a Google image search on “duct tape prom dress.” You’ll find zillions of them. This is a thing.

So okay. Make a prom dress out of duct tape. Straightforward enough. Except when you get to the question: What do you mean by “prom dress”?

If you do a Google Image search of “prom dress” — minus the “duct tape,” or indeed with it — you’ll find a ridiculous variety of styles. You’ll find dresses inspired (apparently) by storybook princesses, and movie stars on red carpets, and music video vixens, and beauty pageants, and saloon girls, and national costumes, and va-va-voom screen sirens, and science fiction/fantasy, and Elizabethan costume, and Victoria’s Secret. You’ll see huge billowing Cinderella ball gowns and slinky strappy things with leg slits up to here; fluffy little cocktail dresses and short tight shiny numbers that look like the Kardashians on a bad night. It varies by region, by class, by (I’m guessing) trends within a particular school, by the imagination or lack thereof of the girls wearing the dresses. Pretty much, the only common theme among them all is “fantasy life of teenage girls.”

So when you’re a designer, and the concept you’re given is “prom dress made out of duct tape,” you don’t actually have much to go on. All you really have is “festive, special-event dress for someone around age 18.”

So it’s kind of ridiculous for the PR judges to scold designers for creating a look that isn’t “prom.” Scold them for ugly; scold them for poorly-fitting; scold them for deranged; scold them for boring. But don’t scold them for not being prom. There is no template, no iconic ur-prom-dress. You have an idea in your head of what a prom dress should look like? Good for you. So do millions of teenage girls around the country. For once, you’re not the expert here. I don’t care if you’re a renowned high-fashion designer or fashion editor. You’re not the expert.

So. On to the designs.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Amanda and Michelle 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Amanda and Michelle 2

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Amanda and Michelle 3

I have no issues whatsoever with the win. This was out of the park. It was elegant, and at the same time exuberant; modern and even slightly futuristic, and at the same time classic. It was exquisitely made. The creation of that tesselated “print” — and its incorporation into those complicated folds — was nothing short of masterful. It was smart to accept that duct tape is not going to drape like fabric, ever, and to go in an architectural direction. And most importantly, it was freaking gorgeous. I would wear that dress in a second. A well-deserved win for Amanda and Michelle.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Kate and Tu 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Kate and Tu 2

But I’m not so sure about the auf. Aufs, I should say, since this week we had a surprise double elimination. Don’t get me wrong: I think this was a boring dress. It’s very “beauty pageant,” and the sash and doohickey at the bust just reinforce that. It was a bad decision to try to make duct tape flow like a red carpet gown: it’s not going to, and it’s just going to look awkward and stiff. And I don’t get the color at all. Kate and Tu thought they were being clever by using the “denim” color of duct tape… but who the hell wants a denim prom dress? Okay, fine, a fair number of people, you can do a Google image search on “denim prom dress” and get a good number of hits. But you’re already going in a goofy direction by the very nature of this “duct tape” challenge. Why add an extra layer of unnecessary goof? And besides, it didn’t read as denim. It read as “not very interesting blue.”

But the judges — Nina especially — kept gassing on about how this didn’t look like a prom dress… and I kept thinking, “Did you do a Google image search on ‘prom dress’?” This looks exactly like a prom dress. This looks like a third of the dresses that come up on a Google image search for “prom dress.” If anything, I think it should have been judged harshly for not being inventive enough, and looking too much like a regular prom dress. (To the degree that such a thing exists.) I’m not weeping hot tears of injustice and despair over these aufs… but I’m not sure they were fair.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Daniel and Richard

Especially since this was in the mix. Ill-fitting in the bust. Ill-fitting in the torso. Tacky, tacky, tacky. Daniel and Richard spent way too much time working up that faux lacing, and then stuck it on the sides where you could barely see it. And they relied way too heavily on “woo-hoo, we have gold duct tape!” and wound up making their model look like a Kardashian on a bad night. Which, okay, that’s apparently what lots of teenage girls want to look like on prom night… but as a designer, you’re supposed to know better. Especially since this dress didn’t even have the lushness or class of a Kardashian on a bad night. It looked like a cheap knock-off of a “Kardashian on a bad night” dress. Feh.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Patricia and Samantha 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Patricia and Samantha 2

And then we have this “WTF?” moment from Patricia and Samantha. I am so sick of the judges praising Patricia’s textile work to the skies. Textile work means jack if you can’t make good clothing out of it. Ingrid took one look at this and said, “Jiffy Pop bag!” — which scared the crap out of me, since I was just about to say the exact same thing. It looked like a Star Trek costume, and not in a good way. I’ll also say what I said about Kate and Tu: Trying to make duct tape hang like fabric makes for serious fail. The hem of this looked like a crumpled-up tinfoil ball, or a metallic egg sac. And the fit is for shit in the bodice: you can’t see it in the still photos, but it gapped and gaped around the armpits when the model was walking the runway. It probably shouldn’t have gotten the auf, since the kids did like it (they showed these dresses to a group of high school students, whose votes counted for 20% of the judging)… but feh, and feh, and feh yet again.

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Layana and Stanley 1

Project Runway Season 11 Episode 7 Layana and Stanley 2

I liked Layana and Stanley’s dress a whole lot when I first saw it, and I still like it a lot. Exquisitely made; festive but elegant. I’m a sucker for black and white as a way to look both festive and elegant, and this dress used it well. It’s sexy, but not in a way that would be too in-your-face and inappropriate for a teenaged girl. ([cough] Daniel and Richard! [cough]) The giant pink bow is hilarious, in a good way: I think Tim Gunn was right to advise them that if you’re going to put a pink bow on your duct tape dress, you really need to go for it. She looked like a box of candy — again, in a good way. And the skirt has an Alice in Wonderland quality, which I like a whole lot.

But I’m now seeing that it’s a little dated. It has more than a hint of ’80s to it. An updated version, though. And if you’re going to update one of the most reprehensible fashion decades ever, this is the way to do it. I do think that the petticoat should have either showed a bit more or not at all — it looks almost like a mistake. Still. Excellent job. Made me smile. Making smile again now.

Runway Recap: But What Do You Mean By "Prom Dress"?
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7 thoughts on “Runway Recap: But What Do You Mean By "Prom Dress"?

  1. 1

    That’s something I’ve absolutely wondered about before on PR. For example, I remember a challenge a few seasons ago where someone was making a white gown and Tim Gunn cautioned him to not go “bridal”. And I had the same thought. “What the hell is a wedding dress as opposed to an any-other-kind of dress?” My prom dress was a design I made up based on a description in an Anne Rice book.

    My wedding dress was a prom dress.

    What made the Rice dress a prom dress and the prom dress a wedding dress was that I wore them at prom and my wedding, respectively.

    Sheesh, PR judges. Sheesh.

  2. 2

    Patricia and Samantha’s dress also has a flaw that I think is worth noting.

    As you mentioned, duct tape doesn’t flow like fabric. It also doesn’t fall like fabric. So whenever the young woman wearing that dress sits down and stands up, she’s going to need to be doing a constant check to make sure she isn’t doing a sustained panty-flash. So, definitely a bad choice for any prom outside a bad teenage sex comedy.

  3. 3

    Anyone traditional enough to go to a prom will probably wear a traditional prom dress, though that long denimish thing looked more like what the prom mom would wear to guard the punch bowl.

    I loved the black and white number, but I was ticked off that the judges loved the pink bow. Didn’t they diss the leopard print & bow-tied dress a few challenges earlier? I thought that was a hot outfit, and Joan Rivers agreed with me!

    I think they’re keeping Patricia around to see what kind of print she’ll come up with in the print challenge. What we’ll see is that when she’s not wasting all her time fussing over fabric she doesn’t really have anything to say, and she’ll be auf’d

  4. 4

    I hope you cover the most recent ep of the show, featuring men’s wear for strippers. The results were the absolute worst I’ve ever seen, but watching Nina Garcia crack and dissolve into helpless giggles at how awful it was was worth the entire episode. No reason for it to exist otherwise–I wonder if they should have just scrapped the whole thing and filmed a new one.

    Nobody thought to check an actual men’s shirt to see how a collar is constructed? They didn’t already know?

  5. 5

    Three parts: 1) Fed up enough to change things like Occupy Wall Street 2) Use the model of I’m going to change this (instead of change this for me) 3) When making the change don’t put back the same system that brought the dissatisfaction in the first place

    See the Venus project for what to put in place:

  6. 6

    In my opinion, the first dress is by far the coolest dress I’ve seen so far (just about 5 or 6 of these, I admit). And it was a “gimmick” dress. It actually fits and it’s fun.

    I think the basic idea of the “jiffy pop” dress was cool, but the front hem was way too short. Add at least 4 inches all over, make it of fabric with some flow to it (while still stiff enough to make the poof), And then there is the fact that it was made for a woman with considerably bigger breasts than the model has. Jeez, put some falsies on her if you have to, but don’t make her look like a little girl wearing her mom’s dress.

    The black and white one is cute, except I hate the bow because a) it’s a bow; and b) it’s pink.

    The rest are b-o-r-i-n-g.

  7. 7

    I really liked Michelle and Amanda’s dress. It was cute, original, and respected the material used. Duct tape doesn’t drape, and making a dress that didn’t require draping was a great choice. I also thought Jiffy Pop when Patricia and Samantha’s effort came out. The color gradations were nice, but that’s the only thing the design had going for it.

    Daniel, why? Did Richard lead him astray? I used to own that dress in 1987, except mine was black and made from cloth, not duct tape. And mine fit better.

    Kate and Tu’s dress was truly awful. Hobble skirts look awkward and unflattering, and trying to disguise it as a mermaid skirt doesn’t fool anyone. It was surprising seeing two people sent home, but after a dress like that they deserved it.

    I’m looking forward to your comments on the most recent show. The “I’ve never done menswear” excuse gets pulled out over and over from the designers. If you sew, the difference is that menswear has wider shoulders, and better pockets.

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