Prom has long been considered a rite of passage for American teenagers. Short for promenade, it is a formal dance that is held at the end of senior year, often about a month before graduation. Many students spend upwards of 1000 dollars on tickets, transportation and attire.

Why is prom so important? Because it truly is a rite of passage and American teenagers do not have enough of them. Other cultures use ceremonies and rituals to signify that a person has moved from one stage of life to another, often from adolescence to adulthood. But Americans rarely observe these ancient traditions.

Perhaps that is why so many young men and women remain in a state of unending adolescence well into their adult years. Now, we are not suggesting that attending a prom will magically transform teens into responsible adults overnight, but it is a step in the right direction.

As with most formal affairs, the guys have it easy. They typically rent a tuxedo from a local store and purchase a corsage. If they are truly on top of things, they might arrange for a limo, but more often than not, parents take care of the transportation. How about the girls?

A prom dress is often the first formal gown a girl gets to pick out entirely on her own. Her mother usually selects her communion, bat mitzvah, or quinceanera dress. But on prom, she is given the responsibility of finding her own gown. Most girls go shopping with their friends for a dress, which in itself is a rite of passage.

While the boys almost always rent their tuxedos, the girls almost always buy their dresses. Most spend at least two hundred dollars on a gown they will only wear once. As you might expect, their selection process is far more rigorous than the guys. In addition to the dress, senior girls who attend the prom often get their hair and nails done. The total cost of preparation is more than triple what the boys can expect to pay.

Why do so many girls look back at their prom pictures and cringe? Well, it might be the guy who was by their side. But more often than not, it is because they looked awful or uncomfortable in the gown they choose. Finding a flattering formal gown is never easy, especially on your first time out. In the next few paragraphs we will review a few basic tips that will help you select a dazzling prom dress.

Figure out your Figure

The first thing a young woman must learn about formal dresses is that certain cuts and styles are more flattering to specific body types. A Grecian-Style dress, for example, is designed for tall, stately girls. These dresses hug their natural curves and make them seem bigger in certain areas than they actually are.

Prom is the perfect time for young girls to find out about formal gowns. Many women remember the lessons they learned shopping for prom when they look for their wedding dresses. The best advice we can give you is to try on a lot of dresses and find out about your figure and body type. What cuts and silhouettes flatter your form and which ones should you stay away from?

Find a Flattering Color

Before you start searching for a dress, it is important to determine your skin tone and undertones. This isn’t always as easy as you might expect. Coloring will not tell you with any degree of certainty whether you have warm or cool undertones. Your sisters might all have warm undertones and you may have cool ones. Consanguinity may not be a guide.

The most reliable way to determine your undertones on your own is to take the paper test. Simply take a sheet of white paper and place it next to your face under natural light. If your skin appears yellow, olive, brown, or beige compared to the paper, it means that you have a warm skin tone. Cosmeticians tell us that warm skin tones are flattered by colors in the earth tone family, including reds, browns, and yellows.

If, however, you determine that your skin has blue, pink, rose or purple undertones, you probably have a cool skin tone. Girls with cool skin tones should look for green, blue, or purple dresses. Again, these suggestions are not absolute. Some girls may not be able to determine their undertones. They may look great in any old color.

Our final piece of advice for young women who are getting ready to shop for their prom dresses is to take their time. If you have never brought a formal gown on your own, you should give yourself at least two months to try on dresses and to arrange for alterations. Most formal gowns, no matter how well they fit, will need to be taken in or let out in certain areas. But don’t fret. Consider it a learning experience. Believe it or not, you may want to get married someday, and the more you learn now the easier it will be to find the perfect wedding gown in the future.

Michael Keener is a freelance writer who writes about a variety of fashion topic and products such as prom dresses.