The King of Prussia Mall near Philadelphia is the largest in the country after Minnesota’s Mall of America. Anchor stores abound, including Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Macy’s. The mall spans nearly 6.3 million square feet, yet high school senior Abby Misbin, who happens to be plus-size, couldn’t find a single prom dress she liked and that fit her at the retail mecca.
That might seem hard to believe, but for girls like Abby who is technically “plus-size” at a size 16/18, the story is common. The truth is, major department stores like those at King of Prussia, and the majority of other, nonspecialty retailers, don’t carry many plus-size options, least of all those that are affordable for young shoppers.
“All of the prom dresses I saw that fit me were expensive, ugly, or ugly on me. That’s the reality of what we found,” Misbin said. “I don’t want different dresses, or special dresses; I just want the same dresses in different sizes.”
Misbin, whose prom is on May 5, is under pressure to find a dress quickly. As is becoming standard practice across the country, girls from her high school created a communal Facebook group page where people post their prom dresses before the dance to make sure no one else is caught wearing the same thing on prom night. That means if you’re not among the first to post your dress, your pickings become slimmer as the dance approaches.
Rather than risk having no dress or having someone post a dress she planned on buying, Misbin says she “settled” for a David’s Bridal dress she ordered online, roughly $200, just hovering near the top of her budget. Misbin concedes there are many more options for plus-size dresses online, but that there’s something special about searching for your prom dress — and finding it — in-store. For these girls, ordering a prom dress online is like ordering a wedding dress online: impersonal and fraught with anxiety.
While it’s true that online shopping has made searching for a dress easier, that doesn’t come without its own issues. For example, the process of returning unwanted prom dresses can be a hassle, as is often the case with special-occasion items, if the company allows for it at all. Additionally, buying a specialty dress online can be sketchy, and the dress that appears at your door may look nothing like the picture.
Some brands are synonymous with prom, but don’t serve all promgoers. There are the brands Jovani, Faviana, and Sherri Hill, whose businesses are sustained year-round by prom season. Of these, however, plus-size availability is limited. When plus-sizes are available, the sizes may be skewed and there tends to be a price markup.
Aside from limited plus-size inventory at specialty dressmakers, department stores often stock what’s called “junior plus” sizes, which is an extension to teen-friendly juniors sections. Juniors plus is also frequently limited in plus-size selections, and cut in a way that doesn’t service the target shopper, according to Phyllis Brasch-Librach, founder and president of Sydney’s Closet, a niche, plus-size-only dress designer.
“You can’t just take a tiny size 4 and grade it up and make it bigger; the body doesn’t get larger that way,” Brasch-Librach said.
As for the prices, the markup for plus-size dresses varies widely. Nordstrom carries up to size 24W (or 3X) on its website for plus-size prom, but once you surpass petite and standard sizes, several styles tack on multiples to the price. One Vince Camuto dress, available in standard sizes up to size 16, costs $128. Once you’re beyond a size 16, however, the price is bumped up to $138.
While it’s true that Jovani’s sizes are more inclusive than at some department stores, it too tacks on a premium for plus-sizes. Beyond size 14, one Jovani dress adds $100 to its $550 price tag. To be fair, more fabric is used on the plus-size dresses, though an 18 percent markup doesn’t mean 18 percent more material is used.
Jovani, which does not maintain any of its own retail locations but sells through boutiques and online, said it sees a 50 percent sales increase from January through April, with prom at the core of its business. The special-occasion dressmaker sells dresses online in sizes ranging from 00 to 24, with some styles reaching size 32.
“You hear a lot about designers now trying to cater to plus-size, but this has been a constant for us,” a Jovani spokesperson said in an email to Yahoo Style. “Our dresses are made for women of all shapes and sizes; especially women with curves.”
Mall anchor store Lord & Taylor is investing big marketing dollars to convince shoppers it is the “dress address,” a one-stop shop for your special-occasion dress needs — so much so that it transformed 30,000 square feet in its flagship New York City location into a floor devoted entirely to dresses. The kicker? The plus-size dress section isn’t on the dress floor, but on another one.
The limited in-store options retailers provide don’t match the market demand for plus-size dresses. Online searches for the term “plus-size dress” increased at a rate double that of searches for the term “plus-size” alone in the past two years (an increase of 12 percent vs. 6 percent), indicating higher demand for the dress category, according to retail market intelligence firm Trendalytics. And as Bloomberg notes, sales of women’s plus-size clothing rose 17 percent, to $20.4 billion, last year, compared with a 7 percent increase across clothing sales in general.
Attempting to fill that market void is Brasch-Librach, who opened Sydney’s Closet in 2003 as a storefront in St. Louis. By 2009, she started designing plus-size dresses herself, saying bigger women deserved dresses that weren’t “muumuus.” Unlike retailers who include plus-sizes after they’ve established their standard size inventory, her dress line sells plus-sizes only, ranging from 14 to 40.
Sydney’s Closet and its sister brand, Tease Prom, now sell dresses in 250 stores across the country, and Brasch-Librach said dresses regularly sell out, so much so that they’re restocking multiple times in any given prom season. In 2016, Sydney’s Closet sold about 5,000 plus-size prom dresses, and it expects that number to increase by 15 percent by the end of prom 2017.
Jada Holliday, an 18-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is still searching for her perfect prom dress, though the dance is only a few weeks away. Even though she could make the drive to the malls in Des Moines or Iowa City to look for her dress, she’s not betting that stores will have what she’s looking for. Instead, she’s taking her chances on an online purchase.
“The malls around here are ‘bleh,'” Holliday said. “Big girls deserve to look good on prom night. I consider myself bougie, and i want to look really hot. Bring me the drama dresses.”
Read more from Yahoo Style + Beauty:
- How Michelle Dockery Ditched ‘Downton Abbey’ for Sexy Pinstripes
- What’s the Difference Between a $2,000 Burberry Trench Coat and a $200 One?
- Jenna Dewan Tatum’s Very Specific Reason for Working With Jennifer Lopez
Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.