NEW YORK - In the mind of a teenage girl, prom night is it - the end-all and be-all.
It's the night that she is the princess, the belle of the ball, the femme fatale. It's the night when her parents will meet her date, and it might be the first time she stays out all night.
And it's the night she spends months shopping for.
The most important thing for girls to keep in mind as they scout for dresses, shoes, purses and jewelry is that when they put all this stuff on, they should still look like themselves, says Gina Kelly, the fashion director of Seventeen magazine.
"Don't feel the need to wear too much makeup or a dress that makes you feel uncomfortable just because it's a special night," Ms. Kelly says.
Browsing the racks at a J.C. Penney store in Elmhurst, N.Y., Ms. Kelly points out gown styles appropriate for all styles and shapes:
l An athlete can show off fit-and-trim arms in a halter-top or strapless dress.
l A petite girl might use a head-to-toe ruffle on a long, fitted dress to create length, but a ballgown with crinoline might be overpowering.
l A curvy girl might choose an A-line in a jersey or other stretch fabric, which will hug curves the right way, while dresses in silk or satin cut on the bias might accentuate problem areas because of the way they catch light.
l A girl with a boyish figure - a small bust and slim hips - can use a belted style or a full skirt to give her the illusion of curves.
Looking at a strapless black satin column gown, a pink A-line dress with subtle sequins at the waist and a tiered floral chiffon dress, Ms. Kelly says, just as with wedding dresses, prom styles don't change drastically from year to year. Even "hot" prom dress designers don't change; today's teens are wearing Jessica McClintock and Zum Zum - just like their mothers did.
The slight variations usually are inspired by the celebrities whom young girls know every detail about, especially when it comes to what's in the stars' closets.
The moment Jennifer Lopez walked down the red carpet at the Academy Awards in a peach strapless Michael Kors gown, scores of promgoers decided what their dress would look like, Ms. Kelly says.
Teen-style idol Mischa Barton is tall and has very shapely legs so she's likely to wear short dresses, while Cameron Diaz and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen have a more bohemian look so they might try a floral or chiffon dress paired with strappy shoes and a beaded bag.
"Traditionally, the prom is a formal black-tie occasion, but girls sometimes are liberal with that definition," Ms. Kelly says.
Ms. Kelly pulls out the pink A-line gown and likens it to Gwyneth Paltrow's winning Oscar dress by Ralph Lauren in 1999.
"That night Gwyneth wanted to be a princess. She wanted a dress that would last forever and not look back at the pictures and say, 'Why did I ever wear something trendy?' A lot of girls want that for the prom," Ms. Kelly says.
But another reason we see the same prom styles year after year is that parents normally foot the bill and, therefore, can veto anything too sexy or outlandish.
"Moms always want you to look like a lady and most 16- and 17- and 18-year-olds want to look hot. But there are so many other battles, both sides should give in a little and buy a dress together," Ms. Kelly advises.
Once the gown and all its accouterments come home, Ms. Kelly urges girls to do a dress rehearsal to make sure their undergarments fit properly, their pantyhose doesn't have a run and their shoes don't hurt.
(For girls who are used to wearing sneakers every day, don't pick stiletto heels for the prom; very high heels require practice and conditioning. Try a kitten heel or a ballet-slipper shoe instead.)
"If you see pink metallic shoes and you really like them, wear them. Why not? You can always take them off and you can't see them in pictures," Ms. Kelly says.
It's also OK to forgo the traditional corsage in favor of a fresh flower in the hair, but girls should be sure to share that with their dates so the boys don't show up with a nicely wrapped box and no one to give it to, she says.
Prom jewelry can range from $15-$30 cocktail rings that scream "bling bling" to layers of faux pearls. Neo-hippies can dress down to match their casual mantra but add chandelier earrings or beaded flat shoes to be prom-appropriate.
Charms, either on necklaces or bracelets, are still a big trend, Ms. Kelly says, and faux diamond Art Deco pins likely will work for girls who normally shun jewelry.
Remember, though, to only wear one real eye-catching piece of jewelry at a time because the pieces shouldn't compete with each other or the dress, she says.
Ms. Kelly's last bit of advice is for "the individualist": "If you hate the thought of someone else wearing what you're wearing, go to a vintage store. You're going to find a great fake fur stole or long gloves or a beaded bag that's all your own."