Vintage Prom Dresses Ideas for a Classic Retro Look

If you have been paying attention to prom fashion trends over the years, you know that some styles never truly die. From shoulder pads to chokers, ruffles and patterned maxi dresses, it might take a few years or even a couple of decades, but iconic styles are pretty cyclical in nature. Today, especially online, you can find an amazing selection of retro and vintage inspired prom dresses like these in any style you can imagine.

1940’s Formal Fashion

Authentic 1940s evening dresses were long with layers of chiffon hanging down from the empire waist. Classic, pretty and simple was the look of the decade. The economy was not good, so less fabric was used due to rationing. Skirts were A line or sometimes with a slight flare, (good for swing dancing) and fell just below knee length until after the war when skirt hemlines dropped to mid-calf.

The 1940s have also marked the return of the Victorian-style ball gown, inspired by ‘Gone with the Wind’.  The princess ball gown was the most popular style for teens attending a prom. The prom dance was a relatively new invention in the late ’30s and ’40s and teens made extra effort to wear their best dresses to the dance.

1940 style prom dresses

Left: Prom dress from 1940 McCall’s Patterns Catalog; Right: Jovani 54970 Prom Dress

1950’s Swingy Pinup Prom Dresses

The 1950’s was the decade of optimism and prosperity. Rationing and the attitude of ‘make do and mend’ was over, and with it came the vastly improved standards of living. Women in the 50’s experienced a dramatic cultural shift from the roles they played just a few years prior; they have returned to their traditional roles as wives and elegant hostesses in their homes. They were expected to be perfectly groomed models of femininity, and fashion of this decade reflected it with the hourglass silhouettes of the dresses. Bodices were fitted, waists were cinched, and the skirts were either very snug or very full.

The popularity of Prom skyrocketed in the fifties, and American high school juniors and seniors were eager to get their fix of dance halls and rock music that the 1950s youth was sponsoring. This is the decade that gave us the quintessential prom dress – tiny waists and skirts so full they could stand-up on their own. Necklines were less demure than in previous decades, for the most part, and strapless styles were also common.

1950s style prom dresses

Left: 1955 Rappi dress; Right: Alyce Paris 3770 Prom Dress

1960’s Prom Fashion Revolution

Along with the 60s came a wave of feminism, with influences throughout fashion. Prom goers of the 60s wanted a style of their own, so there was a sort of rebellion represented via fashion. Prom dress styles included short dresses that came above the knee for the first time, including miniskirts, swing-style dresses that weren’t too tight, mod-style dresses inspired by looks from UK, new color combinations and fabrics with geometric shapes, snug skirts, lower necklines and higher empire waist.

The Prom Dress of this era was influenced by Hollywood movies, politics, and even The Space Age. From funky to glamorous, everyone could find their own signature look.

1960s style prom dresses

Left: 1960s Prom Dresses, source: pinterest.com; Right: Sherri Hill 50927

Groovy 1970’s

The 1970s prom dresses put less emphasis on elegance and more on a sense of freedom and bohemian casualness. Girls rocked any pattern you can imagine – plaid, floral, or geometric patterns that weren’t normally used on formal dresses in the past. So-called “hippie” style actually originated in the early 1970s. Women tend to wear evening gowns that are silky smooth, loose fitting and very comfortable. For more glamour, women in the seventies would wear a bare-backed dress, or a dress was extremely low-cut. In fact, the seventies saw some of the most risqué dresses worn in public in America’s history up to that point.

The hemline was all over the place. Both short dresses and long dresses could be worn in almost any situation. Two very distinct prom styles were popular in the ’70s: hippie and glam. The former was especially popular in the early ’70s and hippie teens wore long, patterned dresses. Later in the ’70s the glam of the disco era made itself known in prom wear with long, slinky dresses made of sleek fabrics.

1970 style prom dresses

Left: 1970s Jerry Silverman Maxi dress; Right: Cameron Blake 115611

Big and Bold 1980’s

Prom dresses from the 80s are a league of its own. They were bigger and louder than anything teenagers would dare to wear today. Puffy shoulders, ruffles, the bigger and brighter, the better. This is what prom fashions (and fashion in general) in the ’80s was all about. Girls wore colorful dresses in bright blues and pinks during the decade that was dominated by Madonna. Sleeves and skirts were poofier than anything we’ve seen since the ’50s.

To be the king and queen of an ’80s prom, you’ve had to have the biggest hair, fanciest footwear and coordinating pastel ensembles, of course. Ranging from slinky black velvet numbers to big teal dresses adorned with floppy bows, the dresses of the 1980s always had extra fabric added to the design. Girls searched for the most glamorous designer gowns they could get their hands on, the prom was one of the biggest night of their lives to date.

1980 style prom dress with ruffles

Left: 1980s Jena Prom Dresses; Right: Sherri Hill 52546