If Los Angeles ever feigned innocence, it probably wasn't on a prom night. And certainly not this year.
Ingenue just isn't the image many L.A. high school girls are seeking for the prom season, 1986 style.
"My friend and I decided we were going to look hot this year--not cute, traditional or prom-y," said Laura Tubelle, 16, who wore a lavender suede calf-length dress to her Marlborough School junior prom at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Los Angeles.
At Taft High, Stephanie Branman chose a snug '40s-style red gown for her prom at the Biltmore Hotel recently. And at University High, Stephanie Font bought a white clingy dress with cowboy fringe and shoulder pads for last weekend's prom at the Biltmore.
"I didn't want any frills," 18-year-old Font said. "I have an image to hold up."
Despite the sweet and sensible promgoer espoused in the recent film "Pretty in Pink," the look many teen-agers describe this spring leans more toward Marilyn Monroe than Molly Ringwald.
L.A. designer Eletra Casadei calls this prom season "sexy, sophisticated--and I want to throw in decadent. Hot sells. Sweet doesn't. I'm telling you, there wasn't a real sweet dress (in her collection) that sold," said Casadei, who, in addition to her women's evening-wear line, makes a junior formal line called TD4, meaning "to die for."
New York prom manufacturer New Leaf sensed winds shifting from the traditional last year, especially on the West Coast, after running an advertisement and marketing survey in Seventeen magazine. The company interviewed teen-agers who responded to an 800 number, New Leaf marketing director Carlotta Khero said. And in contrast to the Midwest and even the East, Southern California girls wanted Hollywood glamour: tight, bare, sequins, shine.
"They wanted garments I used to think were for 25-year-olds," Khero said. "They wanted to be like 'Dynasty.' "
So this year in Los Angeles, they're heading to the prom in mermaid-tight gowns and strapless bustiers of satin, shimmery Lurex, taffeta and lace. Bows hug waistlines. Hems drape anywhere from above the knee to ankle, with strong interest in tea lengths.
And beyond these basics are the usual teen-age innovations:
Stacy Krajchir of West Los Angeles, for example, said she attended a friend's prom earlier this spring wearing a borrowed black Oscar de la Renta gown, tying the sleeves behind her to create a strapless dress.
"My mother said: 'Don't you dare tie those sleeves.' I said: 'OK.' And then I did it," said Krajchir, who finished the effect with black sneakers.
Many students ensure originality by buying custom-made dresses or something from a secondhand store. Senior Katja Hensel bought a '50s-style tea-length dress from a Melrose Avenue used-clothing store for next month's Fairfax High School bash at the Biltmore.
"The guy I'm going with dresses '50s style and wears his hair slicked back," Hensel said. "And instead of renting a limo, we were thinking of renting a Thunderbird."
Such definite views keep both retailers and designers forever hoping they've chosen the right dresses. And sometimes they don't.
Angela Kroll, Saks Fifth Avenue corporate prom and junior dress buyer, said teen-agers wanted sexier, sophisticated styles before designers and retailers offered them.
"For the most part, the customer was faster in zeroing in on the look than the market was," Kroll said. "The emphasis in the lines had not been sexy."
Robinson's juniors fashion coordinator Renee Bush agreed: "We tend to buy more for the mom, the old-fashioned customer. This merchandise sold very well in the past. It's only been in the past year that this is starting to change. And we'll follow this trend now."
The adult bent of the teen market surprises even designer Casadei, who recently noticed a junior high girl buying an aqua lame dress--backless, strapless, skintight--which Casadei had designed.
"It freaked me out. I would never have said 13-year-olds were buying these dresses," Casadei said. "Her mother was with her and said: 'Doesn't my daughter look fabulous? These are the years. She's never going to look better, and she should wear this stuff.' "
Despite that free-spirited mother, retailers notice that mother and daughter usually head for different hangers when prom shopping.
"The mother will automatically go to the traditional prom dress," said Gail Winthrop Pollock, dress buyer for Windsor Fashions, a 17-store California chain. "The daughter will go to the more sexy, bustier, tight-fitting dress. It's absolutely predictable."
At LA Glo, a 5-year-old, L.A.-based dress firm, designer Irene Zibecchi said the mermaid-style bustier, matinee length, is the company's best-selling prom dress this season.
A white lace, low-back dress covered with beads and sequins is the hottest seller for the L.A.-based manufacturer Climax. The dress "looks like a bride's dress, but sexy," designer Karen Okada said.
Designer Jessica McClintock, for San Francisco-based Gunne Sax, finds '50s and '60s nostalgia selling, but she doesn't give the prom season entirely over to glitz. McClintock cited a new interest in elegance.
Whatever the choice, a prom gown likely will reach several venues during the night. A typical school dinner-dance this year costs $80 per couple and runs 7:30 to midnight--but virtually no one talks as if that's the end of the night.
Greg Brenner, University High's senior class president, described his prom itinerary:
"First you go to the pre-prom party--two of them. Then you go to the prom. Then after the prom, there's a champagne party. And then the 'after prom' is at the Palace (a nightclub his class rented until 7 a.m.)."