What Judges Look For in Pageant Gowns
Choosing a pageant gown is one of the most exciting parts of preparing to compete in pageants. As the most glamorous event in pageants, the evening gown competition provides entrants with an ideal opportunity to look their most beautiful, project the image of a winner, and clinch the crown.
Like the other events, evening gown competitions differ.
Beauty pageants like Miss USA, Miss Universe, Miss Teen USA, Miss Teen All American, Mrs. America, Miss International, and Miss Earth emphasize beauty, glamour, fashion, charisma, and poise.
Scholarship pageants usually emphasize classic beauty, elegance, grace, and poise. The Miss America program’s evening wear competition now downplays glitz and permits a wider range of formal wear.
The America’s Junior Miss Pageant conducts “Presence and Composure,” a choreographed group routine in formal wear, while the Miss T.E.E.N. and Miss Teen of America pageants judge entrants individually in formal presentation categories that emphasize a wholesome teen image.
Evening Gown Competition Judging
Although the gown is not officially judged, the image a contestant creates in that gown reveals what personal style she would bring to the title, and can set her apart as the obvious winner.
“In evening gown you’re really trying to culminate the total process of judging,” explains Vernon DeSear, an expert on judging methods. “You’re asking yourself, ‘Is this the right girl for the job? Does this girl present the picture that we want to represent us?’ She needs to project the total composite picture of what that title is all about.” Reflecting the right picture in evening gown can help a young lady look like she could be that pageant’s titleholder.
While the specific image of each pageant’s evening gown competition and the exact judging criteria will differ, some of the qualities judges consider include:
- first impressions
- beauty of face and figure
- poise, presence, and composure
- appropriate image for the pageant
- appropriate for her age
- personality projection and charisma
- if the gown and girl compliment each other
- posture, carriage, walk, modeling technique
- grace and composure under pressure
- proper fit
- naturalness, youthfulness, grooming
- good taste (is the gown too suggestive?)
- overall appearance
Selecting the ideal pageant gown requires balancing a host of different considerations – from the image of the pageant you are entering, to the image your gown conveys to judges, to your body type and any figure flaws, to skin tone and hair color, as well as skin tone and hair color under stage lights! It is complicated and usually requires guidance from professionals who understand the many intricacies of selecting the ideal pageant evening gown or dress.
On this page, we will discuss how to choose a pageant gown while considering the image of the pageant, your body type, and any figure flaws that your pageant gown must conceal, and how to use gown design, lines, fabric, color and detailing to draw judges’ attention to pretty features and away from those flaws while drawing judges eyes toward you best features.
A Pageant Gown Must Fit the System
Create the right image for the pageant system…Image is everything in the evening gown competition. Your gown or dress is simply the tool to project the right image to the judges. Since each pageant’s look is different, an evening gown should convey the image of the system a contestant is entering.
“There is a definite ‘look’ for each pageant,” explains Kathleen Munson, a pageant gown specialist and owner of The Pageant Shop.
Gowns for Beauty Pageants
In beauty pageants like Miss USA, Miss Universe, Mrs. America, and GuyRex’s Miss United States, the evening gown ‘look’ is unquestionably glamorous and fashionable. “Ours is more high fashion,” says Richard Guy. “Wear whatever your style is.” Aim to look so stunningly beautiful that you take the judges’ breath away.
Curve-hugging gowns in luxurious crepes, beaded fabrics, French laces with crystal, sparkling brocades, gold or silver metallic, or rich velvets trimmed with rhinestones have all been worn with success. Designs that would be too sensual for scholarship pageants often work well in true beauty pageants, as demonstrated by the five recent Miss USAs who wore sexy “Jessica Rabbit” strapless beaded gowns. Go for the glamour.
Gowns for Scholarship or Family Style Pageants
Contrary to the glamorous image beauty pageants are noted for, scholarship pageants are attempting to put aside their “walking chandelier” look and cultivate an elegantly understated, classically beautiful image. The Miss America program has renamed its evening gown competition, “evening wear competition,” and entrants are asked to avoid overly ornate gowns. “With Miss America, the emphasis is now on fabric rather than beading,” notes pageant wardrobe expert, Kathleen Munson. “We’re seeing tulle, chiffon, georgette, better crepes, and velvets. I think we’re going back to that look of elegance.”
The first winner selected under the new guidelines, Kimberly Aiken, wore a simple, but elegant, black gown without a bead on it. It was the first unbeaded gown in a decade and the first simple black gown to win in a half a century. Yet she still projected the classically beautiful image that title exemplifies. “Mrs.” pageants emphasizing marriage and family values usually follow trends in Miss America.
Gowns for the Pre-Teen and Teen Pageants
To project the right image for girls, pre-teen and teen pageants, dresses should be appropriate for the age. Competitions for children and teens, like Cinderella, Young Miss of America, and Universal Southern Charm, expect contestants to wear floor-length dresses that convey a suitably youthful, wholesome image.
“Keep them innocent as long as you can,” advises Beverly McGinn, of Grandma’s Angels, specialists in pageant dresses and attire for younger contestants. “For heaven’s sake, they’re all in these sexy gowns when they’re older.” Gowns in white and pastels in soft fabrics like chiffon, tulle, georgette, satin, and sometimes velvet, are popular, with lace trims, pearl or bead embroidery, dainty necklines, puffed or ruffled sleeves, peplums, and gathered or tiered skirts. “Try to keep them young and fresh,” says McGinn.
Teen scholarship programs prefer simple, clean-cut, youthful, floor-length pageant dresses. The America’s Junior Miss look is usually described as debutante. “Our requirements last year were that we were not looking for the ‘mermaid’ dresses with all the beading,” explains Robert Hedberg, retired director of programs, ”but something fitting for their age. The last couple of years in Presence and Composure we’ve been utilizing the traditional white dresses.” Guidelines for the Miss Teen of America Pageant (ages thirteen to eighteen) require, “simply styled and unadorned gowns.”
According to Warren Alexander, national director, “Judges seem to prefer something very simple, youthful, and wholesome. The last few years we’ve seen a little rhinestone or sequin trim, but very, very slight.” In both systems, satin, taffeta, velvet, and chiffons are popular choices. The Miss T.E.E.N. Pageant (ages thirteen through eighteen) also encourages a wholesome look, but moderately beaded dresses are often seen and the national winners in 1991 through 1993 wore beaded gowns modeled after those worn at Miss America.
In teen beauty pageants like Miss Teen All American, gowns can be a bit glitzier. Yet, a too-mature look can backfire. “I will take points off if a gown is inappropriate for a certain age group,” asserts John Moskal, a veteran state and national judge and television actor. “I don’t want to see a teen contestant trying to look like she’s twenty-five. She should look wholesome and every bit a teenager.
The images of many teen pageants – from Miss Teen USA Pageant to Miss High School America – are fresh, youthful and pretty. “Even in the USA program, if you put a Miss USA contestant next to a Miss Teen USA contestant,” says Moskol, “you should see a difference. If not, there’s something wrong.”
However, since teen pageants tend to be more trendy than college-age pageants, images in the evening gown competition tend to evolve to reflect popular culture. Sadly, given today’s increasingly sexualized culture, it is not uncommon to see teen contestants in wearing too-adult, even seductive gowns. That’s not to say that’s what wins.
In fact, while many teen contestants go for the glitz, most Miss Teen USAs have worn simple, pretty styles:
- (1988) Mindy Duncan, dainty white ruffles
- (1990) Bridgette Wilson, simple magenta satin
- (1992) Jamie Solinger, feminine green chiffon
- (1993) Charlotte Lopez, unbeaded magenta brocade
- (2000) Jillian Parry, simple sleeveless gown
- (2003) Tami Nichole Farrell, simple strapless white
- (2004) Shelley Hennig, simple white gown with spaghetti straps
- (2008) Stevi Lauren Perry, simple white gown
- (2009) Stormi Bree Henley, simple pink chiffon
As a rule, Miss Teen USA, Miss Teen of America, and Miss High School America winners have usually struck the right note with pageant gowns that convey youthful elegance.