Do you have to wear expensive pageant gowns to win? It depends on the gown and its wearer.
Keep in mind, the purpose of pageant gowns is to make contestants look beautiful, flatter their figures, create a winning image, and convince judges to award them high scores. Any pageant gown that achieves those qualities is a winner. The $500 black velvet strapless number that flatters the young woman’s figure and makes her look radiant will score just as highly as its $5,000 black strapless beaded counterpart.
Some Pageants are Trying to Keep Gown Costs Reasonable
Some programs like Miss America try to limit pageant gown expenses by asking entrants to avoid excessive beading, which is what usually runs up prices. Other programs like America’s Junior Miss and Miss Teen of America require simple gowns and encourage borrowing when possible. “We encourage them to borrow the dress they need and minimize the expense when they are involved in participation,” asserts (now retired) Junior Miss director Robert Hedberg. Noting that entrants in many pageants feel the pressure to keep up with expensive beaded gowns, Hedberg insists, “That’s not our emphasis. It’s more on their self-esteem.”
Even the high-glamour systems are making an effort to be sensitive to contestants’ budgets. Paula Miles, director of six Miss USA/Teen USA state pageants in the South, is pleased to see the recent success of simpler, less-expensive gowns. ”I’m so glad to see that. It makes things affordable for all these girls who may not have wealthy parents.” One of Paula’s queens, Lu Parker, Miss South Carolina-USA, won the 1994 Miss USA title wearing an $1,800 un-beaded black gown – cheap as national level pageant gowns go.
“A lot of girls think that they’ve got to buy a three thousand dollar designer pageant gown to win. You don’t have to do that. You need to wear what looks good on you. If it is a three-hundred-fifty-dollar gown, but it looks great on you, then do it. If the two-thousand-dollar dress looks good on you, then do that one. Wear what looks best on you.” — Debbie Brown, pageant gown specialist
With Pageant Gowns, the Look – Not the Price, is What is Judged.
As these winners prove, when it comes to pageant gowns, it’s the look – not the price – that counts:
- Miss America 1994 – won in a $395 Lycra gown
- Miss America 1993 – crowned in a borrowed strapless gown
- Miss Teen-USA 1993 – won in a $37 gown
- Miss America 1988 – won in a donated wedding gown she altered (lower right)
- Miss Florida 1987 – won in a $300 gown
- First runner-up to Miss America 1980 – paid $9 for a gown at Goodwill; seamstresses added beading
- Miss America 1977 – one of her competition gowns cost $29, the other was bought on sale at a department store
- Miss America 1976 – her gown retailed for $250
- Miss USA 1973 – won wearing a borrowed gown
That is not to say that winners haven’t won wearing expensive gowns. For many years, girls from states which could afford lavish wardrobes or had generous gown donors dominated the major pageants. Better training of national judges has improved judging by teaching panelists to judge the girl, not the gown.
Eliminating group judging, where contestants lined up side by side for comparison judging, has also improved the dynamics of evening-gown judging.
There are alternatives to purchasing costly gowns. Many contestants now rent gowns or purchase former contestants’ gowns and alter them. Borrowing is another option.
- Miss America 1988 Kaye Lani Rafko competed in a donated wedding gown she had altered to use as her pageant gown!
- Maya Walker, first runner-up to Miss America 1989, brought along several borrowed pageant gowns.
- Shawn Weatherly, Miss South Carolina-USA, won the 1980 Miss USA and Miss Universe titles wearing a $10,000 gown on loan from famed designer Stephen Yearick, according to her state director.
It’s also possible to have a gown made by a seamstress or family member. The public rarely hears about the contestants who won major titles wearing homemade gowns.
- Elizabeth Ward won the 1982 Miss America Pageant in a dress her grandmother had sewn from a lace tablecloth and punched with rhinestones.
- Mona Grudt won the 1990 Miss Universe title wearing a simple white satin strapless gown a friend made. She placed first in evening gown, beating a custom-made, fully beaded gown by celebrity designer Bob Mackie.
As such cases demonstrate, qualified judges do not view a candidate’s pretty, correctly tailored, homemade gown as a liability if she is otherwise an outstanding candidate for the crown.
Evelyn Ay, a former Miss America and respected state and national judge, told me that her reaction to a superb contestant wearing a home-sewn gown is often, “I know that’s a homemade dress, but boy, look what she can do with that homemade dress!” Keep in mind that when judges are scoring local or state contestants, they understand that the pageant committee will re-wardrobe the eventual winner for the next level of competition. If the panel is convinced that a young woman is the most qualified candidate for the title, she could be wearing a potato sack and win. Judges are not going to lose their best girl on a technicality.
Additionally, good judges do not consider the probable value of the gown when scoring. What they will consider (or should consider) is whether the gown complements the girl, and if it brings out her beauty and contributes to a lovely overall picture.
“If a girl is really secure in who she is, whether she’s in a $150 gown or a $15,000 gown to be beautiful,” asserts national judge Sam Haskell. “How much she spends on her gown doesn’t matter to me. If it works, I’m going to point it.”
Focus on a Gown That Helps You Look Your Best … Regardless of Price
In the evening gown competition, a contestant should focus on looking her most beautiful – regardless of the gown’s price. “Kim Aiken’s dress was three hundred ninety-five dollars, which goes to show you that it isn’t cost,” says Debbie Brown. “A lot of girls think that they’ve got to buy a three thousand dollar designer pageant gown to win. You don’t have to do that. You need to wear what looks good on you. If it is a three-hundred-fifty-dollar gown, but it looks great on you, then do it. If the two-thousand-dollar dress looks good on you, then do that one. Wear what looks best on you.”
The goal is not to spend a king’s ransom on an evening gown … but to look like a queen.
It’s a tough task to judge a subjective competition where most of the contestants look beautiful. Since judges can’t award 10’s to everybody onstage, scoring usually comes down to a process of elimination. Judges find nitpicky reasons to mark down. Pageant gown mistakes can range from image errors, such as a neckline cut to the navel, to technical errors, such as improper fit and hem length.
The secret is to avoid giving the panel any reason to deduct points. As David Bartley put it, “The girl who wins is the one who makes the least mistakes.”
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