Sweet 16 Dresses: A Guide for Parents and Daughters

Your daughter’s Sweet 16 party is a balancing act between what she wants to wear and what you consider appropriate...but it doesn’t have to be war. Here are some ideas for finding a dress that pleases everyone.

Nothing causes more discord between parents and teenage girls than clothing. Too short, too tight, too revealing – parents have made these complaints since clothing was invented.

At 16 your daughter is starting to feel all grown up. That, of course, is the problem.

Celebrations that require formal or semi-formal dress are particularly prone to this kind of disagreement. The Sweet 16 celebration is a classic example. For many parents, it is the Sweet 16 dress that marks a daughter’s transition from tomboy to young woman. All of society’s mixed messages about the sexualization of young women come to a head as parents and daughters argue and wheedle and compromise in pursuit of the perfect dress.

We are not claiming to have cracked the code to generational disagreements. Greater minds than ours have tried and failed to bridge that gap. We can, however, offer a bit of styling advice to parents and teenage girls. Our advice may help you arrive at a compromise when you are faced with styling your daughter as a beautiful Sweet 16 princess.

Be Prepared to Be Flexible

Two gorgeous dresses for sweet sixteenth birthday
Two beautiful dresses. Does either of these set your parental alarm bells ringing?

For both parents and teenagers, the key to avoiding discord when choosing a Sweet 16 dress is to enter into the selection process with an open mind.

Parents, you must remember that styles and tastes vary. They change from generation to generation. What was considered inappropriate for your generation may be perfectly common and appropriate for your daughter and her friends.

Teenagers are exposed to a media environment that is saturated with hyper-sexualized imagery, and many of the fashions available to them reflect the style choices of idols and icons. The influence of media fashion is apparent to anyone who glances at the dresses on sale at the local mall.

At the same time, young women have more freedom to express themselves stylistically than ever before. Navigating one’s way through these choices is a big part of coming of age, exerting independence and finding one’s personal style.

Instead of focusing on specific attributes that they consider inappropriate, parents should try to help their teenage daughters think about the overall balance of a look. Try not to set rules about hemlines, necklines, cut-outs and sheer panels. Instead, engage your daughter in a discussion of the overall impression she wants to make.

While you will never convince a teenager that a skirt is too short, you may very well be able to convince her that a short skirt looks classier and contributes more to her personal style when paired with a top that has sleeves instead of a bare midriff.

If your sartorial game is not the best match for the job, enlist a friend whose style both you and your daughter admire. Or ask for help from one of the personal shoppers at your local department store. No one knows what is in style better than someone who helps dozens of teens select dresses every week.

Encourage your daughter to be open-minded. If she knows exactly what she wants before she walks into the store, she may miss out on a dress that would be perfect. Set aside enough shopping time for her to try lots of options.

Being open-minded while shopping is more than a good way to find an unexpectedly perfect Sweet 16 dress. It’s also a habit that will yield good results through your daughter’s adult life. Your Sweet 16 dress-shopping adventure can be a learning experience instead of a conflict if you approach it right. She’ll remember what she learned on this shopping expedition someday when she sets out to find the perfect wedding dress.

Balancing a Look

Keep in mind that you and your daughter want the same thing. You want her to look like a beautiful princess.

It is easier to shop for Sweet 16 dresses if everyone is open to all options. Relegating certain styles to the “not allowed” list puts a damper on the occasion and may rule out the perfect dress. Be open-minded, be flexible and go with the flow.

Here are some of the different styles that you may encounter while shopping for a Sweet 16 dress, and how to keep the look balanced and age-appropriate.

Long Full Skirts: This is a great option for achieving the “princess” look. A long, full skirt, either in tulle netting or plain fabric, is the most formal of your options. To keep a longer, fuller skirt looking youthful, choose a dress that has a top that bares the shoulders; either a halter or strapless top works best.

Short Full Skirts: Though they can be quite short, these fuller skirts (sometimes referred to as “skater” skirts) are very young-looking and therefore age-appropriate for teenage girls. Those who do not have to worry about a cold climate may even opt for a full short skirt and a strapless or spaghetti-strap top, which lends a ballerina-like quality to the look.

Midriff Dresses: Midriff-baring tops and dresses have made a comeback, much to the chagrin of many parents. Worn properly, however, a bare midriff can be as lighthearted and youthful as it is fashion-forward. Look for dresses that have a top with sleeves and a slightly longer or fuller skirt that hits just above the knee.

Long Column Dresses: A long, sleek, body-conscious dress can be quite a sophisticated look, and therefore can look a bit too mature for a 16-year-old. To keep things youthful, choose a halter or strapless top and pick a dress in a bright print or playful color. You can also add fun detailing like an asymmetrical hemline. Ideally, choose just one of these details to keep the overall look tasteful.

Miniskirts: The miniskirt has long served as society’s scapegoat for the sins of the younger generation. Ever since the 1960s, people have unfairly associated the miniskirt with moral failings and social irresponsibility. But that’s ridiculous. Although the miniskirt is less formal than some of the longer and fuller dresses we’ve discussed, it is still an age-appropriate choice if styled correctly. A miniskirt or minidress looks most appropriate when the top is more covered. It should fit well without being eye-wateringly tight. Look for short shift-dresses in luxurious fabrics that have a bit of volume or drape to them, or minidresses with sleeves.

Try to Make Shopping Fun

Shopping doesn’t have to be a source of conflict. Take time. Get some lunch. Make it a fun day you’ll always remember.

There are many other factors to take into consideration when shopping for a Sweet 16 party dress. You’ll want to consider the time of day, cultural preferences, weather, the party theme and much more. This quick guide can’t singlehandedly bridge the fashion gap between teenagers and their parents, but I hope it will help both you and your daughter relax enough to enjoy shopping for the perfect Sweet 16 dress.

Cover photo: weheartit.com

About the author

Kristin Buchholz-MacKillop

Kristin is an American writer based in the Scottish Highlands. She is a saxophonist, an obsessive tennis player, a U.S. Air Force Veteran, and holds a Master's degree as an Acute Care Nurse Practitioner. She is the author of the online style blog highlandfashionista.com

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