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Pageant Dress Vocab 101

Michaela Sigmon, Miss Virginia 2016, stands with her court. Photo: Julius Tolentino
Michaela Sigmon, Miss Virginia 2016, stands with her court. Photo: Julius Tolentino

For someone just getting into the pageant world, choosing the right evening gown can sometimes be the toughest part of pageant preparation. $200 for a gown, $3000 for a gown, why are the prices so different and do I really need to spend that much to have a chance at winning?

These are questions we often get here at Proms Pageants and Pretty Things at the Brides House, so we thought we would give you quick vocab lesson that might help you understand what you are purchasing and why.

Pageant Dress Vocab 101

“Off The Rack”

If you are looking for an entry level or preliminary level gown, buying off the rack is just fine. This means buying something that has been mass produced and is hanging there on the rack to purchase. Some of these can be prom gowns (usually these are the most cost effective) and some are pageant gowns. These gowns can often be found online and at multiple stores, so the chances are greater that you might see this gown on stage with you.

“Pageant Gown/Prom Gown”

Sometimes these can be interchangeable, but some of the major differences between the two are that pageant gowns are usually cut 4 or 5 inches longer then prom gowns (so if you are tall you can still wear the really high heels you want to) and, generally speaking, the quality of the stones used on a pageant gown is usually a higher grade stone than that on a prom gown. (Read: How to Find Your Dream Gown Within Your Budget)

“Exclusive Designs”

Some gown manufacturers will make a limited number of a certain gown and make them unadvertised gowns that you can get access to online. These gowns usually cost a little more than off the rack gowns, but with a limited number of dresses manufactured and the limited visibility of the style (especially online), these are a good choice if you want to limit the chance that someone else might be wearing your gown.

“Custom Off The Rack”

If you purchase any of the gowns above but still want to make sure that you have something different than everyone else, you can consider doing some custom work to the gown. This could be the addition (or removal) of straps, adding stones to the dress or changing the hemline at the bottom of the dress. These are easy and affordable ways to take something that is already out there and make it yours. (Read: Top 3 Prom/Pageant Shopping Myths)

“One of a Kind”

These gowns are great finds. These are gowns that the manufacturer made only one or two of in a certain color. There is a chance that the same style was made in a different color but not the one you will have. The downfall is they are only made in size 4 (these can fit a size 2 to a size 6 depending on the material and style of the gown), so if you are a different size these aren’t always an option for you. These gowns are priced a little higher than off the rack gowns or exclusive design gowns, but it’s as close to a custom gown as you can come without paying a custom price. If you like it, get it, because once it’s gone it’s gone and there aren’t any more like it!


If you can’t find what you are looking for or just want to make sure there won’t be any other gowns like yours, then a custom gown might be the way to go, but you will pay for the right to have the only gown. Depending on the designer that you work with, custom gowns will start around $2000 to $3000 and will take at least 12 weeks to arrive (sometimes longer), so make sure you have plenty of time before you need the gown!

We hope that these vocab words helped to clear up any confusion you may have the next time you are shopping for your perfect gown!

Which dress do you like better?

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