Class picks dress uniform Tradition: For more than 100 years, students at Notre Dame Preparatory School have all worn the same style gown on graduation day. This year's 117 seniors have made their selection.

February 08, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

No one seems to remember when the tradition began.

But after more than a century, no one wants to see it end.

So, each year the senior class of Notre Dame Preparatory School goes on a fashion odyssey to find a long, white gown that will fit and flatter every class member on graduation day. And please their parents' pocketbooks. And satisfy their headmistress, who has been a School Sister of Notre Dame for nearly 60 years.

"The white dress is a big, huge tradition," said senior Megan Rector, one participant in the Class of 1997's dress search, which ended yesterday.

Notre Dame Prep seniors have been graduating in proper white dresses since the late 1880s, if not from the first days of the all-girls' school in 1873. Their sister school, the Institute of Notre Dame on Aisquith Street, shares the tradition, as does another girls' high school, Mount de Sales in Catonsville.

In many other all-girls' schools, the graduates wear white dresses, but they are not identical dresses. In fact, shop owners go out of their way to make sure no two dresses are the same at those schools.

At Notre Dame in Towson, the white dress is a tradition that has survived tie votes, cutthroat clothiers, sore losers, unhappy mothers, rising prices and the fickleness of fashion, which rarely holds modesty among its tenets.

And so the tradition endures for the Class of 1997.

Most of its 117 members gathered before 8 a.m. yesterday to choose the dress from 17 that had been painstakingly selected over the past few weeks by a student committee. Like many before, this vote was not without its idiosyncrasies.

One by one, 17 seniors -- often with their uniform saddle shoes peeking out under the flowing skirts -- modeled the gowns on the auditorium stage as class President Janine Pociluyko read a brief description and the price of each.

In the first rows of the auditorium, the rest of the class gathered to assess the crepe and satin and chiffon, the scoop necks and square necks, the low backs and keyhole backs, the bows and belts.

Picking favorites

Chatting among themselves, the girls picked their favorites and made fashion assessments:

"Ooh, I couldn't wear that."

"That back is so low."

"That looks like the dress my sister had two years ago."

"You should be thinking of the whole class the different figure types and it's a graduation dress," counseled school librarian Ellen Cullen, who has chaperoned dress searches for 20 years.

"I just go along and make sure it's not cut to the navel or if it's $200, I tell them to find something else," Cullen said of her role in the annual rite.

Within minutes, the 17 dresses had been narrowed to six. The gown with the lace jacket was scratched because it looked like curtains, the flowing Shantung because it reminded students of a tablecloth. Barely a hand went up for the dress with the sweetheart neckline or the Jackie Kennedy sheath.

Strapless pros and cons

Of the six finalists, the satin gown with the bolero jacket drew the most attention. Under the jacket was a simple strapless dress with an A-line skirt. The pros and cons of strapless swirled through the group.

"I think it'd be fun," said one senior. "Yeah, wait till you're falling out of it," said another. "I hate strapless dresses," offered a third.

The girls voted again. And then there were four, including the strapless.

As enthusiasm for the strapless gown continued, democracy dwindled. Sister Helen Marie Duffy, the school's 18-year headmistress, came quickly down the auditorium aisle to confer with Cullen.

Scratch the strapless. (Duffy had barred another finalist before the girls got a look at it, said Pociluyko, because its combination of chiffon over satin reminded her of a nightgown.)

Thoughtful of others

"The strapless is a problem," Cullen told the girls. "We'll vote on the other three."

"Aw," went the collective dismay.

Duffy explained her decision: "I'm very, very concerned about the price of the dress. And not everyone is going to be comfortable with it."

She added, "You have to be thoughtful of other people. Right now, you are thinking of you. Please be sensitive to the price and the other girls in this class."

The price tag on the gone gown was $190, the highest of the group. The original 17 ranged from $130 to $190; the six finalists' price tags: $160 to $190.

Final choice

The last three were a satin A-line with a small bow on the empire waist, a crepe and satin A-line with covered buttons in back, and an amazingly similar crepe dress with a back bow. That went next.

And then it was time to feel the material and scope out the back effects, and finally to have someone who fit better into the sample size 12 model it.

That did it -- the simple crepe and satin for $168 garnered 75 votes. Enough to make a count on the other contender unnecessary.

L The auditorium emptied quickly and without any great dismay.

"I'd say the majority of the class liked it," said Emily Queen, who had picked the chosen one as her favorite early on.

Close votes

Delia Sabundayo of M'Jourdelle, a Towson dress shop, was happy. She hasn't had the Notre Dame order in a long time, she said. "The dress is simple. It looks good on different body structures."

And despite the struggle over the strapless, Cullen said this search was easier than some. Last year the winner was decided by only two votes, she recalled. In the early 1980s, the vote was tied until a latecomer arrived to be lobbied wildly by both sides before casting the decisive vote.

'Worst dress'

And in 1978, an eager vendor sitting in on the vote offered to undercut a competitor, saying, "Sister, if the girls like that dress, I can get it for you $20 cheaper."

"That was the worst day of my life," recalled Michele Valle Kogler, class president that year. "It's an emotional decision anyway."

For Cullen "the worst dress" is easy to recall. "It was the year my daughter was in the class."

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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