Bethany Shurer, a graduate of Stevenson University, shows… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Bethany Shurer took one look at her drab graduation get-up and knew exactly what it needed — a flashy pair of shoes.
The Stevenson University senior's lifeless black robe covered most of her body, leaving her feet as the only place for something sassy. So she added some sparkle: a pair of eye-catching Kenneth Cole rhinestone-studded platforms. She wouldn't just walk across the stage — in those metallic navy pumps, she would shine.
"Everyone else was going to be wearing the same thing," said the 23-year-old, who lives in Forest Hill. "This is the only thing you can wear that shows any type of personality and style."
Forget the traditional black flats and kitten heels. Shurer's generation has bucked the pomp, circumstance and stodginess of graduation in favor of high-fashion footwear. Many are reaching for the heavens in 4-inch platform pumps dripping with rhinestones and sequins. As a result, some graduation ceremonies have begun to feel a little like a runway show — and some schools have even begun to push back.
"This month, lots of seniors are looking for pretty details to dazzle their toes for one of the biggest catwalks of their career," said Cockeysville-based stylist Stephanie Bradshaw. "They want to feel confident and they want to feel pretty."
Local educators and fashion insiders say that fancy graduation shoes are a recent phenomenon. Sarah McDowell, director of internship programs at Stevenson University, first noticed it two years ago.
"I was a little surprised at the height of the shoes," said McDowell, who assists students during graduation as they walk up and down the stairs to receive their diplomas. "They were just gorgeous. Some were really bold — neon pink, green, and blue leopard print. Some of them were just absolutely crazy."
McDowell, 26, said the styles are a far cry from the trends she saw when she graduated and attended other graduations.
"The students now are so much [more] fashion-forward than they were 5-10 years ago," she said. "I think I wore black, 1-inch heels."
In Howard County, some principals have noticed the popularity of fashionable — often elevated — shoes and are urging students against wearing high heels during graduation, according to schools spokeswoman Patti Caplan.
"It's a safety issue," Caplan said.
But that hasn't seemed to stop the demand for high-end, high-priced graduation shoes. At Sassanova, a high-end shoe boutique chain with locations throughout the region, the season's most popular graduation shoes are a $550 pair of Loeffler Randall crisscross stilettos called "The Paige," and $595 beige suede peep-toe platforms by Oscar de la Renta.
"People put a lot of time and a lot of effort finding graduation shoes," said Carolyn Warner, manager of the Harbor East location. "The last couple years, younger kids have started earlier chasing the runway. For special occasions, they want the perfect outfit. They are not holding back with shoes at all."
Alyson Zolet plans to rock a pair of nude-gray 5-inch Jessica Simpson heels at her June 7 senior graduation at Garrison Forest, an all-girls private school in Owings Mills.
"I've seen them in all the magazines," the 18-year-old Owings Mills resident said. "I always wanted a pair of shoes like that."
Zolet originally purchased the shoes for prom, but figured she would make a splash at graduation to offset the body-length white gown, which seniors are required to wear. The school urged students to wear flats to avoid stumbling on the cobblestone ground where the graduation takes place. But Zolet said she plans to risk it.
"I don't really stick with the more traditional stuff. I like heels," she said. "My shoes are definitely more different than what the other girls will be wearing."
Shurer and other Millennials are more likely to pay top dollar for a ceremonial fashion accessory, because from a young age, they've been conditioned for it, according to local fashion experts. They grew up with "Sex and the City" and evolved into the fashions of "Gossip Girl." Those shows — ripe with product placement — combined with the abundance of celebrity gossip and fashion-related television, have helped to cultivate a generation of label- and image-conscious fashionistas.
"If you see it on a celebrity, the kids have to have it," said Emily Blaze, owner of The Little Shoebox, a high-end shoe boutique in Ruxton. "They are very label-conscious. They want the Manolo Blahniks. They want what the celebs wear."
At Stevenson University, the fancy footwear of graduates has caught enough eyes that the alumni magazine — for the second year in a row — published a photo gallery of some of the most eye-catching shoes.
"Each year the shoes seem to get higher and fancier," said Glenda LeGendre, the college's vice president of marketing and public relations. "I've seen the trends get more and more posh and colorful. You can't go through commencement without getting pictures of the shoes."