TODAY'S TEENS AREN'T WEARING THEIR MOTHERS' PROM DRESSES

There's only one look for 18-year-old Chelsea Green at this year's prom, and it's not the frou-frou gown that makes her think of cotton candy.

"It's more fun to look risqu & #233; than to wear long sleeves or cover up," said Green, a senior at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach. "Sexy strapless tops are cool. So are backless tops. They're simple and classy and not overdone. You don't want to look like you went to too much trouble."

Rather than radiating innocence and modesty in their dreamy, princess gowns, teen girls will be reaching for those two-piece ensembles this spring that reveal hints of skin. Blame it on today's fast-paced MTV/high-tech age or simply ennui with tradition, but the precocious natures of female youth are translating into mature fashion tastes.

"They're confident in their bodies. Many aren't super skinny and they like to show off their bodies," said Sherrie Kasner, fashion editor for Woodland Hills-based Jump magazine. "It's more about individuality this year. They're not following tradition, but determining what they want to wear on their own terms."

Added Andrea Hildebrand, sales associate for junior dress line Roberta: "These aren't little girls anymore. They're not going shopping with mom. They're going in groups and helping each other pick out their outfits."

This is the time of year when designers, manufacturers and retailers all aim their sights at high school proms, when teen-age girls could easily spend hundreds of dollars on a formal dress. That makes for an ideal marketing opportunity to promote labels and fashion lines that girls might remember well after high school.

Most public schools in Los Angeles County do not have dress codes for proms, an event that is not held during the school week and is usually held off-campus. Even so, school officials do keep a lookout for questionable attire.

"Certainly, the right dress is the in eye of the beholder, but we haven't had problems in the past," said Linda Hosford, assistant principal for student activities at Palisades High School. "There have been outfits more revealing than something someone my age would wear, but most of the time, our young people use good judgement. Consequently, we haven't had a dress code for the event, but would if we needed to."

Not surprisingly, celebrity culture plays a major role in a girl's decision-making process. Taking their cue from such stars as Jennifer Anniston and the green scarf of a dress worn by Jennifer Lopez at the Grammys, teens are aware of the key flesh points to expose.

"We're seeing lots of back interest, whether it's lace-up or tie-up tops or plunging back lines, there's a huge emphasis on the back," said Sabrina Tafoya, junior dress market specialist at retail consulting firm Atkins California in Los Angeles. "We're seeing higher slits on skirts and they're also flirting with ways to show their tummies with low-slung skirts."

For retailers, the peaking demand for dressy separates means new business.

"It's a plus business. We weren't selling these last year, so we're already seeing a nice increase in prom sales over last year," said Jennifer Meli, Macy's West junior social dress buyer. "It's really a hot look right now. It started last fall for New Year's and it's gained momentum for prom."

Merri Santoro, sales manager for San Francisco-based designer Jessica McClintock, says two-pieces are now an extensive part of its business.

"The separates are making up 50 percent of the social business, which runs into our prom business," Santoro said.

One hot item, Santoro said, is the strapless bustier that zips up in the back and provides a slim silhouette and enhanced cleavage. Often accented with rhinestones or embroidery, most are made of iridescent satin or taffeta and retail from $44 to $150. The tops match up with a slimmer A-line satin skirt that rests on the hips to reveal a bare midriff. They sell for $60 and up, and colors range from pastel pinks to rich jewel tones.

Santoro said one advantage of the clothes is the ability to mix and match pieces for the prom and future use. "They're not stuck with a dress that will hang in a closet," she said.

Indeed, the fashions can be dressed up or down. Teen-agers can take that backless apron top and wear it with a dressy skirt or jeans. Or they can take the ball-gown skirt and match it a simple cardigan sweater.

The look comes in handy when girls are juggling multiple occasions.

"We're finding that girls are going to more than one prom. Often, the boyfriend goes to another school so they're looking for inexpensive ways to attend both," Hildebrand said. "They may buy one skirt and two tops."

Some Roberta looks that have caught on include the lavender-colored, scoop-back halter with a drawstring tie on the neck and matching taffeta skirt that retails for $104. More-daring numbers include a metallic-toned tube top worn with a satin, low-ride skirt.

Los Angeles-based ABS Clothing Collection Inc. has pushed the envelope further with two-piece leather sets with bustiers and long skirts with thigh-high slits and stretch denim outfits with sequined bustiers and fitting skirts. Both sell for $250 to $300.

"We're among one of the first designers that rolled the two-piece outfits last year for special occasion wear, and have seen a 30 percent increase in sales this year due to prom," said ABS President Lloyd Singer. "It's a look that you can constantly change and enhance. Ball gowns have pretty straightforward designs."

The two-piece has even become a barometer of status, according to 16-year-old Jennifer Golisch.

"We had a dance in February and you could tell who the freshmen were," said Golisch, a junior at Chaminade High School in West Hills. "The freshmen girls wore ball gowns and the older girls wore strapless, two-piece outfits with their tummy showing."

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