It's a prom must-have, right up there with the dress and shoes: The guy's tie must match the girl's gown. And many teens today use cell phones to aid the color coordination.
Kourtney Ziercher took a picture of her dress in the store to send to her date, Michael George, for her prom last year at Barat Academy in Chesterfield, Mo.
"I told him it was burnt orange, and he got the tie to match," she said.
"She knew that it was not a typical color, but the tie I got even had a little design on it that matched the design on the dress," Michael said, referring to a light tiger stripe print on the fabric. "She was really excited about it. The girl's dress is a big deal. If the outfit doesn't go perfectly, if the guy isn't matching, it's a problem. I made sure it worked."
In Fort Collins, Colo., Amy Weintraub's mom Pat sent a picture of her daughter in a chocolate brown dress to Amy's date, Luke Siddens, and he used the image to get a matching tie and vest for their prom last week at Poudre High School.
"I didn't realize he wanted to match me," Amy said. "He just kind of decided that on his own. It was a little lighter than the dress, but it matched pretty well."
For homemade dresses, ties can always be made from leftover fabric. For a 2010 prom at the Stanley Humphries Secondary School in Castlegar, British Columbia, Canada, Arielle Roberts made her own dress with the help of a grandmother and aunt. Her date's mom sewed a matching tie "when the green bow-tie and cummerbund she'd ordered for him weren't quite the right shade," Arielle said.
But with so many dresses store bought these days, and with cell phone photos sometimes producing unreliable hues, stores often provide physical swatches to assist in color coordination.
That's what happens at Deidre's Special Day and Prom Central at the Berkshire Common in Pittsfield, Mass. if a couple are getting their prom outfits at different stores, said Joe Torra, who owns the shop with his wife, Deidre.
"We supply the girl with a swatch, so her date can match his accessories to it," he said.
It's easier, he went on, if both buy at the same place, and best if the girl buys her dress first and the guy follows.
"That's the way it's supposed to be," Torra said, But there are always "exceptions to the rule," he said, when a guy will rent a tux and expect the girl to match his choice.
"It's unfortunate when that happens," Torra said. "It puts the girl in a bind and limits the choices she can make." And the prom, he said, is really mostly about the girl.
David's Bridal, which expects to sell 110,000 prom dresses this year in 300 stores, sells fabric swatches for $1 with dress purchases.
Amanda Nohrenberg, store manager for David's Bridal in Eugene, Ore., says " 90 percent, if not 99 percent" of her prom customers want their dates to match. "If they aren't coordinating, it's because the guy is wearing a neutral color like black or white."
Many couples also plan matching corsages and boutonnieres. "The girls are saying, 'This is what I'm wearing and I want it to match the flowers,"' said Pennylyn Kaine, owner of Blossom & Bee Floral and Event Design in Newfoundland, N.J.
Sometimes the boys come in "either with their phone picture or a physical swatch, but now what's happening more often is, the girls are coming in and picking it out in advance," said Kaine. "They're actually saying, 'This is what I want. I'm going to send my boyfriend in and he's going to pay for it."' Kaine, who's 32, added, "It's not like when I was in high school and people didn't care so much. You just got the white mini-spray of roses."
But sometimes, despite all the planning and purchasing, last-minute improvisations are required.
Sarah Perreault's date "had been obsessed with making everything perfect" to coordinate with her red dress for the 2010 prom at Brunswick High School in Brunswick, Maine. "We were going to dinner and he had forgotten his pocket square," she said. "He was so upset. His outfit wasn't complete. So a girl made him a pocket square out of a napkin, and he wore it the entire night."
Luckily, the napkin was red.