Like many high school students, Clare Ettinger and her boyfriend, James Thompson, were looking forward to their homeschool prom. The 17-year-old high school seniors from Richmond, Virginia couldn’t wait for what they thought would be a carefree evening of fun with their friends. When the highly-anticipated night finally arrived, the young couple was dressed to the nines and could hardly contain their excitement. They knew it might be one of their last chances to be with their peers before they all went on their future paths, but they never expected that the night would end up going terribly wrong.
The theme of the prom was “Twilight in Paris” and Clare and James had made sure to buy their ticket several weeks in advance. Like all prom-goers, Clare and James were looking forward to dressing up for the special occasion. Little did Clare know then, but by the end of the prom night, she’d experience something that would completely enrage her and spur a raging debate. “The whole situation made me feel violated, walked over and ostracized,” she’d later reflect.
Like most teenage girls her age, Clare Ettinger spent a great amount of time and effort finding the perfect prom dress. All throughout her search, she kept in mind the one rule that the prom’s dress code specified: “Ladies, please keep your dresses fingertip length or longer.” During her extensive search, Clare visited six different stores. She meticulously combed through their selections, but she just didn’t find THE dress. Just when she was about to call it quits, though, she came across something that spoke to her.
Clare’s heart started beating and her eyes widened when she came across a sparkly, silver dress at Macy’s that she thought would be perfect for the ultimate school dance. She thought the dress was “gorgeous” and completely suitable for the school dance’s Parisian theme. Even though she could already envision the sparkly, metallic dress in her prom photos, she knew it would first have to pass a special test before she even thought about buying it with the hard-earned money she’d been saving from her part-time job.
Hoping that it would look just as good on her as it did on the display, Clare pulled the dress from the rack and proceeded to try it on. Still, she knew it would have to pass the ‘fingertip test’ and made sure the bottom hemline measured at or below her fingertips. “Like a good little homeschooler, I made sure that the dress was fingertip length on me,” she later wrote in a blog post about what would end up being truly an unforgettable prom experience – but for all the wrong reasons.
Much to her joy, when Clare Ettinger tried the dress on it came down to a length that would be acceptable per the prom dress code. The high school senior was ecstatic and headed over to the cash register to pay for her treasured find. With great satisfaction, she bought the dress. It finally seemed that everything was falling into place just as she had imagined. She had no idea at the time, but her dreams of a fairytale evening would ultimately be dashed.
In the days leading up to the prom, Clare and her friends could barely contain their excitement. The giddy young ladies shared photos with each other of their prom attire as they counted down the hours until the special event. Feeling like a million bucks in her glitzy outfit, Clare Ettinger posted one photo saying she was “channeling [her] inner Marilyn Monroe.” Although she couldn’t have known, it wouldn’t be just red carpets and glamorous getups at the Richmond homeschool prom.
Still a little concerned about her dress, Clare tried it on more than once at home to make sure the fit was right. Each time she put it on she felt energized and eager thinking about the prom. And each time, she put her arms to her sides and saw that the dress was indeed long enough to pass the dress code requirements. As a teenager, and particularly as a high school student, Clare Ettinger didn’t usually have a reason to get all dressed up. She couldn’t wait for her family, friends and boyfriend (and prom date) to see her in it, but none of them were prepared for what would happen.
Finally, prom night rolled around on May 10, 2014. Clare got ready, she did her hair and makeup, replete with bright red lipstick. She was particularly excited since it would be a rare occasion for the homeschool students to be with their peers in a common high school setting.
With her high heels on, she did one last fingertip test just to be absolutely sure that she had nothing to worry about. Even though the measurements were a little close, she’s was she was confident that everything was in order and she was ready to go.
High school proms are a classic tradition, and for many teens it’s just the spectacle they’ve been looking forward to for all their years in school. But Clare’s prom had a unique twist to it that made it all the more special. Being homeschooled meant that Clare’s prom was incredibly important to her. As her everyday schedule was not defined by the peers that would have surrounded her in classes and breaks at a standard high school, being in this environment would be all the more exhilarating.
James, Clare’s boyfriend and prom date, picked her up and was breath taken by the image of Clare in the eye-catching number. Dashingly dressed in a tux himself they exchanged corsages and boutonnieres and took some customary pre-prom photos. Admittedly, Clare was feeling great about herself. She knew that with her statuesque figure and glimmering dress, she would be hard to miss. As the high school sweethearts made their way to the prom venue, they were totally unaware of what they’d encounter once there.
Prepared to make an entrance, the young couple rolled up to the Methodist Church that was hosting the school dance and walked up to foyer buzzing with excitement. Without warning, though, Clare and James were suddenly stopped in their tracks. Their spirits were immediately sobered as Clare was unexpectedly confronted before they even got to see what the dance looked like on the inside. The pair of hopeful prom attendees could hardly believe what was happening.
Before Clare and James even had a chance to step through the front doors of the prom venue, they were intercepted by the dance’s organizer, Ann Duncan, and told they couldn’t enter because of Clare’s dress. “Honey, that dress is too short,” Clare remembered the organizer telling her. Clare was stunned by the confrontation but she quickly gathered her wits and shot back a response that caught the attention of everyone who was in ear’s reach.
Clare was certain that her dress was up to par with Richmond homeschool prom’s dress code. She had made sure to double, and even triple, check it and she was not willing to take no for an answer. There was just no way that after everything she and James had put into preparing for the prom that they were just going to turn around and go home. So, Clare stood up to the organizer and asked her to reiterate the dress code.
Just as Clare had hoped, the prom organizer stated that the dress code specified that the bottom hem of a girl’s dress needed to be at or below the fingertips. Standing her ground, Clare told the organizer that in fact, her dress did meet this criterion. Standing at 5’9”, Clare explained that she was simply tall and more developed than a lot of the other girls so it might not appear as such at first glance. She then demonstrated the test for the organizer not knowing exactly what to expect.
Clare showed the prom organizer that her dress did, in fact, pass the test, explaining: “I just have long legs, everything looks short on me, but it is fingertip length I just showed you.” Eventually, Mrs. Duncan let Clare go with a warning and begrudgingly let her enter the dance, telling her to make sure the dress stayed pulled down. Clare Ettinger was slightly flustered by the confrontation but decided she wouldn’t let it ruin her night. Once Clare and her group of friends got inside the prom venue, though, she noticed something that she couldn’t believe.
As Clare Ettinger, her boyfriend James and their group of friends approached the ballroom at the Richmond homeschool prom, she laughed to herself when saw that a lot of the other girls were wearing much shorter dresses than hers.
Clare was still somewhat frustrated but realized the other girls were shorter than her so perhaps their attire wasn’t as noticeable. Nonetheless, she didn’t want the dress controversy to dictate the tone of her evening and she was just so happy to have all the drama behind her, or so she thought.
After a few songs on the dance floor, Clare had the odd feeling that she was being watched. And she wasn’t the only one who felt this way. Her whole group agreed that it felt like there was an abundance of chaperones that made the mood feel somewhat awkward. It seemed a lot of the students weren’t even dancing and that more people than not were just standing around. Clare and her friends also felt there more chaperones than students, and an unusually large amount of male chaperones uncomfortably hawk-eyeing them from the balcony above the dance floor.
Clare and her friends felt that it was inappropriate to have so many lingering eyes on them and she said that she felt “violated” and “a little grossed out” by the number of male parents who were watching the young party-goers and closely policing their apparel and dance moves. Still, she tried to shake the uncomfortable feeling and have a good time. Clare and her friends proceeded to try to enjoy themselves and let loose, but before long, prom organizer Mrs. Duncan was rushing over toward them again.
Clare Ettinger and her friends were swaying to the music and talking among themselves when Mrs. Duncan came over in a fury and summoned Clare off the dance floor. The prom organizer and another woman took Clare into a hallway corner and again told her something that would make her blood boil. The prom chaperones proceeded to inform the high school senior that some of the fathers chaperoning the event had complained that her dancing was “provocative” and that her dance moves and the dress could cause the young men at the prom to think “impure thoughts.” Clare couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
Clare was appalled at what Mrs. Duncan was telling her. The night had already had a rough start but now Clare was enraged that it seemed she was being sexualized and held responsible for the thoughts and impulses of adults. To her, the incident brought to mind issues of victim blaming. Clare had started the night believing she was just a young woman at the prom to have a good time. She just didn’t think it was right that she’d have to worry about bearing responsibility for what adult men thought was ‘appropriate’ but it didn’t end there.
Prom standards in Clare’s parents’ time had been far more restrictive. Many women from past generations can remember being subjected to an awkward test that they would have to pass before being admitted. Their teacher would measure the length of their dress with a yardstick. It is by no means uncommon for a prom to have a standard for dress length. Clare was careful to obey the rules that had been stipulated in the prom’s invitation. But some underlying issues that history had not yet solved would soon rear their ugly head.
Again Clare tried to reason with Mrs. Duncan. She explained she’d hardly been dancing and especially not in a provocative manner. She again showed the two women that her dress passed the requirements, but the chaperones were adamant. Clare couldn’t comprehend why she had been singled out when other prom attendees had shorter dresses and had been dancing in a more ‘mature’ way. At that point, her friends and boyfriend jumped into the conversation but they couldn’t believe the response they were getting.
Clare’s friends attempted to vouch for her and respectively asked the chaperones to explain the situation. To their shock, however, the chaperones told Clare’s friends that they weren’t welcome in the conversation and said that if Clare didn’t leave voluntarily she’d be kicked out of the event. The prom organizer refused to budge on their stance and Clare was heartbroken. Not ready to see his girlfriend unfairly treated, James insisted that if Clare had to leave, their whole group that driven together would leave and demand refunds.
Rushing to defend his girlfriend as she was being unfairly targeted, James somehow managed to keep under control how angry he was as he asked to understand exactly what was going on. He explained that his refund request was reasonable, as the whole group had arrived together. However, he was told it wasn’t his concern and he needed to back out. Mrs. Duncan had seen the two walk in together and knew he was her boyfriend, and that whatever pertained to her was also absolutely his business. What would happen next?
Clare tried one last resort. It was obviously that Mrs. Duncan was the main obstacle here, but maybe if there was a way to go above her head, Clare and her friends could stay at prom to enjoy themselves just like they deserved. Clare asked to speak to the lady who was in charge of the prom. But Mrs. Duncan was determined. She denied Clare’s request, unwilling to budge and confident that she was right. Was there anyone else that could help spare her this embarrassment?
It turned out that Clare had an unwilling, if reluctant, ally in her struggle. As she and her friends gathered their belongings and prepared to be removed from the premises, she turned to the security guard who was to escort them. Feeling emotionally pushed into a corner and forced to defend herself to all around her, she asked the security guard what he thought. To her surprise, even he thought she was dressed appropriately. But he was just doing his job, and sadly couldn’t put in his two cents.
The discussion continued to get increasingly heated and it didn’t seem that Mrs. Duncan was going to back down. Eventually, the prom chaperon refused to debate the issue any further. That’s when she called over a security guard to escort Clare and her five friends from the school function. Clare was mortified and didn’t think her punishment had been just. Already in tears, she was further angered by the fact that only she had received a refund for her prom ticket and her friends hadn’t. Clare might have been kicked out of prom, but she wouldn’t take the situation laying down.
Although Clare and her friends had been robbed of the fun night they were supposed to have, she wouldn’t let it pass in silence. Clare was certain she’d followed the rules and wanted to get the word out about what she viewed as mistreatment, injustice and a backward way of thinking. Not willing to stay silent, Clare took to the internet to voice her misgivings after her prom night disaster had left her feeling angry, embarrassed and disrespected. However, she never could have expected the reaction that she would receive.
Clare took to her sister’s blog and was prepared to inform everyone on that platform just what had happened and why, particularly at this day in age, it felt so wrong. She wrote her heart out about the double standard she’d been exposed to and how she as a teenager had been held responsible for the thought of adult men. She acknowledged that perhaps because she was taller and more developed than many of the other girls she was singled out, but still, she didn’t think she was in the wrong. In fact, she thought it should be the other way, and it was the thinking of those who’d had a problem with her who needed to change. And the Internet sure had something to say back to her.
Clare Ettinger hadn’t expected it, but her post about her prom dress controversy went viral and spurred a wave of supporters who were also enraged by what had happened. They agreed that it shouldn’t be a young woman shouldn’t be shamed for the sake of men’s comfort. Clare was astonished by the positive reaction, but she was also hoping for a response from the homeschool prom’s administration. That being said, she never could have expected what the Richmond Homeschool Prom’s Facebook page ultimately did.
It turned out that the administrators for the Richmond homeschool prom’s Facebook page ended up deleting the dissenting comments they’d received due to Clare’s account. Ultimately, the situation apparently got out of hand and the entire page was deleted altogether. Clare never received the written response from the prom organizers that she’d been seeking, but the story didn’t end there. There was still someone who didn’t completely agree with Clare’s account of what had transpired at the prom.
A local CBS affiliate caught up on the story and showed up to interview the involved parties. Clare’s family members defended her story, although she didn’t speak to the new crew since she was a minor at the time.
However, when they asked prom organizer Mrs. Duncan about the controversy, she stood by her account. She claimed Clare’s dress rode up throughout the night and she discredited claims that the dads were specifically watching her because there had been 500 kids at the prom. But still, there were other accounts of the events.
The prom dress controversy had made quite a stir in the Virginia town, particularly among the homeschool community. Another Richmond homeschool prom attendee, Callie Hobbs, said she indeed thought Clare had been dancing suggestively, but so had other attendees. Callie acknowledged that it was legitimate to kick someone out of prom if they broke the rules, but that it was only fair if the rules were enforced equally among everyone. After all had been said and done, though, Clare still didn’t think her work was finished.
In response to the debate that ensued after prom, Clare and James made a video in which they spoke out about concerning societal attitudes toward gender and sexuality. The proactive pair sought to highlight the point that the way someone dresses or dances doesn’t constitute the level of respect they should receive. Although Clare thought it was unfortunate that she had to go through the whole experience, she hopes her story will help in the discussion about body shaming and sexual harassment. She also hopes her story will further demonstrate how certain mindsets are problematic, not curve-hugging, sparkly dresses.