All dressed up Carefully chosen grad dresses that will never see a dance floor a stark reminder of students' losses this year

Alexa Craig knew she’d found The Dress the moment she stepped into it.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/06/2021 (706 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Alexa Craig knew she’d found The Dress the moment she stepped into it.

It was a crisp day in late fall, and she and her mom had only begun shopping for grad dresses. But it was the third dress in the first store that ended up being the runaway winner: a sparkly plunge-neck stunner in fire-engine red.

“I actually I couldn’t bring myself to get out of the dress because I liked it so much,” says the 17-year-old Collège Béliveau grad during a Zoom call in June. Craig is sitting on her bed, doing yet another virtual call in a year defined by them. Affixed to the corner of her white bedframe is a bright green circle. “I’m COVID-19 vaccinated.”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Alexa Craig is one of thousands of Winnipeg grads who said yes to the dress, only for public health to say no to gatherings.

The vaccination sticker, the grad dress — these were supposed to represent the light at the end of the tunnel after months of remote learning, anxiety and uncertainty owing to a pandemic that still has us in its jaws. But Craig is now one of thousands of Winnipeg grads who said yes to the dress only for public health to say no to public gatherings amid stubbornly high case counts and test positivity rates. For the second June in a row, the pandemic has stripped graduates of that North American rite of passage, the grad dinner and dance, that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood.

“It’s sad,” says DeeDee Hunt, the manager of Stella’s Bridal & Evening Collections on Portage Avenue. “They’re missing their chance, their grad. It happens one time. The brides have my deep, deep sympathies as well but, technically speaking, you can get married any time. Your Grade 12 grad happens once in a lifetime.”

And the grad dress — as well as the Cinderella transformation that happens via satin and chiffon, tulle and taffeta, sequins and lace — is the crown jewel of this tradition. As Hunt says, the grad dress is iconic.

The vibe heading into this year’s graduation season has been mixed, Hunt says, as students pick up the dresses they bought months ago and had altered to fit them just so. She sold a dress to a grad one morning in June — an optimist in our midst — “but then I have others who are coming in and they’re fighting back tears, because they know that they’re not going to be able to wear the dress at all or in the manner that they have been planning for,” she says.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Alexa Craig will study at John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal.

“It’s kind of like the reward for 12 years of hard work is you get this big party and you get to wear this beautiful gown. And because of the current circumstances, they get nothing.”

For the grads themselves, those current realities have been met with disappointment and resignation.

“I’ve had this conversation so many times, that grad just doesn’t feel like it’s as big of a deal as it should be,” Craig says. “Which sucks, but it’s the way it is.”

• • •

Unlike the Class of 2020, which would have had a fairly normal senior year until March, the Class of 2021 has been navigating a school year bookended by the second and third waves of the pandemic.

After COVID-19 ruined the end of Grade 11, Craig says it felt good to be back in school in September to start her senior year. But by December, when the second wave crested in Manitoba, things were looking increasingly grim.

“Then it was like, OK, this is pretty much the worst possible case scenario for graduating year,” Craig says. “And I think, as we’re gearing up to June, even just looking through old yearbooks and just seeing everything that we’ve missed, or that we should have been a part of. Even just like something simple as a senior prank day. That’s not even in question for us because it’s just not possible.”

Alexis Abraham echoes that thought. “It was kind of boring, to be honest,” she says of her senior year.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Alexis Abraham in her grad dress at her home in Winnipeg.

Alexis and her identical twin sister, Adara Abraham, 18, are graduating from Murdoch MacKay Collegiate this June. The twins have been there for each other through all kinds of major life events — including their family’s move to the city from Black River First Nation, which is about two hours northeast of Winnipeg, six years ago — and finishing high school amid a global pandemic is no exception.

They bought their dresses together, too. “When we were grad dress shopping, we didn’t know if there was going to be a grad,” Alexis says. “All I did was hope.”

Alexis and Adara may be identical, but their dresses could not be more different. Alexis chose a gorgeous pale pink strapless ballgown with appliquéd roses and vines climbing all over it. Adara, meanwhile, went with a striking, icy-blue, off-the-shoulder gown with silver detailing along the bodice.

“I didn’t know what dress Adara was trying on so, when we walked out of the change room, it was really exciting,” Alexis says. The big reveal to each other is a memory they’ll cherish.


MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Lauren McIlroy’s mom helps her get her dress done up at their home in La Salle.

Lauren McIlroy, 18, is graduating from St. John’s-Ravenscourt School. She’s disappointed about the cancellation of grad, but she’s had a whole year to come to terms with it. She’s feeling itchy to move on.

The past year has been a mix of in-person and remote learning for McIlroy. When she was in school, she was mostly confined to her classroom. “And, of course, there’s no clubs or activities or breaks, and you can’t go sit with your friends at lunch. It really took the fun out of school,” she says over Zoom. She ultimately chose to go remote for the rest of the year.

“It’s kind of been an up-and-down year in terms of just adjusting to different modes of learning,” she says. “I like to think I’m pretty adaptable, but it certainly hasn’t been easy.”

McIlroy has two dresses hanging in her closet — a gown for her dinner and dance, and a white dress for her grad tea, an SJR tradition in which students share a meal with their teachers and faculty members.

Going dress-shopping with her mom was a highlight in a year that had few. McIlroy’s not a fan of the “traditional Cinderella pouffy dress for grad,” she says. In the end, she chose a classic satin strapless gown with a black bodice and a full black-and-white polka-dot skirt. Her grad tea dress, meanwhile, is a demure, white, knee-length dress with a sheer lace overlay — again, festooned with subtle polka dots. Neither will be worn to their intended events.

“It is a little bit bittersweet,” she says. “I really would have loved to see all my friends and their dresses, take pictures and you know, do the whole conventional grad thing.”


MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Mansha Kainth in her grad dress that she’ll never get to wear to a ceremony.

Mansha Kainth feels the same way. The Maples Collegiate grad, who celebrated her 18th birthday in June, has been looking forward to grad since her first day of high school.

The promise of grad was also something to hang onto during a tough year. Remote learning ratcheted up Kainth’s anxiety.

“I personally suffer with PTSD, so it’s quite hard for me to focus in general, and not being able to see people — that just gives more anxiety,” she says via Zoom. “I’m struggling with keeping up with work but, at the same time, I have to keep myself going and make sure that I’m doing all the work.”

In February, Kainth found her perfect dress — a dramatic deep red number with sequin-appliquéd sleeves — online. “When I saw the dress, instantly I was like, that’s a gorgeous dress. Like, wow, all the sequins, the pattern, how it flows at the bottom.” (The gold-heeled stillettos she bought to go with it are also show-stoppers.)

Even until a few months ago, she thought grad was going to happen, until it became increasingly clear it wasn’t.

“And then it was quite overhyped, because people were like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna have something this year, it’s not going to be like last year,’” she says. “Teachers and everyone were just hyping us up about this idea and, in the end, it’s officially cancelled. It was sad. I cried about it.”

• • •

The grad dress — and its close sibling, the American prom dress — is woven into our cultural fabric. It has twirled through popular culture, appearing everywhere from horror films (Carrie) to coming-of-age classics (Pretty in Pink). Every teen TV drama, from 90210 to The O.C. to Gossip Girl to Riverdale has a prom episode with dresses that inevitably dictate trends offscreen. Pre-internet, magazines such as Seventeen dedicated entire issues to the pursuit of the perfect prom dress, glossy fashion bibles awash in Jessica McClintock ads. Now, social media sets the trends. The grad dress endures.

Like any much-hyped milestone, grad isn’t without its pressures: it’s supposed to be A Night to Remember, after all. The thrill, and stress, of finding the perfect dress is just as much a part of this tradition as the dress itself.

DeeDee Hunt has been helping grads find The Dress since 2014, and this year — this most unconventional of years — was no exception. The restrictions have been absolutely killer on her business, she says, and the current one-shopper-per-household rule has also changed the tenor of the dress-shopping experience.

“The grad has to come in alone,” Hunt says. “I mean, we’re here for them, but they want their mom. They want their best friend. We can try and and fill that role as best as we can, but it’s not enough.”

Still, students bought grad dresses this year, and they bought them last year, too.

“I think the thing that keeps the girls coming and purchasing dresses is that if their friend group has the dress, even if they’re not going to have the official grad, they still want to be able to get together and have their photos done together,” Hunt says.

“I think the thing that keeps the girls coming and purchasing dresses is that if their friend group has the dress, even if they’re not going to have the official grad, they still want to be able to get together and have their photos done together.” – DeeDee Hunt, manager of Stella’s Bridal & Evening Collections

The dresses themselves offer a bit of comforting familiarity in strange times. The silhouettes may change decade to decade — the big sleeves of the 1980s were replaced by the strapless gowns and slinky slip dresses that defined the ‘90s and aughts, which paved the way for the midriff-exposing cutouts and plunge necklines of the 2010s — but grad dresses tend to be recognizable as such.

Hunt says strappy backs, whether on a ball gown or fitted dress, emerged as a trend this year. “Green, forest green, spruce green, emerald green, that has really been a bit of a breakout this year. But, you know, from year to year, the trends don’t change that much.”

Like all fashion, grad dresses are an expression: of style, of identity, of gender. Some students subvert traditional grad looks with touches of their personal style — think Chuck Taylors or Nikes under ballgowns— others go for full princess fairy tale.

The best part of Hunt’s job is helping a grad find a dress they feel incredible in, regardless of their size, shape or style.

“The girls who look good in everything — they’re young, they’re confident, all they have to do is figure out what they want — that’s fun. We really love the difficult ones. Maybe they’re afraid nothing is going to fit, or they never wear dresses, or fill in the blank. There may be some reason why dress shopping is hard for them, or they’re dreading it,” she says.

“So when we can turn that around, and help them find a dress that makes them feel beautiful? That is so satisfying. The easy ones are fun. Those ones are satisfying.”

• • •

When Isabell Neves set up the private Instagram account @KelvinDresses2021 back in October, it had a pretty utilitarian use: to prevent anyone from experiencing the horror of arriving to grad in the exact same dress as someone else.

“All my friends and I were super-excited about our dresses,” says the 18-year-old Kelvin High School grad, who went with a plunge-neck satin grown in a gorgeous, deep sky-blue. “I got my dress back in October and it was like, ‘Oh, grad is 100 per cent happening, there’s no way it’ll be cancelled again, by June it’ll be fine.’”

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Isabell Neves set up an Instagram account as a way to prevent people from showing up to grad in the same dress — now, it’s a way for students to show off their finest since their grad dance isn’t happening.

Since then, the Instagram page has taken on a whole new significance, morphing into a supportive space where Kelvin grads can show off their dresses to much effusive praise from other students — “Princess energy,” “Wowowowow” and “Loveeeee!” are sample comments — and liberal use of the heart-eyes and fire emojis. “This is really our way to show off our dresses this year,” Neves says.

It’s just another way in which grad looks different in 2021.

Hunt’s alterations department has also been making co-ordinating non-medical masks out of leftover fabric. She’s also heard about grads thinking about wearing their dresses to their vaccination appointments.

Alexis and Adara Abraham plan to have a little party with their family once they can gather, and they will definitely be wearing their dresses.

Supplied Adara (left) and Alexis Abraham may be identical twins, but their dresses could not be more different.

Neves and her friends are thinking about doing “something super fun and chill,” once restrictions ease. “Like wearing our dresses to the grocery store, or out for brunch, places where you’re probably not supposed to wear a big extravagant grad dress.”

Craig and her best friend happen to be dating a pair of best friends, so they’d like to do a little photo shoot at Birds Hill Park at the end of the month, provided they are allowed to.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS SJR student Lauren McIlroy in one of the two dresses that she was excited to wear to grad events that have been cancelled.

McIlroy is a pianist, and decided to wear her black-and-white gown for her final Zoom recital. She’s happy she had an occasion to wear her grad dress, even if the occasion wasn’t grad. “I’ve never worn a long dress like this before, so I feel kind of elegant and pretty,” she says with a little laugh. “It’s super fun. It almost feels like playing dress up a little bit, but I really would have liked it to be a formal occasion.”

As for Kainth, she’s having trouble seeing her dress as anything other than her grad dress.

“I really wanted to wear it to that grad,” she says. “I could wear it somewhere else, but is it the same thing?”

She immediately answers her own question. “It’s not the same thing.”

Grad itself, and the preparations leading up to it, are traditions that link generations; if you graduated from high school, you likely have those memories. Not just of the dress, but of the itchy corsage, the parent-directed photography on the front lawn, the cheesy photo booths, the broken curfews, the inevitable tears in a bathroom, the cheek-to-cheek selfies with best friends, the last song of the night — all of it. All the stuff the movies promised.

As it happens, there is a pandemic movie prom. Near the end of Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, Matt Damon’s character throws his daughter an at-home prom, a sweet surprise after a hard year. She puts on her dress — a tiered, pink, strapless confection — and walks into the living room, which is illuminated by the warm glow of fairy lights. The furniture’s been pushed aside to make a dance floor. Her boyfriend rings the doorbell, and holds up his arm to show his proof-of-vaccination wristband. Under paper streamers, they slow dance to U2’s All I Want Is You.

It’s one of the most affecting prom scenes in the film. Rites of passage still happen, regardless of how they are marked. Those flashbulb memories are still made.

• • •

Sad grad, 2.0


Every student pictures Grade 12 differently.

Nobody pictured this — a school year spent mostly behind a computer screen, muting and unmuting, missing the mundane sound of a school bell or hallway chit-chat.

But that’s how members of the Class of 2021 were forced to finish their high school careers. They are moving on to the next stage in life without the closure seniors before them have come to expect.

The Free Press spoke to 12 graduates about how they will remember this year and their hopes others will see Class of ‘21 on a resume with an invisible asterisk that reflects their perseverance to convocate following a school year unlike any other. 

Read full story

While the ceremonies may feel decidedly unceremonious this year, all the students in this story have bright futures to celebrate. Kainth is headed to the University of Winnipeg to study journalism. Alexis Abraham, McIlroy and Neves will all be at the University of Manitoba in the fall, with McIlroy at the Price Faculty of Engineering and Neves at the Faculty of Arts. Alexis is taking University 1 before she decides on her major. “I want to be 100 per cent sure that I want to go into law,” she says. Her sister, Adara, is considering taking a gap year.

Craig, meanwhile, is leaving Winnipeg to study at the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal.

“That’s very exciting and scary for me,” she says. “But it’s kind of taking over the fact that I’m graduating. I’m more focusing on, ‘I’m going to be living by myself in, like, two months.’ That is way more on my mind than the fact I’m not going to be able to wear my dress.”

And so, Craig’s dress hangs in its protective plastic bag in her closet, where it has been stowed away for months. But it doesn’t bother her to see it.

“Honestly, it’s kind of a nice reminder that I am graduating,” Craig says. “That I did do it, and it is happening.”

Twitter: @JenZoratti


MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Abraham’s sister, Paula Savoie, fastens a necklace
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Neves and her friends hope to still find a fun occasion to wear their dresses.
MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS SJR student Lauren McIlroy in one of the two dresses that she was excited to wear to grad events that have been cancelled.
Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.


Updated on Saturday, June 26, 2021 8:57 AM CDT: Removes repeated word.

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