Say yes to the quinceañera dress

The Quinceañera Expo wasn't the only event happening at the Red Lion Hotel on a recent Sunday, but it looked that way from the parking lot. Stretch limos crowded the driveway. Salesmen gestured inside the shiny vehicles to demonstrate how easily one could accommodate a 15-year-old Latina birthday girl and her court of formally dressed damas and chambelanes.

Teenage girls emerged from the hotel lobby in a steady stream, clutching pink plastic Quinceañera Magazine swag bags, eyes wide with visions of their own coming-of-age parties. Parents trailed behind, muttering financialcalculations. “Well, if we got the deejay and the banda …”

Outside the hotel's Edgewater Ballroom, a lanky adolescent fidgeted with anticipation as her mother quizzed the ticket attendant. “Are there dresses inside?” “Oh, yes, ma'am. There are so many dresses inside,” the attendant assured her. “OK, but are they those huge, poofy dresses?”

It was unclear from the mother's tone whether she considered huge and poofy to be desirable attributes, but both her daughter and the ticket agent looked at her in disbelief. When it comes to quinceañera dresses, is there any other kind?

The origin of the quinceañera is uncertain. Some historians say the Latin American custom of celebrating a girl’s 15th birthday as her transition into womanhood began with the Aztecs. Others believe it evolved from the debutante balls of European colonizers. Traditionally, the central feature of the quinceañera is a Catholic Mass, followed by a reception with family and friends. These days, the quinceañera has become something of a “super sweet 15” experience. Quinceañera culture includes multiple reality shows and a growing party-planning industry. Celebrations cost upward of $10,000 for a band, deejay, venue, catering, photographers and, of course, the dress.

At the Red Lion, vendors offered all these services—plus several unexpected ones. Decorative cantaloupes with “15 años” carved into the rinds? Not a problem. Quinceañera portraits Photoshopped with a fierce dragon in the background? Done.

Beyond these wonders, the fashion-show runway beckoned. Hundreds of guests applauded the real stars of the expo: those huge, poofy dresses. If you've never seen a quinceañera gown, picture Glinda, the Good Witch's giant pink bubble dress from The Wizard of Oz. Now, picture poor Glinda being rejected from the Quinceañera Expo fashion show for being too understated.

For nearly an hour, a procession of perky models rocked ever-brighter versions of the modern quinceañera gown with a bouncy gait that shimmied every ruffle. Though the colors spanned the entire spectrum (except black), every gown was essentially a strapless corset top supporting a waterfall of ruffles from waist to floor. Each was accessorized with copious amounts of rhinestone jewelry, tremendous false eyelashes, towering heels and elaborate updos. The dresses are aggressively impractical—it is impossible to imagine eating, sitting or using the bathroom in one—and undeniably beautiful. The effect is a perfect blend of a child's princess dreams and an emerging woman's poised sophistication, a fleeting moment to be preserved, if possible, in one perfect party.