David's Bridal, with about 300 stores around the country, estimates half of the company's prom-worthy choices come in sizes 16 to 22, with interest in those sizes growing every year, said Marissa Rubinetti, a senior buyer.
"They do struggle. They may fall in love with something they see online and they don't have the opportunity to try it on and buy it," she said.
A decade ago, the company carried a fraction of prom dresses up to size 22, Rubinetti said. Southern stores, particularly Texas, have a higher demand, she said. Stephanie Mekhjian, manager of David's Bridal in Fort Worth, Texas, estimated 20 to 25 percent of her prom customers wear sizes 18 to 22, including some who travel 100 miles or more to shop there.
J.C. Penney sells plus-size prom dresses online only and offers just three styles. Target does not sell, in its brick-and-mortar stores, dressier styles appropriate for prom in any size, but the company does sell them online. Other retailers restrict all plus-size clothing to websites.
"Manufacturers are starting to create more plus-size prom dresses but they are just not as readily available as traditional size prom dresses," said a Penney spokeswoman, Sarah Holland.
Phyllis Librach in St. Louis, Mo., knows the heartache of the dress search as both a mother and a dress designer who specializes in plus sizes for special occasions. She started her business 10 years ago after her daughter, now 29, was that curvy girl in tears in search of the perfect prom dress. They finally had one custom-made after the teen refused to buy a white wedding gown and dye it for prom.
Librach now designs and manufactures her own styles, including prom dresses sizes 14 to 40, which she sells on her site, Sydneyscloset.com, and through about 125 boutiques. She started out in the business buying inventory from others, but switched to producing her own after contacting a company that planned to knock off a gown worn by Queen Latifah at an awards show.