On the evening she won the Miss North Carolina Scholarship pageant in June, Arlie Honeycutt wore a deep red, rhinestone-embellished gown. Earlier that evening, she dazzled the stage in a black string bikini, followed by a teal strapless gown – both adorned with geometric sequins.
But recently, as she toured the “Miss North Carolina: 75 Years of Memories” exhibit, exploring pageant fashion through the decades at the NC Museum of History, she saw pageant gowns in muted colors, modest one-piece swimsuits and pumps with heels no higher than three inches. Gowns dating back to 1969 are featured alongside those worn this year by Garner native Honeycutt.
“We’re modernizing every year,” said Honeycutt, 19. “It’s a good time to be a pageant girl.”
While strolling through the exhibit wearing her crown, her sash and a black polka-dot dress, Honeycutt admired the gowns from years past – pausing intermittently to pose for pictures with young fans.
She saw the pink gown worn by Patsy Johnson in the 1969 Miss America pageant, which features a full skirt and modest neckline. Then, the long-sleeve gowns with prominent shoulder pads and puffy sleeves that made their debut in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Now, form-fitting gowns with dramatic backs or necklines are the norm.
“The fashion has certainly evolved, but in a way that is wonderful for the girls,” said Harold Garner, the executive director of the Miss Garner Scholarship Program, in a phone interview. He has been with the program for 43 years.
Honeycutt and other contestants now purchase their gowns from small stores – such as Jewel’s Formals in Smithfield – that specialize in pageant wardrobes.
But in the 1960s, most pageant wardrobes came from department stores.
“The gowns back then really resembled prom dresses,” Garner said.
In fact, in the early years of the pageant, girls wore traditional white evening gowns. But soon after the first color telecast of the Miss America pageant aired in 1965, fashion followed suit. Now, girls go for designer gowns in electric hues or jewel tones.
Even shoes saw a splash of color. Heels worn in the 60s were black, white or blue, Garner said, and were half the height of the six-inch, bold colored pumps many girls wear on the stage today.
“I think the color was the most important change because the girls can really express themselves now,” Garner said. “Not everyone looks good in the same color.”
But as in all fashion, the trends from years past are coming back in style.
Back at the exhibit, Honeycutt said one of her favorite looks in this year’s eveningwear segment was a long-sleeve emerald green gown worn by a fellow contestant, reminiscent of many long-sleeve gowns worn in the 1980s – without the shoulder pads, of course.
Honeycutt even pointed to several gowns in the museum’s exhibit from decades ago that she would still consider wearing today.
Despite their admiration for today’s pageant fashions, Garner and Honeycutt both said that it all comes down to how the girl wears the gown.
“It’s so much more than just the fashion and the glitz,” Honeycutt said.
The pageant, she said, has provided scholarship opportunities for young women for nearly four decades.
Said Garner: “I tell judges that I don’t care if she is wearing a potato sack. Look for the girl who models it well and is confident and graceful in it.”