When Elisabeth Harnois slipped on a velvety bubblegum pink mini dress in the spring of 1998 on the set of ABC television movie My Date with the President’s Daughter, she couldn’t have predicted that it would become one of the most formative dresses for a microgeneration of Millennials who watched the reruns on Disney Channel.
“Oh my God, that is such a sweet thing!” Harnois gasps over the phone upon being told that someone once tweeted, “The pink velvet dress in My Date With the President’s Daughter is the Marilyn Monroe over subway grates for Millennials.” But she bursts into a fit of laughter as I read her other tweets riddled with similar sentiments about the “the iconic bad bitch pink dress” Harnois wore: “On the outside i seem okay but on the inside i am sad that i’ll never get to wear the dress from My Date With the President’s Daughter,” reads one.
The hyperbole here is minimal. The dress, which costume designer Delphine White found in a little Toronto boutique, really does ignite a breathless sort of excitement. It’s the perfect combination of nostalgia and pure want, on par with other coveted movie dresses, like Kiera Knightly’s green gown in Atonement and the aforementioned dress Monroe wore in The Seven Year Itch. It might not contain the same level of glamour, but it acted as an innocuous sort of sexual awakening. The dress has maintained a legacy precisely because it was an aspirational peek into what a cool, beautiful teenager bubbling with confidence could look like: You too could look this cool... in, like, a few years.
The simple spaghetti straps dress has prompted 20- and 30-somethings to boast of knockoffs they’ve found online, fashion designers to sell dupes on Etsy, women to tweet about how the dress lives rent-free in their heads, and Instagram users to tag the movie while showing off the dress replicas they found for costume parties and everyday wear. And, in a recent TikTok that went viral, a Los Angeles-based photographer named Elizabeth Elder claims that she found the original dress worn by Harnois in the movie. The video reveals both a designer’s tag—California Proline—and a sticker with a barcode that reads “Disney Pictures & TV.” It’s a dead ringer for the saccharine pink original, and she only paid $15 for it from a seller on Depop who clearly didn’t know they owned a piece of movie history.
“I honestly didn’t expect to [make the TikTok], but my friend was like, ‘you need to tell the world that this dress is safe,’” Elder told Jezebel.
After doing a bit of research, Elder concluded that the crushed velvet dress was originally meant to act as a swimsuit cover. Strange choice of material, if so, but it shines as a standalone piece.
The response has ranged from delight to jealousy.
“People thought I was Gen Z and were like, ‘You didn’t even watch that movie!’” Elder said. “Uh, I’m 26 years old, I definitely know what it is.”
My Date with the President’s Daughter aired on ABC in 1998, buoyed by its star Will Friedle, best known at the time for his portrayal of Eric Matthews, the goofy older brother on the long-running ABC sitcom Boy Meets World. The movie’s plot is straightforward: Friedle plays Duncan, a high school geek who is more interested in performing magic tricks than finding a girlfriend. While hanging out at the mall one day, his friends bet $50 that he can’t find a date for the spring dance. It’s a challenge Duncan is determined to win, but after a cursory search he nearly gives up until he lays eyes on Hallie, played by Harnois. Unbeknownst to Duncan—somehow—Hallie is the sheltered daughter of the President of the United States, and she’s managed to escape from her Secret Service detail just long enough to try on hats at the mall. Duncan lacks game, but it doesn’t matter: When he asks Hallie out, she’s both stunned and thrilled (“A dance?” she asks. “You mean, with people our age?”).
Hallie spots her Secret Service detail and tries to make a quick exit. But first, Duncan asks, “I’ll pick you up at seven? Where do you live?”
“1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” she says, still trying to hide. “It’s a big white house, you can’t miss it!”
Duncan is surprised to discover that the address leads him straight to the front gate of the White House. There, he’s informed that there will be strict limitations on where the two of them can go and that the Secret Service must be with them the entire time. But, as repressed first daughters are wont to do, Hallie hatches a scheme to ditch them with Duncan in tow, which leads to a wild night of dance clubs, biker gangs, and, of course, the reveal of the dress.
Hallie leaves the White House in a conservative frock, but as soon as she’s able, she insists on shopping for an outfit more fitting of a teen girl trying to cut loose, certain that they’re both in need of a change in wardrobe. Duncan is resistant: he wants to win that bet, which means getting to that dance. He even insists that Hallie looks nice in her bland pale blue skirt with a matching sweater and a tight bun. Hallie frowns.
“I don’t wanna look nice,” Hallie insists. “I wanna look... hot!”
They wind up at a hip boutique, and after trying on half the store, Hallie is ready.
“Oh, Duncan...” Hallie says in a singsong voice. We then get a look at the little pink dress. A vaguely sensual tune plays in the background while Hallie wrenches out her hair tie and swivels her head in slow motion like she’s in a Pantene Pro V commercial. She even does a little spin for good measure. Duncan promptly turns into a tasteful Disney version of a horny cartoon coyote.
“They really laid it on thick for me with the reveal,” Harnois told Jezebel. “I was so embarrassed because all my friends were like ‘oooooh,’ but after it sunk in it was fun to see myself that way. And I ended up falling in love with that dress.”
But it took some convincing from the film’s costume designer Delphine White.
“It’s really messed up, but back then I’ve probably felt I looked fat in it or something,” Harnois admitted. She was 18 when the movie aired. “The industry was really fucked up for a lot of girls. It was still popular to be very skinny. I’m so happy that that’s changing, but wearing that dress made me more body-conscious, and I was already insecure.”
The dress was deliberately chosen for impact, meant to shout something about the character and where she was in her journey. “I really wanted it to be a departure from what she was normally required to wear as the president’s daughter,” White told Jezebel. “I made the choice on pink, not only because it worked for Elisabeth, but also because it worked for the character. Because, in many ways, we’re reclaiming pink. Being able to wear it when you’re at your wildest is really a statement of strength to me.”
“And for this character, that evening was like a release from prison. From all of the restrictions that she had in her life... she was just dying to get out and experience life and had a real sense of adventure.” And, in a fitting twist, the dress worked its magic on Harnois, too, helping bring her out of her shell: “I think if I’m being totally honest with you, I would have to say that that dress probably broke me into being way more adventurous in my own personal style,” she said.
She’s not the only one. Elder, who now owns one of the alleged dresses, told Jezebel that the dress shifted her own style: “I used to wear darker colors, and now I just wear a bunch of like lighter colors ever since I saw myself in that dress,” Elder said. “I felt very confident wearing in it, like I was a new woman.” But now, the dress doesn’t see the light of day. Aside from a Halloween costume Elder wore a couple of years back, she intends to keep it in protective wrapping in a safe spot in her closet for the foreseeable future.
The power this dress has held on those who wear it and those who envied it is palpable. Harnois said that years after the movie aired, whenever she’s recognized on the street, the dress was the main thing everyone wanted to talk about.
“A lot of the times girls would say, ‘Oh my God, I love that pink dress!’ But when I really realized [how popular the dress was], it was when boys would tell me that it was a formative part of their sexual discovery as a teen,” Harnois laughed. “I was like, what? Even when I met my fiancé, when we first started dating he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I saw that movie... oh, yeah, I saw that dress.”
It’s easy to assume that the short hem is what captivated us. Sure, it was alluring, but mini dresses were a dime a dozen, and bubblegum pink was everywhere. The magic was in Harnois’ delivery in what would have otherwise been a forgettable teen romp. That dress was Hallie’s way of rebelling against her smothering father and the systems that prevented her from being a normal teen who had fun, made mistakes, and had some semblance of a love life. I might not have been able to truly relate to her plight considering I was a seven-year-old when the film came out. The primary tyranny I experienced from my dad was whatever uncool clothes he picked out for me from the kid’s section of Ross. But when you’re a kid, there’s nothing cooler than a teenager in a sick outfit giving the metaphorical middle finger to authority, even if their rebellion is, in retrospect, very safe.
White and Harnois both are deeply humbled by the discovery that the dress is still deeply beloved. The two have gone on to work on a slew of other television shows and movies, but there’s something special about this little-known television movie from 1998 gaining a cultlike devotion.
“Oh my God,” Harnois said as I recited another tweet reminiscing over the so-called bad bitch dress. “I was way cooler than I thought.”