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High School Prom Memories

Mar 08, 2011 03:29PM ● By Anonymous

A prom was not always a high school ritual of pomp and pageant dresses.  Back in the mists of time – around the late 1800s – it was a college event, a dance for middle class students designed to rival the elite, high society debutante balls of the era.

Under the watchful eyes of chaperones, couples would promenade in their Sunday best.

By the 1920s, The Promenade jumped to the high school social scene and had been shortened to The Prom.  Its popularity as a late spring ritual spread across the country.  Even during the Great Depression, in the mid-1930s, the prom was a big end-of-high school rite for American teens as it morphed into a formal or black tie event.  During the post-World War II boom of the 1950s, prom went high style: Sunday best gave way to floor- or matinee-length evening dresses and boys bought or borrowed tuxedos.   Teens and chaperones alike dressed up for the big dance, which featured a live band.  It was usually held in the school gymnasium, decorated for the evening with swags of twisted crepe, balloons and posters.

Some early traditions still endure.  Elected prom kings, queens and courts are still reigning at many schools.  Boys continue to pick out carnation corsages to adorn their date’s wrist – and small boutonnières for their own lapels.

The Age of Aquarius nearly put an end to The Prom.  Seniors at high schools across the country questioned the wisdom of dancing the night away while the War in Vietnam was going on.  Teens at many schools cancelled their proms, their way of rejecting their parents’ bourgeoisie lifestyles.  Older baby boomers, now parents (and grand-parents) of teens, have never experienced the euphoria and angst of prom night.

Proms returned with a vengeance in the 1970s, moving out of the gym and into fancy hotel ballrooms and upscale local locales.  In 1975, Susan Ford, then a student at the Madeira School in McLean, VA, offered to hold the prom at her home – the White House.  Her dad is the former president, Gerry Ford.

“Dynasty” and “Dallas,” popular TV shows in the mid-1980s, depicted lifestyles of lavish ostentation, over-the-top designer formalwear and “routine” dinners in black tie attire.  Teen girls took notice, wearing dresses that imitated every poufy ruffle and sequin worn by actress Joan Collins.

Controversies dogged the resurging enthusiasm for The Prom.  As integration became the norm, some southern school districts held separate proms for white and black students.  In Charleston, Mississippi, segregated proms continued until 2008, when Morgan Freeman funded an interracial prom night.  Gender issues came to the fore in South Dakota in 1979 when two young men were the first known same-sex couple at a prom.  In 1980, a young man sued the principal of his Cumberland, Rhode Island high school for the right to bring a same-sex date to the prom.  He won.  But, not every school district gets the message.  Last year (2010), lesbian high school senior Constance McMillen wanted to take her girlfriend to their prom at Itawamba Agricultural High School in Fulton, Mississippi.  She also wanted to wear a tuxedo.  The principal rejected both requests.  In the ensuing international publicity, the prom was cancelled.  An “official” prom was hastily arranged – which Constance, her girlfriend and five other students attended.  School parents had organized a secret prom which all the other teens attended.  Though the parents denied it was a real prom, the teens’ Facebook postings betrayed their hypocrisy.

There is also the annual kerfuffle over dress code violations, and, at some Christian high schools, strictures against dancing.

The prom can be an expensive evening.  Estimates vary, but prom couples generally spend from $500 to $800 for gowns and tuxedos, accessories, hair and nail styling, pre-prom dinner, prom tickets and limousine rentals.  It has also become a tradition at many high schools to head to a rented beach house to continue the party.   Some principals have responded to the excesses by scheduling the prom on a school night – and warning students of the consequences of arriving at school late the next day, or not at all.

In this area, most schools (or PTAs or parent volunteers) organize “prom breakfasts” that go into the wee hours after a prom.  Youth are encouraged to stay with offers of tempting door prizes, goodie bags, live entertainment and plenty of food.

Before mandatory assemblies for prom ticket holders at some schools, local insurance agents, police officers or members of MADD provide graphic images that are the result of drinking, drugging and driving on prom night.  As an embellishment,  at Annapolis High School it has become a tradition to give a demonstration  show the difficulty of “The Jaws of Life” removing a person from a wrecked car.

The prom night has become interwoven in our cultural history, immortalized in coming of age films like “Pretty in Pink” or seared into our nightmares with “Carrie.”

The internet plays a part in the prom, too.  At some schools, girls organize a prom dress website.  To help ensure no two girls turn up wearing the same dress, girls post photos of the prom dress they have purchased, or those they are interested in buying.  Teens have even gathered up dresses and accessories they’ve worn to previous proms and donated them to organizations that offer the outfits to less fortunate girls for free or at greatly reduced prices.

The prom can be a part of every teen’s memories.  There are proms for youth at special education schools or those serving teens with physical challenges.  Home schooled teens often take part in the prom scene, too.  Often, proms are organized by regional home school groups that are as lavish as the proms at nearby public and private high schools.  And, for those who missed out the first time around, there are even proms for senior citizens.

Visit our website next week for the next installment of Prom Memories