I was never the sort of teenager who dreamed all her life about prom. The “girly arts” — styling hair, applying makeup, wearing nail polish — were not skills I wielded with confidence. Back then, prom attire was more low-key. Gunne Sax, Jessica McClintock’s line of teen formal dresses, was at the height of popularity. A fashion mashup of “Victorian Meets Little House on the Prairie,” the brand was about as revealing as a burqa without the head-dress.
My high school boyfriend was a year older than me, and during our time together I went to two Junior Proms (his and mine) and one Senior Ball (his). Long before Molly Ringwald starred in “Pretty In Pink,” I was doing cheap chic. I picked up three gowns for $15 apiece at a bridal/formal wear shop that was going out of business. One was red velvet with spaghetti straps and a velvet trimmed white lace jacket. The second was a Gunne Sax dress in pale blue cotton with a high-backed neck and a deeply scooped front detailed with lace. The third was my favorite – a lace-up bodice and full skirt combining dark blue velveteen with an acid-trip-inspired floral print. Lace, as you’re probably realizing, was a mainstay of prom gowns in those days.
By the time my last high school formal rolled around, the boyfriend was off to college and I was seeing someone else simply to have a date for Senior Ball. No longer a sweet young thing but shrewd and calculating, I broke free of the lace habit for something new and daring– a flesh-colored body-hugging dress with a jacket that fell in swoops like a toga. My parents paid $75 for that gown which in retrospect I can see was stunningly ugly. Only one photo of me in this dress exists; I am posing in front of a shaggy evergreen, with my mouth open and complaining. None of the other photos–all of which included my indentured date–came out; the film negatives were blank. This fed the family legend that my date was a vampire because he couldn’t be captured on film.
I’m reminiscing because I’ve been booking hair and makeup appointments for my younger daughter Em. Her Senior Ball is next Saturday, and it’s her first formal event. The dress she bought for a Junior Prom she never attended has been supplanted by a different dress, one as inexpensive as my prom gowns. She snuck into her older sister’s closet and pulled out a vintage ballet-style dress with clouds of tulle. Since it was a consignment store find, it cost only $35. With inflation, that’s about what I paid for each of mine.
The funny thing is, hers is flesh-colored as well. I hope I get more than one photo of her looking radiant on her special evening. She is the girliest of the three women in this family and the most petite, and with her hair upswept and her face done by a friend who’s a MAC makeup artist, she will finally feel as beautiful as she actually is–but fails to realize.
Once upon a time, one could get away with doing prom for under $100. Now many teens expect limousines, four-star restaurants, corsages sewn into rhinestone cuffs, and dates sporting tuxedos with accessories that match their gowns…not to mention $400 dresses, structurally impossible high heels, bling-y necklaces, earrings, and $65 updos. All this has amped up prom into a juggernaut of of overinflated teen dreams, a high-stakes, high expectation event. Disney has even capitalized on the teen-angst aspect with their 2011 movie “Prom.”
Em is approaching Senior Ball with mixed emotions — excitement, anxiety, anticipation, and a twinge of fear that the evening may not turn out as well as she hopes. For my part, I wish I could find a tear in the time-space continuum and send her back 20-30 years when prom wasn’t such a pressure cooker of a social event and all the accoutrements didn’t equal the cost of half a year at a state university.
But who am I kidding? Each generation has its own unique prom dramas, and it’s not like I got mine absolutely right. In fact, I recall very little of the actual events of my proms and balls except for one quirky thing we all did at Senior Ball: we each dunked our corsage into a water glass and carefully dripped candle wax over it in a feeble attempt to seal the contents. Someone swore that you could preserve your prom flowers forever by doing this, and we believed her. The paraffin-clotted glass sat on my dresser until I went off to college and my mother threw away its rotting contents.
My wish for Em is that she makes better memories for herself by letting go of all expectations and enjoying the evening instead of trying to nail down a fleeting moment and preserve it for all eternity. To paraphrase Robert Frost, nothing prom can stay.
Revised April 25, 2015