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Prom Wars

July 14, 2012

When you were in high school, did you go to the prom?

I didn’t, in case you were wondering, but my sister did.  The only angst I seem to recall was whether her date (and now husband) would be able to borrow his father’s car or if she would be charioted in his beater.

I don’t remember the outcome, but it seems as if the whole prom thing has gotten a lot more complicated over the years.

The other day I read an article in the paper about the problems that arise when two girls want to wear the same dress to the prom.  Apparently, distraught teens and parents are demanding that retailers create customer databases so that they can avoid selling the same gown to two girls in the same school.  According to the article, one of the greatest catastrophes that can occur is to show up wearing the same dress as someone else.  One girl called it a “dream shattering moment” and indicated that instead of enjoying the prom, you would be forced to wonder all night whether the other person “looked better in [the gown].”

I had to stop and think about that for a minute, too. 

Of course, the idea of women showing up for an event wearing the same dress is an old trope.  I remember it even being a gag in a Three Stooges episode.  Two women showed up wearing the same outfit and there was a moment of discomfort.  Until the pie fight settled things.  

But now it’s serious. 

As you may be aware, there is a highly structured social hierarchy in high school, and students at the top of the food chain are telling their lower status friends what they may and may not wear in order to prevent any fashion faux pas.  Facebook pages have even been created to warn people what not to wear because that color or style has already been claimed by the beautiful people.  A dress shop employee said “I’ve had girls come and say, ‘Oh, no, I’m not allowed to wear that color.’  Clearly the kingpin has dictated to her friends what color they can wear.”

Inexplicably, it is the dressmakers who are caught in the middle.  One retailer said that she had witnessed “tears and tantrums from both students and their mothers.”

It’s a jungle out there. The article also described a mother who was forced to return to the dress shop “in tears,” because her daughter had been informed that the dress she had bought was “too similar” to a higher status person’s and therefore it had to be returned.

I don’t know about you, but I find this both amusing and alarming.  Call me cynical but with everything going on in the world today, worrying about prom dresses seems to smack of furniture rearrangement on the Titanic.

But there are a couple of alarming aspects to the whole thing.

First, I’m no expert in fashion, but it seems as if there is an almost infinite variety of dress available to be worn to the prom.  So what are the odds that people are going to regularly end up with the same version?

The surprising answer to that question is “very high.” And the reason is that the range of available styles is seriously restricted because “everyone” wants to wear the same kind of strapless invitation to a wardrobe malfunction that Angela Jolie wore at the Academy Awards earlier this year. 

So as disturbing you might find it that young girls are bullying each other over prom dresses, isn’t it even worse that the subtextual message to “You can’t wear that dress because I’m wearing it” is really, “Go find something original.  I’m the alpha wolf, so I get to copy The Jolie.”

The Academy Award thing is a big part of the prom.  Gone are the days when you drove your prom date to the Holiday Inn in your father’s car.  Limos are the transport mode of choice for all but the most hopelessly uncool.  And they even set up a red carpet and photograph the girls getting out of their limos just like the Academy Awards.

A day or two after I read the article, we were socializing with some friends who have prom age girls.  I mentioned the article and expressed my disbelief that people really behaved that way.

Boy, did I get an education.

Based on what these parents said, the article understated things.  The whole thing is an elaborate ritual involving hair, clothes, nails and accessories. Negotiations take place about both spending and good taste that would make Greek politics look like a quilting bee.

I asked about the $1200 price tag for dresses that the article had talked about.  One parent nodded knowingly.  Yes, that is the norm.  But truly artful parenting and a lot of hard work can get you something much cheaper that will pass muster.  As I say, negotiation is critical.  A less expensive dress might be acceptable if it’s strapless.  Or a spa session might be thrown in to sweeten the pie.

Being child-free, I have no frame of reference for this sort of parental dilemma. I also boycotted the prom when I was in high school (i.e., I couldn’t get a date). But I did learn that parents of prom age daughters don’t like to hear the question, “If that’s what happened for the prom, what’s the wedding going to be like?”


16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 14, 2012 4:27 pm

    I boycotted the prom too, though it was by agreement with my boyfriend at the time, who was then the President of the local chapter of the Young Americans for Freedom (Google: Barry Goldwater; I considered myself a subversive) — little did I know that I would now be referring to him as my Transgender Ex. He spent the evening playing me Bach Inventions. It beat the crap out of anything that the prom could have offered.

    My then-best-friend wore a sari, finessing the whole question of attire.

    Anything that makes women genuinely stress about what they are wearing, vs. what they can bench press, is absurd.

  2. July 15, 2012 1:54 am

    I never had the chance to boycott the prom. There were no proms in Austria. Or if there were, nobody told me.

    Besides the specter of rocking the same dress as someone else, a woman must also be careful not to get caught wearing the same outfit twice, lest people may get the impression that she has nothing to wear.

    • July 23, 2012 7:53 pm

      The question is, would you have boycotted the prom if they’d had it?

      • July 24, 2012 3:19 am

        I’m sure I would have. What I had, in fact, boycotted was ballroom dance classes that teenagers in my country customarily sign up for a year or two prior to high school graduation. I consider it unlikely that I would have felt the sudden urge to blend in with the crowd at prom time.

  3. July 15, 2012 2:35 pm

    Proms? Football? Pulleeze. When I was 17 I was drinkin’ and gambling at the horse track !

  4. Snoring Dog Studio permalink
    July 16, 2012 12:28 pm

    Never went to my prom, either. High school was brutal – sadly, it sounds like it still is. I wish that high school could be more about discovering one’s academic and creative interests than a race to “most popular.”

  5. July 17, 2012 1:27 am

    I went to my Senior Prom. Big to-do about nothing. But if there was a pie-fight, well maybe it would be more memorable 🙂

  6. July 19, 2012 7:51 pm

    I’m with Hansi. I skipped all the proms. But if they would’ve added a BBQ and made the rule everyone had to arrive in old truck (no limos) and wear jeans, I would’ve considered it.

  7. July 23, 2012 1:12 am

    I’d love to blame the techno-gremlins at WordPress for my taking so long to get to your post, but it was my very own gremlins (work, chores, sleep) who got in the way.

    Like almost every other rite of passage, proms have become insanely over-done, over-hyped and over merchandised.

    Another example of a rite of passage going haywire is the graduation. Parents can now proudly enjoy, pre-school graduation, Kindegarten graduation, D.A.R.E. graduation, elementary graduation, Jr. High graduation and finally high school graduation. I’d imagine that by the time these kids graduate from something meaningful like High School or college, that everyone in the family is sick of it. On the bright side, after all that practice, they should rock the cap and gown look pretty well.

    I went to my prom, but just barely. I was genuinely surprised to learn when I had my own kids, that it’s possible for them to go to junior proms and even the proms from other schools. My younger daughter actually wore the same gown her older sister had worn several years earlier. I was blessed that they were roughly the same size and laid back enough about it to actually have that strategy succeed.

    Thanks for a great post. I don’t have anymore proms coming up, except for the grandkids’ and that will be their parent’s problem!

    • July 23, 2012 7:56 pm

      Thanks! You’re right about the multiple rites of passage. And it starts with graduation from day care.

      • July 23, 2012 10:05 pm

        I can’t help feeling like I’m turning into a crotchety old man every time I spot another idiotic trend.

  8. August 8, 2012 3:07 am

    Prom is something overrated, poor high school girls – most of them do not realise that. As one of them I can surely claim that it’s something important but.. Really, that much money for just one night? Come on.

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