When some Nineteenth Century Harvard genius had the bright idea to schedule a “promenade” for the upcoming graduating, he had no idea that it would eventually evolve into a bacchanal for high school juniors and seniors featuring limousine vomiting, lost virginity, floral abuse, ruffled tuxedos, untold hurt feelings, and incalculable charges on already stretched credit cards.
Like many rituals of the middle and lower classes, the prom began its existence as an exclusive, somewhat snobby display by the One-Percenters. Most historical research suggests that it evolved from dress-up Ivy League dance that eventually filtered down to the masses. Based on no historical evidence whatsoever, I also believe that the early high school prom was also inspired by the “coming out” traditions of High Society in which rich parents would present their daughters for inspection by their friends, neighbors and eligible bachelors. In other words, the early prom was actually a poor man’s debutante ball.
For about 50 years the American prom was a relatively innocent affair: a fancy, heavily chaperoned dance in the high school gym. And as rites of passage go, this seems fairly benign and a little sweet. And there was a certain logic to the original proms: until the 1960s, young adults wanted to be actual adults — they yearned to grow up and enjoy the freedom and excitement of being independent contributing members of society. Wearing a first formal dress or first tuxedo really was a sign that they had crossed the line into adulthood.
But just as they ruined so many other aspects of American culture, the Baby Boomers ruined the prom. Baby Boomers famously worshiped youth, not adulthood. They didn’t want to grow up, get a job, and go out in the world. They wanted to prolong adolescence. So the prom morphed from a rite of passage into a costume party, with participants dressing up as adults without actually planning to be adults anytime soon.
At the same time, post-war affluence meant that a simple dance in the gym was no longer good enough. The prom moved to restaurants, country clubs, and other event spaces and the price of admission rose correspondingly.
When I came of age in the 1970s, the prom was on its way out. I didn’t go to the prom — none of my friends did either. It was not even a consideration. The prom? What a joke. I was hardly a radical cultural revolutionary, but the prom reeked of corniness, wastefulness and affectation. It was such an inconsequential event in our eyes that my friends and I didn’t even bother to arrange a counter-event to demonstrate our anti-prom solidarity. I don’t remember what I did that night — probably just stayed home and watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
This is an actual picture from my high school yearbook!
Having said that, I was surprised when I later looked in my high school yearbook and saw that the prom had been fairly well-attended, not only by the well-to-do kids but by a bunch of ordinary schmos in powder blue tuxedos and frilly shirts who really should have known better.
I went off to college fully expecting that the prom would die out completely in the next few years, especially after the movie “Carrie” exposed its deep social pathology.
What I didn’t foresee was that Ronald Reagan would be elected president in 1980 and that a lot of cultural events that seemed helplessly retrograde in the Seventies would be resurrected with a patina of traditional American values. Just ten years after “Carrie,” the prom would be transformed back into a delightfully romantic event in John Hughes’ “Pretty in Pink” (1986).
Traditional values? An homage to a more innocent time? As a young enthusiastic Reaganite, I was, for the first time in my life, suddenly OK with the prom. And I didn’t really think about it again until my own son was old enough to attend his own prom.
Remembering how much my friends and I had disdained the prom in the 1970s, I was surprised to discover that hardly anyone was against the prom now. If my son had opted out he would have been branded a social misfit, and worse, would have betrayed his social group by failing to offer himself up as an acceptable date for one of his female friends. Should some poor girl go dateless because he didn’t see the point of it? How selfish would that be?
I was also surprised to find out that from the perspective of most of the guys, the prom is not that much fun. So if it’s not fun, why does it still exist? it persists because there are powerful forces arrayed behind it. In terms of who wants the prom to exist, here is the ranking from “most in favor of the prom” to “least in favor of the prom”:
- The girls’ mothers
- Dress shops and tux rental businesses
- Limo drivers
- The boys’ mothers
- Venue owners and caterers
- Fathers of either gender
- School administrators and chaperones
The worst thing about the modern prom is the sheer scale of it. It’s not just a dance any more, it’s an industry. The most insidious recent development is the advent of the “promposal,” in which the inviter (usually the guy, even in supposedly enlightened 2017!) has to come up with an elaborate stage-managed invitation that’s supposed to be even more original and creative than a marriage proposal. And it needs to be social media-worthy.
Once the dates have been sorted out, the credit card gets a work out. Which leads to my second objection to the prom: the cost. I try not to be too judgy on how other people spend their money, but the the cash outlay for show-off ceremonies like the prom, weddings, bah mitzvahs, sweet sixteen parties, even funerals, always rubs me the wrong way. The ticket to the prom in the town where I live is now up to $85 a person, and what you get for that doesn’t even include a band — just a DJ. But the ticket is just the start of the expense — there’s the tux rental, the new dress, the flowers, and the hair appointment. Needless to say, the hair is so important that 90% of the girls get their mothers to call them in sick to school that day so they can go to a hairdresser instead of wasting time in classes.
Then there’s the cost of the transportation. Because no one actually drives themselves to the prom. You need a limo, or better still, a party bus, to drive you and your friends from the photo location to the event.
The aforementioned photo location is actually the most important part of the whole prom process. In the old days, the photos would be taken when the guy would arrive at his date’s house to pick her up. Usually his parents would come with him and then both sets of parents would snap photos of the happy couple in her living room. The process now is that the parents drive their own kid to a central location where five to ten other couples are meeting for photos. This is the backyard of the richest family in the group, a country club, maybe the beach, or a park. All the kids line up one one part of the yard and then their parents line up opposite them for an orgy of photography, trying as many permutations as possible: all the girls, then all the boys, then everyone with their date and then groups of best friends in small groups, etc, etc.. When the parents have had their fill and have all mused on how it doesn’t really seem that long ago that they brought this kid home from the hospital, then the dates pile into the limo or bus.
The limo and party bus came into fashion because it was once generally understood that there’d be a certain amount of out-of-sight drinking at the prom and parents wanted to make sure their kids got home in one piece. That’s not so much the case anymore – after too many vomit-splashed proms, high schools started breathalyzing, so now you can’t even get through the prom doors without proving your sobriety.
No, the real point of the limos and party buses is to make the night that much more special — like Cinderella and her coach. But also, let’s face it, the party bus enforces a certain exclusivity. If you’re not tight with a group of friends large enough to support a bus, you’re out of it. Sorry!
As for the event itself, it’s kind of a letdown after the photos and the ride in the bus. My guess, not having seen the polling data, is that the girls have a more intense experience, either positive or negative, than the guys, who see it as one more ritual that must be endured.
Here’s an indication of how kids really feel about the prom — the doors have to be locked to prevent them from leaving early because God knows what kind of shenanigans they’d get into if they were allowed to sneak out after an hour, which totally would happen, $85 ticket or not. If they really loved eating buffet and standing around listening to a DJ in formal wear, the school administrators wouldn’t need to guard the doors.
The doors are unlocked 15 minutes before the official end of the prom and five minutes later the venue is empty. Time for the after-parties! More often than not, this involves drinking and a co-ed sleepover at someone’s house and if you’re a parent you can only pray the the host’s parents have the good sense to keep an eye on things.
In the end, most kids survive the prom. Maybe there are some hurt feelings over the being asked/being rejected element; or maybe there are some hangovers and rueful memories. And maybe there are some people who who actually don’t look back on it with chagrin. All I know for sure is that as I parent of an only child, I’m glad I only had to go through this twice (when my son was a junior and then as a senior). I’d hate to have a parcel of kids and go through it more six or seven times.
So for all those seniors and juniors heading out in your limos tonight — keep expectations low, relax and go with the flow, and stay sober enough to remember all the craziest parts so you’ll have a good story to tell forty years from now.