Inside the Brown Bag: The Prom

By Peg Brown

Despite a few frigid days during this winter, I am confident that somewhere at high schools across the state, there are optimistic committees, sure that the ice and snow will fade by May, who are planning both a junior and senior prom. I am going to guess that they will be very different events than those planned in the 1960s—but, maybe not. Let’s see.

Proms have roots in relatively select circles. The tradition is said to date to the early 1800s, beginning at Ivy League colleges. In those college days, these “promenade balls” (hence prom) were held for graduating seniors. Proms are also said to be reminiscent of debutante balls where girls of wealthy families were presented to society wearing long white dresses and gloves—mostly to snare the interest of a wealthy man of similar background in a dance (no pun intended) that would lead to an appropriate marriage match. Despite difficult economic times, proms began to gain popularity in the 1930s, and by the 1940s and 1950s, they were a most cherished “rite of passage” for most American high school juniors and seniors.

The theme of our junior prom was Blue Hawaii, based on the 1961 musical comedy movie starring “The King”—Elvis Presley. The film actually got mixed reviews from the critics, but largely because of Elvis and the music, it was a moderate financial success. We were also too young to remember that the title song had originally been made a hit by Bing Crosby, one of the crooners of our parents’ era. Our imaginations for turning the school gym into a tropical paradise were fueled by the exotic scenes actually filmed in Hawaii—a destination I am sure none of us had ever visited.

Yes, I said the gym. Proms were not held in off campus venues, restaurants, ballrooms or rented halls. The challenge was to transform the boys’ basketball court, complete with wrestling mats hanging on the walls, into the Coco Palms Resort portrayed in the movie. Committees were formed and charged with making specific areas of the gym beautiful. We had an entrance committee, a center area committee, and four committees devoted to one of each of the gym corners. Our class was truly limited because we could use no water in our displays. A previous class had ruined the gym floor with a faulty tin foil fountain—thus our Blue Hawaii was to be staged without the real thing. We compensated—we used food coloring to color tin foil streams. We spent literally months making Kleenex tissue flowers, cutting out palm trees, tracking down hula skirts and leis to drape over mannequins, and on the day of the event, twisting miles of crepe paper and blowing up dozens of balloons to conceal the ceiling air vents.

We didn’t have a DJ as seems to be the custom today, but a real live orchestra, made up of aging musicians who did their best to play the themes of the day. The uniform for the boys for the spring proms was usually a white dinner jacket, black pants, white shirt and small black bow tie—not a lot of matching ruffled shirts and cummerbunds. The prom dresses for our junior prom would be largely categorized as cocktail dresses, almost all with fitted bodices (no cleavage, no strapless numbers, but one or two that dared to feature spaghetti straps) and soft full skirts, almost always made of sheer nylon, lined with acetate, some shirring, maybe a v-shaped back and an occasional floating panel of matching material. The real killer was that these “fitted bodices” almost always required long line bras, with multiple painful stays, to accompany our girdles. We wore short white gloves, had our satin pumps and clutch purses dyed to match our dresses, and, if we were lucky, went to the hair dresser for the latest in bouffant. (No one had a manicure or pedicure that I can recall!) We almost always had a shawl of some sort for after-prom activities, and our flowers were very traditional corsages, sometimes with wristbands. Single carnations were the boutonnières of the day for our dates. Transportation was almost always the family car. We also had an elected King and Queen—I don’t know if political correctness allows this today.

There were occasional pre-prom parties, as the prom itself did not include dinner. The party before our junior prom a light buffet complete with “good” china and silver candlesticks. (I do remember however, that, just in case we didn’t live up to our best manners, the plastic covers on the white living room sofa and chairs were not removed!)

Usual post prom activities would include dinner, some drinking at camps or in cars (did I really say that?), and perhaps breakfast for a group at someone’s house who had a mother good enough to leave out the eggs and pancake mix.

Our senior prom was more of the same. I don’t remember the theme, and since the yearbook was put to print before the pictures came out, there are no reminders included in the 1964 Devilog. I do remember that a number of us decided to wear long dresses and gloves, making our mothers who wore similar attire to their proms, very happy.

I don’t remember what our prom tickets cost—I do remember that I paid $35 for my white long prom dress for the senior dance and ordered it from New York City. What an extravagant little brat I must have been.

Author’s notes: Typical prom dress—Montgomery Ward Catalogue in 1964—“Black plush rayon velvet, with a dramatic bodice over a stark white cotton and acetate brocade bell skirt. Satin bow belt in pink. $22.50. Spiegel, 1960—Sheer nylon ruffles and lace beneath a boned petal bodice and filmy nylon net stole. Taffeta cummerbund, rayon taffeta lining, nylon net crinoline. $19.85.”

The eye-catching headline of my research: “Would you spend 6 percent or more of your gross annual income to send your teen to the prom? A survey in 2014 conducted by VISA indicated that families earning less than $20,000 a year planned to shell out $1,200 for the annual school dance.” The survey went on to add that of course prom costs depend on where you live—however, the average expenditure by families living in the Northeast was $1,944. (How much is the senior prom worth? Donna Freedman, April 6, 2014) Obviously this number is skewed by including big cities like NYC, but still….Proms now include expensive gowns, hotel suites for after-parties, manicures, pedicures, hair styling, tanning, professional makeup, bling, limousines, arm bouquets and dinner—just for starters. Maybe that $35 dress was not so extravagant after all!