Everything We've Always Obsessed About When It Comes to Prom Night

In Depth

“…almost everything about proms has changed, as many parents are seeing firsthand,” proclaimed Vicki Pounders of The Times Daily out of Alabama in 1990. Sorry Vicki, you got this one wrong: everything we’ve cared about when it comes to proms has been exactly the same for decades.

“High school prom night in New York City in 1960 is the night a girl turns into a woman before the incredulous eyes of parents and teachers. It is the night a boy becomes a man of the world, and never stops spending. It is a night that begins in the ballroom of a midtown town hotel and usually ends with a dawn ride on the Staten Island ferryboat,” reads a 1960 New York Times piece in which the reporter followed one couple who attended Seward Park High School. This type of article is prime content around this time of year, when publications inevitably profile a few lucky individuals to get a little local flavor comprised of their thoughts and feelings on this important coming-of-age moment.

Young people doing young people things! Everyone loves it. And like any seasonal content, it has a formula, as much as year after year, those involved try to deny it.

Who’s Going With Whom

Like regular proposals, prom proposals have gotten increasingly complicated in the past few years, largely due to the popularization of #viral internet #content. But an article from 2001 entitled “Prom proposal brings out the romantic in students” foreshadowed this expansion. “Our generation loves doing it bigger and better, and prom is one event where you can get to really show off — your date, your clothes,” student Kim Gardner of Norwalk, Connecticut said. “I mean we’ll have about 500 students attending prom, it’s hard to get noticed.” Prior to any of that, concern was mostly fixated on being asked at all. “Even in the 1990s, guys are still responsible for popping the question when it comes to prom most students said,” the Rome News-Tribune out of Georgia reported in 1993, before making it clear that going alone or in a group was okay too.


“High School Graduate’s Big Evening Is Worry and Expense for Parents,” reads the article below the Times profile of the pair from Seward Park High. Apparently low turnout was an issue at prom that year, because of—shocker—how expensive it was:

The expense of prom night is cited by most students as the reason for the low attendance. In addition to the cost of the tickets, a boy must rent a tuxedo ($10-$15), buy a corsage ($6-$12), go to at least one night club ($15-$20), ride in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park ($6), and spend money on taxi fare ($5-$10) and breakfast ($2-$4). The total minimum, therefore, runs from about $44-$67, plus tickets.

But by the late ‘70s, cost was considered less of an issue, mostly because cool factor was the big prom drama:

A few years back the very thought of attending high school prom would have mortified most students.
Proms were “establishment” then, dull as white socks and brown shoes. Just not cool. Cool was Woodstock, anti-war protests and wearing the American flag on the seat of your well-worn bluejeans.
Woodstock passed and Vietnam is no longer an issue.
And isn’t it amazing? The All-American High School Prom is back in a big way.

By the 1990s, cost was a big deal yet again, even though it wasn’t actually affecting attendance:

All this decadence has a price. Even budget prom-goers will fork over about $300, students said, and some estimates climb as high as $1000 or more per couple. Is it worth it? Opinions are mixed. For all the planning and expense, many students said prom is a let-down, though for others, prom night is the best night of their lives.


The launch of Your Prom magazine (from the publishers of Modern Bride) prompted Robin Givhan to write in 1992 that “The prom-going stakes are high.” (That publication’s beginning seems to have inspired several to spill ink on how much an obsession with prom style was messing with people.) Others have gone as far as to opine about whether breaking a prom date means that someone can sue because they’ve already purchased their dress. “Gone are the days when prom-going girls donned simply designed pastel dresses,” the aforementioned Times Daily wrote in the ‘90s. “Today’s fashions are brilliantly hued and anything but simple in style.” But it seems that even earlier, in 1978, stuff was getting fancy:

“Proms have gotten more formal,” is Bogie senior Pete Budzinski’s critique. “Seven years ago when my sister went to her prom guys didn’t even wear tuxes.”
Now they buy tuxedos in “every color of the rainbow” to coordinate with their dates’ dresses, says Ron Sacino, owner of Sacino & Sons Formal Wear.

And before that, in 1957, advice from the New York Times about how to prepare might have emphasized simplicity, but it still focused on the fact that the look you rock on prom night is important: “This is not the time for experimenting with hair or make-up.”

Bad Behavior

The best age-old prom story standby isn’t about costs, but about kids being baddd, whether baddd means sex, drugs or wandering around late at night alone. “Parents know that the overwhelming majority of underage prom youngsters do not drink or otherwise misbehave,” the 1968 Times article read. “However, parents worry about the exposure to liquor in night clubs, risqué shows, and the opportunity for promiscuity.” More amusingly, a 1998 Ann Landers column included the thoughts of several furious parents on whether teens should be allowed to shack up together after prom. “I needed asbestos mittens to handle the letters from irate parents who assumed I was condoning prom sleepovers,” Landers wrote. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I said such situations could tempt inappropriate behavior and it was better to be too strict than too permissive. My mistake was adding that ‘responsible 18-year-olds should be able to handle it.’”

“I’m pleading temporary insanity and hope this blows over before long,” she added, before letting several other angry readers weigh in with their thoughts.

Even Old People Love Prom

Once you’re done talking about the pitfalls of prom for youngsters, take a gander at all the old people still loving prom, like this 1978 article out of Hayworth, New Jersey about a couple who celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary by having a prom party: “After the prom about 30 fast types drove to the Idlewild Country Club, where they spread their blankets on the sand, passed the bottle and necked.” Another, out of Pittsburgh in 1987, covered a prom held for senior citizens, noting that, “Though women far outnumbered the men, they were not deterred from having a good time.”

And the More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

In 1985, St. Petersburg, Florida resident Betty Polfer wrote into The Evening Independent to reminisce about her prom in the 1940s: “We did wear long dresses and the guys suits, but there was definitely not the elaborate plans of present-day grads. We did not take a change of casual wear with us to go on to after-hour parties that could last until sunrise.”

We went to beach house parties (with chaperones, of course) at the end of the school year. We also loved Frank Sinatra, saddle shoes, penny loafers, skirts and sweaters, football games, the Colonade, which is still the in-place for kids to go today in Tampa. So I guess things were not too different now than they were in my day, except perhaps Prom Night.

Polfer was hellbent on arguing that the new generation did prom much differently than she had. Though things may have gotten more complicated, it’s clear that the general sentiment remained the same. Almost a decade later, one young high school woman at Orange County High School in 1993 expressed this “just enjoy it” attitude about this night that has always been rife with drama.

It seems ironic that these days it’s crucial to have to agonize over all the answers before you even leave your house for an evening that was originally intended to be a night of carefree fun.
So what’s the game plan? Hope for the best, expect the worst, and try to take the night as it comes; yet, be prepared to deal with those pressures that make prom what it is.

She was not the first to outline this sentiment. From 1978:

But some things remain constant.
They’re still crowning prom queens, the last dance is still a waltz, and who’s going with whom is still the No. 1 topic of discussion at prom time.
Some things just never change.

You’re right about that.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Image via Paramount Pictures.

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