The First Big Night To Remember: Prom Glamour

Prom 1993 For high school-aged girls across America, late spring means one thing: prom time. For most, the season really probably started months – even years ago – with careful perusal of dresses in magazines and intense discussion of who’s going with whom and “OMG will I get a date??!?”

The big day arrives with corsages and manicures and hair appointments and limousines – all the trappings of grown-up red carpet glamour, tried out for the first time by 17 and 18-year olds anxious to grow up.

A rite of passage in many ways, all of the rituals and excitement surrounding the prom give most kids their first brush with adult glamour. Reared on princess mythology, girls finally get to don their own ball gowns and be perceived not just as little girls, but as something close to grown women.

The end-of-high-school dance as we know it didn’t emerge until the 1930’s or ‘40s (and really took hold in the ‘50s), but “proms,” short for promenade, most likely began in the U.S. during the late 19th century. Originally dances held at Northeastern colleges to celebrate the end of senior year, the first proms were modeled on formal debutante balls and designed to help young adults learn social skills and etiquette.

Though today’s dances, with their fancy dresses and fancier cars, often seem to be less about etiquette and more about showing off, the prom is one glamour-related tradition that hasn’t strayed too much from its original roots. It’s still about learning how to get dressed up and how to act (or not act). Even MTV, not exactly a network famous for portraying teenagers in their most flattering, mannerly light, uses prom as an opportunity to offer a bit of practical grooming and etiquette advice.

The biggest lesson my own prom taught me wasn’t about manners or social graces. Instead, it was that sometimes, the most glamorous part of the evening occurs before the event even begins. My memories of the prom are good ones, from start to finish, but my memories of finding and buying my prom dress are even better. At my grandmother’s insistence, I took a day off school and she and my mom and I drove from Annapolis to D.C., to find stores that carry something other than boat shoes and polo shirts.

After several fruitless hours and a nice lunch, we ended up in the cocktail dresses at the Neiman Marcus on Wisconsin Avenue, where I found an amazing dress that was somehow both sophisticated and age appropriate (though it was definitely not designed with prom in mind). Buying that dress was the culmination of a lot of daydreams. It was also practice for a lot of future shopping, including for a wedding dress.

Trying that dress on for the first time, and again to show it off to friends and family, I felt as glamorous as any 17-year old girl possibly can. When the big day arrived, and my hair was up and my nails were painted and I’d replaced my Chapstick with lipstick, the glamour reached fever pitch. But it wasn’t sustainable and I’m not sure that the reality of the evening could’ve possibly lived up to the fantasy. And that's OK. Part of the allure of glamour is that it’s fleeting.

That’s me in the picture, by the way (or the back of my dress, at least) and my high school boyfriend/prom date next to me. We're outside my parents’ house enjoying prom’s own version of the red carpet, the pre-dance rush of flashbulbs and corsages.

And the dress now? It’s hanging in my closet. I’m sure it’ll never fit me again, but I just can’t part with it. Too many memories, and too many lessons. Plus, it's really, really pretty.