A Night to Remember: The Ritual Magic of Prom

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Prom, 1900.
Prom, 1900.

Whatever details exist in our story of prom; heartbreak, rebellion, awkwardness, ambivalence, fun, or indifference, we all partook of this ritual experience, even if through rejection. A promenade is the formalized entering of the ballroom, a staging ground for the magic culmination (or anti-climactic punctuation) of our alleged best years. First mentioned in a diary well over 100 years ago, prom emerged as an odd middle-class version of the already bizarre debutante ball. This glittery rite of passage was vital to our teenage cultural experience; as a structure to hold certain charged memories within, dark vague hours to cultivate amnesia toward, or something else entirely, of which we’re still not entirely certain.

So then let’s examine the artifacts of prom night:


You went to a Chinese restaurant that didn’t card and ordered a Flaming Volcano with eight straws, the center engulfed in actual flames. Cameras followed you to make a documentary about prom. You were the inner-city kids to be contrasted against suburban counterparts. You posed for photos with an acquaintance who later died when you were in your 20s. Those photos showed up in memorials for him. You smoked on balconies. You thought it was going to be fun. You snuck away to the lake. You made fun of the theme: A Night To Remember. What you remember is your date’s tongue ring hitting your teeth, sitting bored at card tables with sequins poured on top, your English teacher flirting with you. You wore a feather boa, flip-flops and flowers glued to your dress. You wore a motley suit of burgundy and a dandy's hat. You got your date her corsage at 7-11. It was the last one, bright orange, and in poor condition. You went in a group with a lesbian couple, one of whom was your school's first openly gay student. After 20 minutes you left and went to a cavernous gay nightclub (with a volleyball court) where you lied about your age to get in. You skipped prom and went to a music festival. It didn’t occur to you to save your virginity for prom night. Prom wasn’t a big deal at your school like in the movies. You were raised on Sweet Valley High and She's All That and considered prom to be a landmark moment you'd remember forever. You think prom brings up some interesting gender issues. Boys are told prom night means getting laid. Girls are told it’s a night to indulge their princess fantasies. But no one you knew was actually like that.



Your parents hated your boyfriend who was a high school dropout and a jerk, a skater punk with long hair and a pierced nose. You told your parents you were going to prom and instead parked behind the church, hoping to lose your virginity. It didn't happen and you went home. After prom you slept in tents in someone’s yard. You ended up at a cabin in the redwoods where everyone cuddled. You got a foot rub. You didn't ask the girl you liked. Your date made her dress out of a burlap sack and brought you a corn boutonnière. It was one of the tamest nights of high school. You attended Art School Prom in graduate school. It had the same mix of irony and disappointment as the original. You wore a tiara and declared yourself prom queen, though you weren’t. The real prom queen’s boyfriend told you that you made a great prom queen. You went to satisfy your parents and part of you wished to have a movie-like experience. You played cards most of the night. You wore a red petticoat, trying for some Madonna '80s look. You left to go to a party at the beach. Your boyfriend wouldn't go because he was 19 and said it was weird. You spent the most you ever have, before or since, on shoes. It ended up being like any other night. You made fun of people who took the whole thing seriously and scoffed at the thought that this was going to be a defining moment in your life.


Your boyfriend showed up wearing cut-off slacks, a sleeveless shirt, a tie and Converse. It was the night you and he broke up. You showed up to the after-party drunk, in sweat pants. You and your friend left as the sun was coming up, stumbled down the street smashing bottles. It was a mess of a night but one of your favorite memories with her. Your boyfriend wouldn't take you so you asked an older boy you'd had a crush on for years and he said yes. You wore a floor length, long-sleeved black velvet gown. You found it at a thrift store and were pretty smug since all of the other girls were going to Jessica McClintock to buy new, hideous dresses. You’d grown up going to the beach every day, but turned into an Amish woman covered from wrist to ankle. Your mom took you to a local hair salon to have your hair and makeup done. You took in an ad, which showed a very white woman's face with smoky eyes, wine red lips, and pale skin. The makeup artist said, as diplomatically as possible, that your skin was too dark to make you look like that. You said you wanted to look Goth. She did you up in peaches and mauves. You went home and wiped it all off, doing your usual cat eyes with liquid eyeliner, and burgundy lips. You felt badly for wasting your mom's money.


Your date was a deviant. He had an undercut with a long ponytail. You'd rather not have gone, but the foolishness of prom is something that needs to be experienced. The art kids took over the dance floor in full, raucous, awkward force. You got milkshakes the next day. A boy you didn’t know well hung a banner in front of the school asking you to prom. You went home, pretending to be sick and wrote him a letter saying no, which your friend delivered. Your date couldn't find your house so you had to pile your dress into your car and meet him. You wore your French teacher’s dress. You wore a green bridesmaid’s dress of your sisters. Prom was boring. Prom was awesome. You wore a blue tux. You had a drawer of vintage dresses that outfitted both you and your friends. You had a 2am fight barefoot on the street with the boy who was going to be your date. You’d promised yourself you wouldn’t have any drama about prom. Just because something was “once in a lifetime” didn't mean you needed to do it.


Your friend’s dad dressed as a chauffeur, and a bunch of parents chipped in for a limo. You didn’t go but all your friends said yes to elaborate “promgagements”. Maybe it's a rehearsal for another overpriced mating ritual, the wedding? You kissed a boy who wasn't your date. You floated around on a boat in Lake Michigan until 4am and talked to people who never talked to you at any other point during high school. You were ambivalent about school, functions like prom, and life in general. You were full of contradictions, wanting to be good and do well while simultaneously wanting to give your parents and the Catholic school administrators the middle finger. You're glad you got to share the experience with the person who was your best friend at the time. You went because you were supposed to. You got to dress up, go out into the world and play grown-up. You admit that you sometimes think back on that time and wonder why it was all such a big deal. *


*Compiled from twenty anonymous sources, ages 17-60.