Memoir Sexuality

Prom Gen iY: Same Thing, Just Better Dresses

Photo from jepoycamboy @

Recently, my family was chomping on chunks of bread at Outback Steakhouse, a place we often go after I announce that I didn’t make it to the grocery store.

As I sat in my old jeans, the thick, pine doors parted and in paraded boys wearing tuxedos with cummerbunds flanked by girls in fancy dresses with sparkles and sequins. I was bedazzled…

…and instantly transported back in time. To the mid-1980s. To my own school formals.

TB and me. Junior Prom, 1984.

I went to Junior Prom with TB, a boy I had spent most of middle school trying to get to fall in love with notice me. Lord knows, we spent many afternoons in detention together as a result of misbehaving in French class. Before he moved to Philadelphia, however, I realized we were always going to be “just friends,” which was good enough for me. I sort of figured I’d never see him again, but he magically materialized to take me to prom.

Here’s what I remember about that prom. First, let’s just establish TB looked awesome in his tux. Done. Okay, now let’s talk about my dress. Featured in Seventeen Magazine, my dress was a gauzy, white Gunne Sax for Jessica McClintock that covered me from chin to ankle; it had three layers of crinoline and 10,000 buttons up the back. I was hermetically sealed inside my dress. All I knew was that I felt like Madonna in that dress. Seriously, from the neck down, I totally looked like Madonna.

Shut up, I did.

Sadly, we must address things from the neck up. Just a few months prior, I had butchered my long mane and had not yet figured out quite what to do with what was – tragically – a long brush-cut. Or a lady-mullet. The in-between stage lasted for years. In an effort to try to make people not notice my heinous hair, I stuck an over-sized silver safety-pin through the extra hole in my left ear lobe. Because I was that stupid cool.

JMo and me. Senior Ball, 1985.

For Senior Ball, I was slightly better prepared. First, let us establish that JMo looked awesome in his tux. Done. Now, about my dress.  As it turned out, my big poofy dress from the year before was really uncomfortable. The crinkly crinolines had filled the entire backseat; it had been hard to walk, and did I mention that I was decidedly not hot? Senior year, I decided to tone down my attire and wear a really simple yellow dress. Alas, there was no teenaged version of “Say Yes To The Dress” because somehow I ended up looking like I had been dipped first in a vat of French’s mustard and then into a second vat of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Seriously, I had no business wearing pastel yellow. I know you can’t tell from the pictures, but I looked jaundiced. Luckily, most people were blinded by my like totally radical Sun-In highlights and my tan, both of which I had been cultivating after school for weeks while simultaneously ignoring my upcoming Trigonometry final. (That proved to be a big mistake.)

I did not do a lot of primping for either prom.

I mean, I showered. I was clean.

Not too long ago, I went on Twitter to see what people were saying about prom. Here is a sampling:



People were freaking out. About shoes, about fingernails, about limos, about dress fittings. Dress fittings?

Whaaaaat? I bought a dress and I put it on. As you can see, it fit.

(Okay, so there was a little extra room up top. What’s your point?)

Unlike the tweeps, I did not worry about prom for days in advance.

Time spent preparing my hair for Junior Prom: zero minutes.

For Senior Ball, I actually had hair, so I did use a little mousse which, thankfully, had been invented earlier that year.

I do remember some mental anguish at both dances. Even though I wasn’t dating either guy, I still wanted the romance of the evening. I still wanted my dates to ask me to slow dance.

I mean I was scared, but I still wanted to be asked.

Ask me. No don’t ask me.

Please ask me. Wait, I don’t know what I’m doing.

One year, I remember the band playing Foreigner and mouthing the words: “I wanna know what love is. I want you to show me.”

Because, really, I had no idea.

But I so wanted to know.

Somewhere between 1986 and 2011, dress designers realized that high school girls did not want to look like Victorian dolls in ginormous hoop skirts nor did they want to look like mothers-of-the-bride. Thus, the prom dress industry was born. That night at Outback Steakhouse, the girls looked so beautiful; their dresses complemented their body shapes and each dress represented a stripe of the rainbow. Each young woman looked like a contestant from America’s Next Top Model. Each had a signature walk. Each looked so confident.

For a minute, I felt envy. I mean, I was decidedly un-hot at junior prom and kind of potato-sacky at senior ball. But then I realized, to the outside world, I probably looked confident, too. Even with the bad hair. I found myself wondering about the girls at Outback – and all the girls who go to formal dances these days. They are so well-put together, so styled, so prepped. Outwardly, they appeared so mature. I wondered if they would be able to look back at themselves in 30 years with a sense of humor and recognize that they were also at a tipping point. Or had they already passed it?

I imagine some things will never change about formal dances: the grown up feeling of getting dressed up and “going out on the town” without one’s parents; the freaky-deaky feeling a girl gets in her stomach as she sees her prom date pull into the driveway; those awkward posed moments where parents hover, taking zillions of photographs from every possible angle; the worry that a zit could erupt at any moment (and often did).

I think of prom as that awkward place, a threshold between adolescence and adulthood where no one really knows what to do, so we just hold onto each other in our fancy clothes and spin around in circles for a little while.

And so we did.

And it was good.

You know, up until I learned I had failed the Trig final.

Because that sucked.

What did you wear to prom? Did you think you were hot? Were you? Really?

46 thoughts on “Prom Gen iY: Same Thing, Just Better Dresses

  1. Cool how you cross out word and reword for comic effect. Never went to proms. Was underage at dog track. Was I ahead of the game or did I miss something? I don’t know how to dance anyway. Except when my dog or horse crosses that finish line first. I sure can dance then.

  2. The actual dances were always secondary to getting dressed up, going out to dinner as a group and then going to whatever “after” party there was. No one was much for supervised dancing and considering that our high school was cheap, the actual dance was quite lame. However, it was fun to get all dolled up for a night.

    1. Yes, there were those after-parties. Or, the fun that happened after you got dropped off and picked up again by someone else. Because that was fun, too. Our proms were actually pretty nice, and we had great music, I supposed my feelings can best be summed up by Whitney Houston when she sang: “Oh, I want(ed) to dance with somebody/ I want(ed) to feel the heat with somebody./ Yeah, I want(ed) to dance with somebody./ Somebody who loved me.” 😉

  3. I wore a strapless white dress with a black sash to my boyfriend’s prom. I was so nervous that the dress would fall down because I was not well-endowed. I had my hair done for that prom and it was really sophisticated. I remember for my corsage my boyfriend bought me a black orchid. It was stunning.

    1. Hi Marie: It sounds like you looked and felt fabulous at the prom. Strapless would have been too risky for me as I was flat as a board until my mid 20’s. A strapless dress would have morphed into a lovely skirt for me. I would have been yanking it up all night long. I think they have better elastic these days.

      A black orchid corsage, huh. I can’t imagine it, but it sounds fantastic! 😉

      1. They all looked great crumpled in a ball at the end of my bed.

        Ah, if only that were true…. I went to 4 out of 5 proms with friends. The fifth was with my girlfriend. I really only remember my senior prom and hers.

        I took one of my best friends to mine and she wore a skinny strapped red/purple (sort of swapped colors depending on the light) dress that poofed (is that the right word?) out at the waist. What a really remember is the skirt part filled most of the front passenger area of my dad’s Cutlass Supreme.

        My girlfriend’s prom dress was green, tight, and looked friggen awesome on her.

  4. I really enjoyed this post. Great stories, and I love how you made the connections to today. I’m a sucker for generational observations! Um, with talk like that it’s a miracle they weren’t beating down me door in high school huh?

  5. Looks like we wore the same dress for junior prom! I think I may have actually braided my hair and put flowers in it! Yikes. Senior year I wore an electric blue polyester taffeta cut-down-to-there shiny puffy number that no one would believe except for the photo evidence.

  6. I went hot pink, short, and very poofy. It was awesome in an early-90s sort of way! There was much pressure because I was going for that teen movie moment when the date sees the bookish friend and realizes how beautiful she truly is (and of course falls deeply in love). He said “you look nice.” I translated it to mean “you are so beautiful. How could I not have known? I promise you my undying love.” Girls are missing out (or oh so fortunate) today. Their hair stylists, dress fittings, and perfect looks are taking away the ability to look back later and laugh at themselves in poofy, pink dresses. Great post!

    1. Hi Amy! I agree! These girls look so fabulous; they look better than I did at my own wedding. Seriously. The fun of prom is to mark time! You were 90s, I was (ahem) close to that in a mid-80-ish sort of way, and laughing at those awful pictures is half the fun! In fact, that was my original last line to this post! TB and I had a good laugh about our prom looks. JMo was more concerned that he would be recognized by colleagues, thus destroying his reputation forever. Really? In his tuxedo? Did I mention how fabulous he looked? 😉

  7. Renee, your white Gunne Sax for Jessica McClintock would have been considered top of the line style at that time. I’m certain you were considered quite stylish and the over-sized silver safety-pin through your ear offset abundant frou. Dress #2 does seem a bit over-sized but I immediately noticed your tan and blonde hair. I’m certain your date did as well. All in all, no faux pas.
    I was TOO COOL to attend proms. I was raised in a predominantly hippie community and attending proms would have been considered too much of a bow to THE MAN. We spent our time smokin’ weed and avoiding school whenever possible (so it’s quite a miracle that I maintained an A average…not too hard to accomplish in an environment where being a member of the Future Farmers of America was considered THE THING). I was one of the leaders of a school walk-out in protest of a rigged class president election. I vaguely recall wearing tattered jeans and a bright yellow t-shirt. I should probably add that our candidate won when they re-ran the election. Ah, those were the days! Peace out. ;}

    1. Teresa: You WERE too cool for prom. My single act of rebellion is the reason why my hair was so short for prom. Note to future rebels: Better to plan a walk-out protest than do something that will impact your physical appearance for years. I have always considered myself a person who was difficult to pigeon-hole. For example, I loved The Grateful Dead (followed them around a good bit) but I also loved Madonna (and I am pretty sure that she and I would have been good friends). I was a major feminist, but for a period there, I danced on a hydraulic lift to make extra money to put myself through grad school. It has been hard to reconcile these oppositional forces that reside inside me.

      That said, there is no way in hell I would have ever considered missing prom. 😉

      1. I was, of course, being facetious. I was a little punk who thumbed my nose at authority and institutions and I would never suggest smoking dope as a Senior Class Project. Our subculture applauded the behavior, but had I known I wouldn’t be able to describe my dress on a blog a gazillion years later, I might have rethought my decision. ;} I was never a Dead Head but I’ve always admired Madonna. I don’t think dancing on a hydraulic lift is too seedy. It was great exercise and you were too high for pervs to touch you. A perfect balance between pragmatism and “Don’t tell my mom what I’m doing.” I taught dance (that is how I got involved with youth crisis kids) and I’ve taught both belly dance classes and special classes for strippers. *Author’s note…I never discarded clothes nor did they in my presence. I was attempting to teach the poor things how to move in time to the music.

        Anyhoo, the reason I’ve returned is to ask your opinion on using all caps to suggest outrageous or facetious statements. I used to use quotation marks when I first started posting on FB grammar pages, but when they threatened to turn me in to the, “Unnecessary Quotation Marks,” web site, I opted for all caps. Are you ever afraid you’ll get busted? We don’t really have the option of using italicized or underlined words (at least I don’t).
        Yours Truly, Grandma T

      2. Oh Grandma T:

        I usually just turn my sarcasm on with * indicators. Like this. (I’m clapping my hands with joy that you never discarded your clothes in the presence kids in crisis. *Lord knows, if I did took my clothes off in front of my students these days, that would cause a major crisis.*)

        Seriously, don’t ask me any more grammar questions. You know I’m just going to come back over to your place and start another debacle. And by debacle, I mean another 600 post thread that refuses to die. 😉

      3. GAH! I taught strippers and belly dancing AFTER I retired from the youth crisis program. As far as I know, none of my kids make money on the stripper circuit! I don’t even think they graduated to hydraulic lift dancing. (Grandma T, in a wild attempt to steer the conversation in a different direction flags Joan, “Did you know what Renee did to make money in graduate school!”) Crisis averted! ;}

  8. I wore a gigantic taffeta cloud to my senior prom – seriously, the whitewhite sleeves were bigger than my children were at birth.


    I did my own hair and make-up (unlike the salon teens of today) but I did layer on some extra eye shadow and mousse to be fancy).

    Yep. I thought I was working it. My best friend was the prom queen. I ended up talking to her date all night.

    Then he became my boyfriend the following year.

    But that’s an entirely different blog post now, isn’t it?

    1. Julie:

      If I were doing a blog response on YOUR page, I would admit that after JMo dropped me off after Senior Ball, I was quickly retrieved up by my then-boyfriend where we stayed out all night, you know… playing cards and just talking for hours parked beside the Erie Canal. But this is my blog, and I would never confess to something like that. 😉

      Your dress sounds awesome. And by that I mean awful. Again, I am sure we would have been BFF’s. I would have even let you borrow my safety pin earring.

  9. Cute pictures! My junior prom pictures are hilarious. I’m wearing an off-one-shoulder, form-fitting mauve gown. I made a really bad strapless bra choice and looked like I had torpedo boobs! The funny thing about the pictures is that my date is sporting a big, ol’ boner. The outline of it is clearly visable through his pants! I hardly knew the guy, and my mom was taking the pictures! Ewwww!
    My senior year I chose a lovely, lavender Jessica McClintock number, rather similar to yours. Of course, I had ginormous 80s hair for both and probably spent a few hours primping before both dances!

    1. Sprinkles:

      You must have looked smokin’. And so cute that you and your date decided to match like that: your two torpedoes to his single missile. Awesome.

      By the way, I would have had ginormous 80s hair, but for my very bad hair-cut. Again, I am so sorry, TB. 😉

  10. Potato-sacky lady mullet. Me likey.

    I think you look like Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles in the first photo. That’s good.

    Kick Ass Wife and I went to prom together my senior year (her sophomore year). I’m pretty sure she wore a dress. But that’s about all I remember.

    1. I was probably trying to channel my inner Molly Ringwald, though that movie didn’t come out until the following Spring. The weird thing is that my son basically has this haircut now. Seriously. He is sporting my lady mullet circa 1984. He won’t let me touch it.

      I love that you and KAW went to prom together. Did you really go? Maybe that’s why you don’t remember the dress. Just saying.

  11. As a very mature older lady now…I remember my Prom too! I wish I could find the pic of me. Maybe someday I will find it. Everyone told me I looked smashing! So I will close with a good note. I am happy that Proms still go on!

    1. Hi Mom.

      It’s probably better that you don’t have a picture. That way you can remember yourself as looking smashing; although, something tells me that you did probably look fabulous. You had the best dresses. 😉

      Do you remember the dress that I you had wanted me to buy? The one that was made of linen? I looked like a cricket in it? Looking back, that might have been a better choice. Though probably not.

  12. My entire high school experience was spent trying to get the eff out of high school early, so I have no prom memories. (Junior high was across town, which meant I wasn’t about to have my mom haul me out there at night in one of her sequence of junk heap cars! That, too, was a no-dance scenario.)

    Luckily, I did get to make it up by going to a single dance in my college years. For a four-month period, I drove my mom crazy by being member of a sorority. I didn’t last long, but it was worth it (a) to get all dressed up and made up, once, and (b) to make my mom crazy. For four months. 😀

  13. I love this piece. You take it somewhere extra with your ruminations about girls today.

    You look way more classy than I did in my black/hot pink strapless Spanish-inspired dress. I also rocked a lady mullet at some point: business in the front, party in the back. Put a helmet on me, and I’d look like a hockey player.

    My prom ended with my date making out in the hot tub at the after-prom party with my friend. I kid you not. I am a walking cliche.

  14. We must have passed through the same era because I can relate to almost everything you wrote…except the part about looking like Madonna. I bore more of a resemblance to Macaulay Culkin.

    My prom goal was to keep the strapless dress from falling down (mammory gland challenged) and to keep it on – period. That was it.

    1. Hi Botut! I, too, was mammary-challenged until college. I remember the precise day my boobs came in. I was wearing a mint green and white striped ESPRIT top. One day, while walking across the quad, some guy shouted from his window, “Hey, if you are going to wear that top, you’d better get a bra.” I remember looking down at my chest and thinking, “Where the hell did THOSE come from.” It was like the boobie-fairy had finally found me! I was so happy, I left my Anthropology class early to go bra shopping – at age 19.

      By the way, Macaulay Calkin was cute!

  15. I remember Jessica McLintock well. Man, she had a monopoly on the business, didn’t she? Love the walk down memory lane. And showering is number one in my book! I’m much more scared of everything that girls do today. Shiver.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    1. Thanks for visiting me, Chalupa.

      I have a little piece of paper on it that says, “TFC” which sounds like we are having KFC so I keep salivating every time I see it. It is to remind me to add you to my Blogroll. You are a great writer, and I look forward to getting to know you better through your words. Looks like we have some common readers. 😉

      Girls do seem more reckless these days, but then I guess everyone is. Is that because we are getting old(er)? Did our parents think we were terrifying. I think my mom was terrified of me, my sense of independence, my relentlessness, my flirtatiousness, my sass, my snark. But this new crop of girls coming up… they do seem kind of scary – but when I try to pinpoint what it is, I get the same adjectives I just used to describe myself. Maybe I shouldn’t comment; I only have a son. 😉

  16. For Prom my junior year i wore aviators and a black top hat.

    To Prom my senior year I wore all white tux with black and white adidas classic tennis shoes.

    “…and I want you to show me.”

    Someday, maybe someday.

  17. oh em gee.

    The Jessica McClintock.

    From Boston Store.

    Oh, my dress. Hell, I loved that dress. And it cost 64 bucks!!! of a 16 yr old’s paycheck.

    I hope I can find that picture..

  18. I went to 3 proms. Mom made 2 out of the 3 dresses. I spent about $45 on fabric & notions for each dress vs. the hundreds some girls laid out for their dresses. This was in the 1980s – I didn’t get my nails “done” (or my toes) and I had someone else do my hair one time. Otherwise, I do remember tying up the bathroom for hours taking a shower, shaving my legs, fixing my hair, doing my makeup, etc. Prom “now” is so much more elaborate and expensive, it seems. If you’re interested, I’ll email you my pics and you can get a good laugh. Enjoyed reading your post – captures that wistfulness we so often felt at that time of year. For 2 years running I had the “romance” and prom was, really, just “ok.” 🙂 Probably would have had more fun with “just a friend.” 🙂

    1. Hi Kathy:

      Spending $45 for a prom dress is genius. You were fortunate to have a talented mom at the sewing machine.

      Things are so more elaborate and expensive now. And so much more chaperoned. There is so much more parental involvement now. For me, it was our first night out without a real curfew. And that was excellent. 😉

  19. I didn’t go to prom…it probably had something to do with my boyfriend at the time, who was 8 years older and didn’t dance! Probably a good thing I didn’t marry him…

    I remember Sun-In…loved it! I also look horrible in yellow!

    For the record, I still love Jessica McClintock dresses…have never owned one though! I do have almost every issue of “Victoria Magazine” issued since 1989, because I’m cool like that…

    Thanks for the memories!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop