Christy has fond memories of her prom and other events in her life from her diary. Photo courtesy of Gloria Shacklett-Christy
There it was lost and alone and tucked carefully away in my attic—a favorite, most trusted friend, “My Diary.”
In this tattered, white book emerges all my most profound in sights and declaratives about the world as I saw it at 16. On the pages are memories, a chronicle of an innocent teenage girl who is all excited, simply consumed about going to the prom. Here are the entries, documented moments, 48 years later leading up to prom night. Enjoy! They are hilarious with a touch of melancholy!
May 20; Must have space. Got a million things to tell you, Diary! First, I had this terrible fever blister on my lip (horror for a girl days away from needing to look the best in her life). Laid out in the sun.
May 21: Fever blister better even feel like looking at myself today. I just can’t wait til the prom. Boy, I think he is so cool. I just can’t wait!
May 22: Talked to Ann today. She thinks my date is cool. Heck! He is great! Boy, are we ever going to have a ball. I just can’t wait! Dog—two weeks is absolutely too long to wait. Guess I will have to. I look at my prom dress and simply want to go out of my head. Shoot! This feeling is terrible. Time is so slow! Bye…Gloria.
May 23: He’s so cute! Gosh the prom seems so far off. I have said I can’t wait 100 or 200 times! Exams are Thursday. I am scared.
May 24:Today, I gave…the invitation to the prom. He’s an absolute Doll. I can’t wait!
May 25: He came over today. He’s so precious. He wanted to know what kind of dress I had and what kind of flowers I wanted. Gosh! I was so excited. I looked absolutely grotesque. My shorts were icky. I looked so awful! I can’t stand this wait. It’s late, Diary…gotta go.
May 26: Got annuals today. Today I straightened my hair. It looks great even if I do say so. One week I can’t forget. One incy, bitty week…one more time, “I can’t wait til prom…can’t wait..”
May 28: 6 more days….I got my shoes for the prom. There white alligator leather with a little gloss to ‘um so precious! Put on my formal today!
May 29: held out for weeks. Guess I can wait three more days.
June 1: Dear Diary…It’s Saturday after the prom and I’ve a lot to tell you. Well, the decorations were beautiful. I worked all day on the prom. Had a parachute on the ceiling and looked like a huge fabulous ballroom. Wow! It was beautiful. No school today, but I stayed all day working on the prom.
From here on goes the big let down on “Prom Night!” I can remember that there was frustrating disappointment. My images of being a “Princess” for a day with my “Prince” charming simply did not materialize. This all ended with this entry:
June 2: Diary, it’s gonna be hard to explain this. I would have had a ball at the formal if it had not been for the booze! There is so little faith in this world. I believe in God and his way so much, but it seems like no one else does. I love the right way and hate the wrong way. Please help me to be good. It’s been nice telling you my problems, Diary. Love, Gloria.
The prom has quite a history going through many instantiations until finally becoming the iconic ritual for the American teenager and big business for retailers today. In the late 1890s at the end of the Victorian Age, the formal dance we now call “the prom” first began in the elite colleges of the Northeast and emulated the debutante balls of the wealthy.
Middle class parents began to admire these customs and instituted formal dances as a means of instilling social skills and etiquette in teenagers. The dances were strictly chaperoned and often restricted to the senior class.
The word “prom” is a shortened version of promenade in that the beginning of the ball there would be a formal presentation, a grand march for the guests. In 1894, the first reference to the prom comes from the journal of an Amherst College student who described his invitation and attendance at an early prom at Smith College.
While the writer used the word “prom” to describe the dance, it was likely just a fancy name for a customary senior-class ball held at the college. Prom, while important in the college setting, would fail to take on iconic status until it emerged in high schools. But as more Americans joined the middle class, prom left the elite precincts of private colleges and filtered into the nation’s burgeoning secondary schools.
When high school proms flourished in the early 1900s, they were relatively simple affairs. Students would come in their Sunday best. Most would not purchase new clothes for the event. The extravagant occasion called for tea, socializing, and dancing. Proms worked their way down from college gatherings to high school extravaganzas incrementally.
In 1929, on the eve of the stock market crash, a high school paper in Shrewsbury, Mass., declared that decorations for the school prom were “the most beautiful ever seen for any social function in town.” It also reported on attendees’ fashion choices, which were equally extravagant. One girl “wore a beautiful gown of changeable rose and violet taffeta,” and the paper noted; another “attracted attention by her striking gown of brown and gold.”
The early days of high school proms served as a similar function to a debutante ball. Early proms were signature times of firsts--the first adult social event for teenagers, the first time taking the family car out after dark, the first real dress-up affair, and so forth. Proms also served as picture-taking events, similar to a first communion or wedding, in which the participants were taking an important step into a new stage in their lives. In earlier days, the prom may have also served as an announcement of engagement for the “best couple” after the prom court had been crowned and recognized.
During the 1920s and 1930s, American youth began to experience more freedom with the arrival of the car and other luxury items. The high school prom expanded into a yearly class banquet at which seniors arrived in party clothes and danced. Eventually, high school yearbooks started covering proms and including prom pictures in the 1930s and 1940s.
The 1954 American Girl magazine published a book of beauty tips for young women. It included helpful suggestions about preparing for the ultimate American beauty contest: the high school prom.
“This is the moment to slip into your dress. ... Put your hair in place again, fasten your necklace or bracelet, and step into your pumps,” the magazine advised. “And wheee! Look now! There really is another you in the mirror. A you that is practically exuding a subtle new fascination, a wonderful femininity.”
By the 1950s, as Americans enjoyed the luxury of the post-war economy, proms began to become elaborate, expensive events. It became very important to come with the best-looking date, and being named to the prom court guaranteed instant social status. It was also during the 1950s that teenage girls began to pay more attention to their prom dresses and make special shopping trips for the perfect outfit. While the high school gym was adequate for sophomore dances, the settings of junior and seniors proms were gradually moved to grander locations.
But it was the 1980s when the prom began to take on larger-than-life stature, as several teen movies advertised it as the ultimate coming-of-age event in a young person’s life. Competition for the prom court intensified greatly, with the title of prom queen becoming closely akin to true royalty. Prom had finally become a climactic point in a teenager’s life, the moment when fantasies and relationships either blossomed or disintegrated.
Today’s proms have become expensive, all-night affairs, with after-prom activities often extending into the dawn of the next day. Stretch Hummers and limos, fancy dresses, and glamorous ballrooms are now prom-night standards. The average cost spent on prom these days according to Visa is around $1,100 most of which are covered by parents.
The prom has begun to relax a little in its dating requirements. While tradition still dictates that a boy ask a girl to the prom, more and more girls are beginning to take their prom destinies into their own hands and do the asking. In practically every way, prom has moved beyond the days of strictly chaperoned, etiquette banquets to glamorous extravaganzas where nearly anything goes.
There is one thing for sure. Reflecting on my prom memories from 1966 taught me a lot about dealing with disappointments -- when things simply don’t turn out like you anticipate. Life is filled with unfulfilled expectations, broken dreams, and oppositions to our destiny. At 16 while relying on my own limited perspective, I could not see that my disenchantment with prom would actually be woven into my future as an experience that would give me confidence and courage to face other times when life simply didn’t work out as I had planned. For this, I am so grateful for my “Prom Night, 1966”. It’s a bittersweet memory in 2014!