- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Sharon Stone couldn’t get a date.

Reese Witherspoon’s stood her up, so she went with her father.

Susan Ford had hers at the White House.

The prom, the annual spring rite of passage for high school juniors and seniors, can cause angst, reverie, exuberance, credit-card debt, social scars and new-shoe blisters.

According to Conde Nast’s Your Prom magazine, high school seniors last year on average spent $638 on their proms — an estimated $4.1 billion a year. This included gowns, tuxedo rentals, tickets, pre- and post-party dinners, makeup, manicures, jewelry, hair, limos and even hotel rooms. Not to mention the illicit champagne and beer.

A new AOL poll asked 2,000 teenagers to rate the prom. Sixty-three percent said it was “the biggest event in high school.” The prom has spawned books, films and Web sites (Promspot.com) devoted to navigating the often fairy-tale last-ditch farewell to friends and “frenemies” alike.

In the weeks ahead, teenagers and parents will strive to strike a balance between what is necessary and what is over the top. Invitations will be offered awkwardly; some will be accepted, some will not. There will be tears.

Late-night instant messaging. Crash diets. Fashion emergencies. Last-minute breakups and hookups. And of course, the new version of frantic note-passing: blogging on the Internet. (“Help! My best friend’s ex-boyfriend asked me to the prom!”)

Prom committees are made up of future overachievers (Hillary Rodham Clinton was her high school prom chairman), and no detail is overlooked.

Some schools concerned with safety issues such as students driving under the influence of alcohol have canceled the prom. Kellenberg Memorial High School on Long Island announced in the fall that it was canceling its prom, citing the “flaunting of affluence.” The year before, 46 seniors spent $10,000 renting a house in the Hamptons for the after-prom party.

Some schools have teachers armed with Breathalyzers. Others, including Fairfax Christian School in Vienna, have never had a prom. Some, such as St. Stephen’s and Agnes School in Alexandria, hold an all-night party after the prom, essentially keeping the students in lockdown with games, raffles and dancing until dawn.

Other schools rent boats such as the Cherry Blossom. Some opt for the hotel ballroom. What is clear is that the old-fashioned prom in the school gym with teacher chaperones, carnation wrist corsages and fruit punch is so 40 years ago. There also are gay and lesbian proms and proms for home-schoolers.

There are couple-free proms so students can go with groups of friends. Even Washington’s nontraditional School Without Walls, which uses “the city as a classroom,” has a prom at a local recreation center, and all 333 students are permitted to attend.

“Aaaah, the girls want to go out and get the gowns,” says Sheila Kingwood, a school spokeswoman. “We’re even having a raffle for a limo.”

Though boys generally are clueless, saving the tuxedo rental until the day of the prom and not telling their mothers they might need a corsage for their date, teenage girls — who spend an average of $700 to $1,000 on the prom, according to PromSpot.com — see the day of primping as their Oscar night.

Saturated by style and fashion magazines, not to mention the Internet, they are more conscious of female glamour than any other generation. In response, spas and salons have begun offering prom packages to teenage girls, which include manicures, pedicures, facials, hair highlights and makeup.

“Prom is the night that every girl dreams of,” writes Keli, a student from Jacksonville, Fla., on one of the prom blogs. “Not only is it a dance, but a time when we all get to experience our own ‘Cinderella story.’”

As a prelude to graduation, the prom has changed drastically from its origin. Once upon a time, back in the 1890s, the word was short for “promenade” a reference to formal dances where young ladies displayed their manners and social skills. The first proms were held in the 1920s and graduated to “theme” parties in gyms with paper streamers and music provided by a local amateur band.

By the 1950s, there were prom kings and queens, usually a cheerleader and her quarterback boyfriend. Famous prom queens include actress Meg Ryan, supermodel Cindy Crawford, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), author Alice Walker and second lady Lynne Cheney.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the prom became what it is today: an often extravagant display of consumerism and a reflection on social status. Buying a used prom gown at Goodwill would send most teenage girls into hyperventilation.

For boys, borrowing Dad’s Lexus is the modern equivalent of getting to drive his Mustang.

Memories of the prom last a lifetime — rose petals pressed in poetry books, faded photos of bad cummerbunds and silly hairdos.

In the end, the prom is a snapshot in time, a night of entering adulthood and leaving behind the past. Or not.

“prom is the night that i will either be at prom dancing w/everyone but the one i love OR it will be the night that i will be making myself feel incredibly stupid, just crying my eyes out, watching stupid, sappy chick flicks, while wishing my prince charming will come riding up on a white horse and carry me away so we can live happily ever after in my dream prom gown

— Rachel (a high-schooler from Delaware, blogging on Promspot.com)

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