An article about over-provocative high school prom dresses in last week’s Wall Street Journal got me reminiscing. Not about my own prom or my children’s; proms are not a part of observant Jewish life. Instead, my memories are of a board game I played as a girl – Barbie, Queen of the Prom. The object of the game was to be the first player to collect everything your Barbie needed for the prom. My memory is a bit fuzzy on exactly what was required, though I do know a date and dress were two essentials. Four people could play and there was quite a bit of competition to get the best boy (Ken, of course – some poor white-haired lad named Poindexter was always last picked) and prettiest dress.
As a child playing the game with my friends, Barbie seemed very mature and sophisticated. Surely, by the time you went to your high school prom, you were grown up! And indeed, when high school proms began to be popular in the 1930’s and1940’s, eighteen year old students were usually mature and responsible. High school prom was often engagement night, especially for young women. The earliest proms were akin to a debutante ball for those not in the upper social echelon; a way for middle-class families to mimic the debutante balls which introduced upper-class daughters to society as women of marriageable age. I may be confusing this with Victorian England, (I have a severely restricted research budget for this Musing) but in the college proms of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s men might have even worn gloves so as not to touch the skin of the young ladies. Those same young men by age eighteen were already, or on the threshold of being, financially responsible for themselves. So at a time when these formal dances were strictly structured and meant as an acknowledgment of one’s grown up status, the participants truly were standing at the entry to adult society.
That is quite different from what goes on today. Certainly, renting hotel rooms after the dance was over was not a feature of much earlier eras. Nor was the expectation that marriage might be a decade, or more, in the future. Today, we take nubile girls and testosterone poisoned boys nowhere near emotional maturity and place them in a romantic milieu, after having immersed them with an education which insists that there is no absolute morality. To me the Journal article highlighting how some schools monitor dresses, even providing pictures showing what skin may be shown and what skin must be covered, seemed quaint. Certainly one can understand the desire of administrators to keep the evening from looking like auditions for Amsterdam’s red light district. But is a dress code anything more than providing a box of Band-Aids to victims of a horrific crash?
As I said, I have no emotional connection to prom. Perhaps I am viewing it through cynical and jaundiced eyes. Does the evening have a value which escapes me? I’d be curious to hear another view from those who still see high school proms as not just an exciting evening (tornadoes can be exciting as well), but also as a beneficial and constructive experience in their children’s lives.