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Extravagant proms of today still rooted in old tradition

Lynne Heffernan and husband Jon Heffernan during prom 1987. Submitted photo.1 / 2
Emily Heffernan and Alex Garceau during prom 2012. Submitted Photo.2 / 2

From the elegant gowns and sharp tuxedos to the matching boutonnieres and corsages, to the Grand March and the dance, prom is full of age-old tradition.

Prom can be traced back to simple co-ed banquets that 19th century universities held for each graduating class, according to Time Magazine. But, the prom we know today began in the 1940s, and it became known as the iconic rite of passage from high school into adulthood in the late ’70s and ’80s. And, while the hairstyles and dress styles may have changed drastically over the years, the overall event still holds true to many of those old traditions.

“I remember buying the garter and the boutonnieres, (attending) the grand march,” said Kristi Skyberg, a hair stylist at The Ultimate Look in Grand Forks, who’s been styling hair for about 25 years.

Friend and fellow stylist Kim Steffen, of Grand Forks, added, “I went to Larimore (N.D) High School, and they did all of that, and they still do.”

What has changed is the extravagance of it all.

“It’s way more of a production,” Skyberg said. “People rent limos and do the whole kit and caboodle…It’s almost like a mini wedding.”

Steffen agreed. “From the hair to the asking, to the preparation of it all, it’s like what people would do for a wedding.”

Thinking back to their senior and junior proms, the two remembered less expensive dresses, simple decorations and stiff hair.

The fashion of it

“My prom dress was $100,” Skyberg said. “It was a bridesmaid dress and why it was white, I have no idea, but it was a white fluffy dress… I remember my mom adding some black ribbon, so it was black and white. I did my own hair; I even had an ugly little comb with flowers in it.”

Steffen said she wore a typical gunny sack dress and went to the salon to have her naturally curly hair straightened but only because she babysat for the hair stylist.

“When we went to prom, we did our own hair because there wasn’t the time or money,” Skyberg said. “A lot of people didn’t do their hair for things like that.”

Now, the women said they’ll have groups of high school girls come in to get their hair done together, and the styles have changed quite a bit.

“You see a lot more movement in the hair now than you did back then,” Steffen said. “We had more ringlets when we were young and a lot of French rolls.”

“Now, it’s braids and twists and even simple buns,” Skyberg added.

Along with the hairstyles, dress styles have changed a bit as well.

When Nancy Zalewski, owner of Kristen’s Bridal, attended prom about 45 years ago, she said the popular look was the gunny sack dress with very high neck lines, bishop sleeves and chiffon.

And, when Lynne Heffernan, of East Grand Forks, attended prom about 30 years ago, she said the dresses were a lot more conservative and poofy.

“Back then, the poofier your dress, the better it was,” she said.

Now, her daughter, Emily, a senior at East Grand Forks Senior High, said the poofy dresses are fading out.

Zalewski said in recent years, the styles have gone from a lot of prints, to more chiffon, to all-sequins. This year, many of the dresses are form-fitting with heavily jeweled bodices and cutout backs.

“The girls are getting more sophisticated and more glamorous, wanting the jeweled bodices and the runway looks,” she said.

Along with the increased extravagance, the dresses are also coming with a higher ticket price. Zalewski said her dresses range from $300 to $800 this year, compared to the $200 designer dress she wore decades ago.

But, it seems there’s even a tradition for saving money on dresses.

Skyberg said girls typically borrow a dress one year and splurge the next. She said, “If you’re a sophomore, maybe look at borrowing. If you’re a junior, maybe spend a little. And, senior year, we’ll fork out a little more.”

 Emily said she did just that. She borrowed a dress her first year. She purchased her second dress online. This year, she and her mom spent $460 on a dress at Alan Evans Bridal in Fargo.

Altered traditions

Along with the gown, one thing that has always been a part of prom tradition is the garter. The girls buy the garter and give it to their date at the end of the night. Emily Heffernan said a few may still hang them from their rearview mirror, but it’s no longer the norm as it was back in the day. Another little change is that the girls don’t get anything in return.

Zalewski said the guys used to give the girls their tie or bowtie, but now most rent their tuxedos and don’t have that option.

The corsage, and matching boutonniere, is another tradition that’s held its place in the favored high school event, only with a slight twist.

“They used to pin them, and now they’re wristlets,” Steffen said.

Rather than a simple pin, a wide range of wristlets are available from simple elastic bands to rhinestone embellished bracelets.

Similarly, the grand march has also gained a little glitz and glam.

Emily Heffernan said each year the juniors pitch different prom themes and the seniors vote for their favorite. This year, the theme is Great Gatsby.

“They decorate the gymnasium separately for it, and it’s always very beautiful,” Lynne Heffernan said.

When Lynne went to prom, she said her grand march was very brief, compared to her daughter’s event.

“We used to just walk up a few steps and walk down a few steps,” she said. “For theirs, they walk through the whole gym. The grand march and the decorations have come a long way since I was in school.”

The proposal

And, there’s a new tradition that comes before all the other prom preparation and planning — the prom-posal.

“They go all out now, they don’t just ask you, it has to be some sort of an ordeal,” Lynne Heffernan said. “When I went, they used a telephone … and called your house, or just asked you in school.”

But, in just the last four to five years, Skyberg and Steffen said the students have started asking each other to prom in creative ways, making it seem even more like a wedding. Sometimes, the prom-posal involves a cake or cupcakes; sometimes it involves balloons; other times it involves a special activity. But, the options are seemingly endless.

“This year, I’m going to prom with a good friend,” Emily said. “And he left a box on my front step, and it said ‘I’ll go to prom with you when pigs fly.’”

She opened the box to a couple of pink helium balloons with pig faces and a note that read, “What a coincidence, pigs actually do fly.”

Steffen’s daughter was asked to prom with balloons as well. But, hers were stuffed in her bedroom.

“She came home to three balloons on her door, and when she opened her bedroom door, her room was solid balloons with ‘Prom?’ written on them,” Steffen said. “I think he hauled in 26, 27 big hefty bags.”

Others are going with more lengthy prom-posals that involve collecting puzzle pieces throughout the day or completing a scavenger hunt.

“I think the girls are a little bit disappointed if the guys aren’t a little bit creative in their asking,” Skyberg said. “The girls expect it, and the guys are just trying to fill in.”

While the prom-posals and extravagance of prom might be new, Skyberg said the overall event hasn’t changed a whole lot.

“The excitement has always been there,” Lynne Heffernan said. “They just put a lot more into it than we used to.”

Jasmine Maki
Jasmine Maki is a features reporter for Accent. Her main beats are arts and entertainment and life and style. She also occasionally covers health, family and TV.
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