May 9, 2014
By: Katie Egan


Flash back six decades to the “nifty ’50s” when prom was The Event for high school seniors.

Not only was it their first adult social event, but they even got to take the family car out after dark.

Have things changed much?

Some historians believe the concept of prom might have existed as early as the late 1800s, but pictures of the big dance weren’t included in high school yearbooks until the 1940s.

Prom was originally reserved for college students and modeled after debutante balls popular in the South. Back then, no one knew it would become a high school phenomenon, change social norms and inspire blockbuster movie hits such as “Pretty in Pink.”

First, the ’50s

Starting in the 1950s, girls’ dresses really began to matter. And fabric shoes were dyed to match.

In previous decades, the big dance was held in school gyms or cafeterias, but the Post-World War II era saw a shift to more sophisticated venues.

Naples resident Elaine Cawley’s 1953 prom at the Lake Shore County Club in Shaker Heights, Ohio, was an all-weekend affair complete with a parade around the football field.

“It took us forever to make the float,” Cawley said. “Life-size lions revolving on a green-and-white carousel proved to be a winning combination for the seniors, and we later won the float contest, which really put us on the map.”

There was another thrill for Cawley: She won prom queen that year. She recalls her dress, too — a white, strapless tulle dress with ice blue trim.

Gwen Johnson-Meadows’ 1958 prom was at the Palmer House ballroom in downtown Chicago. But before that, the Naples resident’s date, Mike, had to meet her parents. They dined at the London House with entertainment from the one and only Nina Simone. She received a wrist corsage she wore with long white gloves.

She recalls he had on a white tuxedo jacket and her dress was pale green and strapless with a full skirt overlaid in yards of tulle, part of the poufy-dress trend.

“Even now, many years later, I remember it as a very magical night,” Johnson-Meadows said.

’60s SUAVE

In the 1960s, however, dresses became longer, sleeker and more fluid.

Yvonne Lindstrom-Sullivan went to two of her Superior, Wisconsin, proms in 1968 and ’69, and donned her sister’s floor-length dress.

“I wore the same floor-length dress to both of them, but luckily it was with two different guys,” Lindstrom-Sullivan said. “My older sister had worn the same dress two years before me. I didn’t care, except looking back on it now, I was 5 feet, 7 inches and she was 5-4. I must not have realized the ‘floor length’ dress was a bit shorter on me.”

And she remembers the music, too.

“The song of the night for our dance was ‘Unchained Melody’ by the Righteous Brothers,” Lindstrom-Sullivan said. “I remember slow dancing to that song to this day and just thinking about it brings back so many fond memories.”

The ‘70s AND ‘80s

The disco decade focused less on elegance and more on casual style.

Judy Weston borrowed her “Gone with the Wind”-style blue dress from her best friend for her 1978 prom in Kentucky.

“On our big night the decorations had all the trappings you would expect,” Weston said. “There was a disco mirror ball that hung from the ceiling, shimmering chandeliers, a large punch bowl filled with something sweet and ornate flower arrangements that dotted the tables.” Her prom song: “Always and Forever” by Heatwave.

“This timeless melody when heard now on a light rock station gives me pause each time,” she wrote in an email about her prom memories.

In the 1980s, prom was back in the spotlight and immortalized in classic movies like “Pretty in Pink” and, in a less favorable light, in “Carrie.” The consumer market push brought more spending on limousines, expensive dresses and luxury hotels for the event.

By now dresses were both short and long, but they almost always included shoulder pads, sweetheart necklines and bright colors.

By the late ‘80s, white jackets were out and traditional black was back in. Men either wore white dress shirts underneath their suit jackets or light blue or green shirts with front ruffles. Baggy pants were traded in for more fitted styles.

By the end of the decade, the bright colors were upgraded to bold statement pieces. Shoulder pads were officially a thing of the past, young women showed more skin and curls were piled high onto teen girls’ heads for a more sophisticated look.

Return to elegance

In 2000, Oscar-esque dresses became popular long, column shapes with a movie-star elegance. So did two-piece gowns.

In 2014, the Oscar dress look-alike will still prevail — but at a much heftier price tag.

In fact, according to PR Newswire, American families who have teenagers will spend an average of $1,078 each on the prom, a 33.6 percent boost over the mere $807 spent in 2011. This includes the dress, hair extensions, nails, makeup, limo — “the works.”

“The cost is a big reason a lot of kids don’t go to prom,” said Joann Cassio, American government and economics instructor and senior class sponsor at Lorenzo Walker Technical High School. “But they don’t have to spend $400 to $500 and they don’t need a Hummer limo.”

But some cannot resist the allure of a shiny new dress.

“The five must-have ideas for Prom 2014 include long gowns, shine on using beads and sequins to sparkle, appliqués or soutache to create a 3D extravaganza and either shades of pink or shades of blue,” Macy’s VP/Fashion Director, Josh Saterman, said.

Dot Auchmoody, director of costume designs for the Naples Players, says she wants to see more men take center stage at this year’s prom.

“At the Oscars you saw men in white dinner jackets or navy tuxedos,” Auchmoody said. “I wish the men didn’t think dressing nicely and taking risks took away from being masculine.”

Cassio says the men picked out brown and beige suits for Lorenzo Walker Technical High School’s fifth annual Prom Expo and “they looked absolutely gorgeous.” She also says corsages and flowers are a thing of the past.

“The guys were asking ‘Why flowers?’” Cassio said. “They had no idea.”

The girls, who picked out their dresses from Udene’s Bridal Shop, 340 9th St. S., Naples, chose red, black and white dresses that Cassio says were “very interesting.”

“They had a really sexy form — low cut in the front and the back.”

Hair was either curly or worn in an up do, and the skinnier the heel, the better.

But finding your dress or choosing how to style your hair should be the least of teenage girls’ worries. Auchmoody says she wishes more girls would take pride in their bodies and not let prom make them focus on insecurities. After all, prom is meant to be a time for celebration.

“It’s the hardest thing in the world to have your own sense of style and not be afraid of how you look,” she said.

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