What’s The Point Of A Prom?

The British prom - a relatively new phenomenon - costs some parents nearly as much as a small wedding in an effort to give their teens the night of their lives. Is this because they'd have willingly swapped their 1980s' New Romantic record collection for the same opportunity to glam it up?

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british prom

A mother of modest means looked me in the eye the other day and told me she had spent £400 on her 16-year-old daughter’s prom dress.

I’m hoping to marry for the second time in the not too-distant future and my entire outfit budget is half that sum. However, £400 was only the start of this ludicrous spreadsheet: £40 for a full set of nails, £65 for hair, £30 for a make-up artist. Oh, and the limo. And the corsage. And the spray tan.

By the time she had finished reeling off the costs, I swear I could have paid for a full wedding and a brief honeymoon. I began to wonder if all this indulgence represented more than maternal pride in a pretty daughter; was she trying to recreate her own lost youth, or draw it better with bronzer and glitter dust?

Such an event has the “prom” turned into.

From its origins as a rite of passage for American High School seniors, fuelled by the likes of Glee and Hannah Montana, it’s become an excuse to celebrate for British teenagers.

It’s hard to appear carefree when your best friend isn’t talking to you because you look thinner than her

It’s said that at least 85 per cent of schools now hold a leavers’ event of some kind. And this part of June is prime prom season.

It’s my son Jack’s prom this week at a local hotel.

And no, we haven’t spent even near £400. His skinny-cut suit was £87 from a high-street fashion store, he’s borrowing the shirt and shoes from his step-father, and his sunglasses cost £2.

For Jack, it’s just a party.

For me, it’s a chance to see him at least look a little like the man he will become. The photos will show him and his friends fooling around, a band of brothers.

You won’t find the same reckless joie de vivre with the girls; it’s hard to appear carefree when your false eyelashes make you squint and your best friend isn’t talking to you because you look thinner than her.

It’s all so competitive.

By the time most British teenagers reach 18, they’re down the pub. At least it’s cheaper

Scarily, primary schools are getting in on the act too – my daughter’s Year 6 dress last year cost £40, and I did her hair – but a UK prom is generally held at the end of Year 11 rather than two years afterwards.

By the time most British teenagers reach 18, they’re down the pub. At least it’s cheaper.

Celebrate what though? The end of what are widely-held to have been the toughest GCSE exams ever, thanks to the zealous reforms of former Education Secretary Michael Gove? Or the great British tradition of papering over the cracks by putting on a bit of a do?

For all their glittery £40 nails and up-done hair, how many of these girls will be sobbing come August when their GCSE results fail to meet their expectations? School will then be something to blame for the rest of their life, rather than a joyful memory.

But actually, a prom is not about school in any academic sense. For girls at least, it’s like a communal coming-out ball. You know, those formal social affairs involving white gloves, lots of curtseying and pushy mothers foisting their debutante daughters on peers of the realm.

Our dear Queen Elizabeth abolished that particular upper-class tradition in 1958, but the idea of marking the transition to adulthood has taken hold in a most democratic manner.

I would have given my Depeche Mode 12-inch collection to have been swanning around in a long frock

In some ways, this is good.

I wouldn’t wish my own 1980s leavers’ disco on any teenager. Held under the glaring strip-lights of the assembly hall, all the better to highlight our spots, it consisted of boys and girls clinging to opposite walls, with a table of “dilute pop” and crisps at one end guarded by perspiring teachers.

After half an hour of this circle of hell, my friend Anne and I made a run for it. My last memory of secondary school is eating chips sat on a wall, wondering if this was it.

No chocolate fountain. No cascading punch or amuses bouches. It was grim.

At 16, I would have given my Depeche Mode 12-inch collection to have been swanning around in a long frock, trailing designer fragrance through some swanky hotel.

However, I suspect that those chips and that wall did prepare me rather better for real life.

Jayne Dowle
She's been a magazine editor, a news editor and a music journalist, but Jayne Dowle now writes mostly about how we live, where we live and how we used to live. You'll find her work in The Times, The Sunday Times, Grand Designs, House Beautiful and The Yorkshire Post. Her own home is in Barnsley, South Yorkshire where she lives with her family.