School prom season is here again and with it the now familiar cries of “how much?”, as soon as the price of a prom dress or limousine hire or pre-tanning or a hair and make-up session is mentioned.
Two years ago, it was estimated that the average cost of a prom dress was £220, with UK parents collectively spending around £90m a year on their offspring’s prom experience. I strongly suspect those figures have increased even since then.
I first started writing about prom perhaps 12 years ago, as a concept borrowed from the US (thanks, Hannah Montana and High School Musical), replacing the old-school disco as a grander, more organised and slightly more glamorous passing out party to mark the end of school. Back then, it was all a bit of fun – glitzy dresses and new suits from the high street, a chance to experiment with your hair and make-up, a tiny hope that you might get your Hermione moment, as she appeared on the Hogwarts staircase, transformed, pretty in pink, class-mates suitably gobsmacked, at the Yule Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Because even brainboxes want to be a princess, if only for a night.
But then it all got serious. Reality TV introduced some highly unreal notions of what girls (and boys) should look like and Instagram came along to perpetuate those myths and give teens their very own interactive photo gallery, so they could post pictures of themselves looking like models and then compare them with similar ones from their friends and a bunch of supermodel celebrities and influencers. If you’re 16, the school prom is the ultimate Instagrammable event, your real-life red carpet, with no filters. And you want to turn heads for all the right reasons, no matter how much or little you spend.
Has it all got too much? Probably, especially for the Year 11 prom (from my experience, Year 13s care less about looking fabulous, more about having fun and alcohol). The smell of fake tan at assembly on prom morning is, I’m told, overpowering.
But I can’t help thinking that there is something wonderful about all the care these youngsters take. Many have been class-mates since primary school or even nursery. By assembling in this way – their own way, plunging gowns, limousines, hair extensions, fake tans, comedy ties and waistcoats – they mark their rite of passage and show their respect for each other, their school and their teachers. It’s touching. It’s important. It’s saying goodbye to childhood and facing their future with confidence – and a knockout dress or suit.
So good luck to all this year’s prom stars. It’s your time to shine, and you deserve it.