Friday, May 6, 2011

The PROMulgation of the PROMise of PROMpt PROMiscuity.

Chapter 13
Have you guessed? Yes, it's The Prom, the end-of-high-school formal to-do that assures its young participants it is to be the end-all and be-all of their entire lives. Except it isn't.

(This is to be distinguished from the British The Proms, which is something else entirely.)

The Prom in its current form is practiced, in some form, in most countries, the world over. Originally an American event, the "Promenade" (thus the name) began in the Northeast college scene. The earliest reference to a "Prom" was in 1894 at Smith College, and was more than likely an offshoot of the old debutante balls, and a celebration for the graduating class. It was taken up by the secondary schools by the turn of the century, and filtered down to not merely the graduating senior class, but the junior and sophomore classes as well.

In the early years, proms were reflections of the Edwardian times for middle-class youngsters: well-chaperoned socializing and light refreshment in the afternoon. Clothing was nice, but not formal: boys wore their Sunday best, and girls wore one of their nicer dresses.

As the tradition extended through the 1930s, relaxed standards, (brought about by such consciousness-expanding developments like radio and the automobile,) changed the focus of the prom somewhat, into an evening banquet with a dance/party atmosphere.

Postwar lads, 1950.

Prom couple, 1950.
The economic postwar boom in the 1950s brought with it ever-more-elaborate settings and venues. Girls started to save for special prom dresses, and the prom court took on an ever-more important social gravitas. Music had progressed through the string quartets and swing bands of previous decades, and the dancing was just as likely to be to an amplified hi-fi phonograph, as it was to be a live jazz or rock-n-roll combo.

Prom couple, 1960.
The 60's and '70s were slack years for proms; economic depression, the Vietnam war, and disgruntled youth protesting everything they considered to be "Establishment" took its toll. The prom pulled back from the ballroom, into the crepe-paper-draped gymnasiums of forty years previous. The music was guitar rock and disco, the dresses were piles of frills to match the hair. And the tuxes were pastel aberrations with lapels out to the shoulders and broadly frilled shirts, as if in rebellion of actual, sedate, adult formal wear. But by the 1980s, the damage had been done.

Prom couple, 1970.
The economic boom of the '80s brought back prom excesses on the heels of the fashion horror of the '70s. Factor in a series of youth-oriented movies that exalted the prom to near mythic status, and the result was a catastrophic explosion of neon colors, zebra patterns and checks, and hair-out-to-there that mimicked the styles on the silver screen.

Prom lads, 1980.
The problem isn't the clothes, of course; it's the nature of the beast itself. The original concept of the Promenade is long-lost. It could be argued that the nature of the prom was dulled, as soon as it made the transition from colleges to high schools. When children were taught the nature of formal interactions between the sexes from a young age, a college promenade could be a successful event -- but the maturity level of most high school students is not developed enough to permit a truly formal experience.

Prom lads, 2010.
After decades of being taught nothing along the lines of formal male-female interaction, the prom today has devolved into an embarrassing farce. Hypersexualized children are thrown into a situation where they are expected to behave like adults, with no prior instruction on how to act, how to dance, or how to dress. The result is ritualized orgy; where adults look the other way and pretend little Susie and Johnny are all grown up, and are shocked --shocked!-- when it is learned that little Susie and Johnny spent the evening grinding their pelvi together, followed by an "after-prom" of heavy drinking, experimental drug use, hotel rentals, and uncertain, fumbling sex. And the ritual continues, year after year after year.

If you are the parent of a prom-age tadpole, or are a tadpole yourself, there are a few pointers I feel compelled to share with you -- ignore them at your peril. Follow them, and you will have a much better time than if you don't. I guarantee it.

First: You have heard that the Senior Prom is the high point of your life. You will form memories to last a lifetime, blah blah blah. Don't believe a word of it. Your school is selling tickets to the prom to make money off of you, because you are stupid and impressionable. Life is long, and high school is short. Your college memories and friendships will overshadow everything you'd ever amassed in high school, and those years will all too soon become a dim and hazy memory. (Oh, and there's no "permanent record" in your file, either. Colleges couldn't care less how many times you were late for English class in 9th grade.)

Second: You will probably hear your prom called a "formal" at some point. It isn't formal, in any capacity. No one there will treat their date formally, dance formally, or dress formally. What it is, is adolescents playing dress-up and pretending to be adults for a night, like children who have tea parties with their stuffed animals. It is a party: what the English call a "fancy dress" ball. What you are wearing, is a costume. It isn't a Tuxedo in any sense of the word, so don't ever, ever call it that. If you want to treat your prom as just a party where everyone dresses silly, go ahead. But it isn't a "formal" anything.

Third: You aren't fooling anyone with "after-prom" activities that last until four in the morning. There's only one "after-prom activity" that lasts until four in the morning, and we all know what it is. If you want to retain any thread of self-respect and integrity, (and you're too young to know it yet, but you do,) you will be home after the prom is over, young man. And if you let your sons or daughters stay out 'til four in the morning, you're a tool. Get over it.

So, let's say you are one of the few who want to get (or want their sons to get) the most out of the prom experience. Certain things will always be a compromise: you can't change the other people who will be there, the venue itself, or (most telling) the type of music and dancing chosen for the event. What you can do, involves yourself, your date, and your attire.

Step out of costume and into grown-up formals. Specifically, Semi-Formal Eveningwear, also called Black Tie, Tuxedo, or a Dinner Suit. This is technically a dinner, not a dance, so don't try to wear anything close to a tailcoat, which is a different animal altogether and doesn't belong here.

Rule One: do not ever match your date's dress. Period. This has always been a cutesey prom standard. Is it so that after everyone has had too much to drink, they can find their dates by matching colors? No, it's because adolescent boys want to be the center of attention. They want to be splashy peacocks, they want to be noticed as much as the girls are, or else they get jealous. True formal wear for men does not involve color. No colored ties, vests, or cummerbunds. As children, you probably will not have access to custom-tailored formal wear, and will have to rent for the evening.

Keep the classic rules for black-tie in mind, and deviate from them as little as possible. Excellence is in the details, not in the flash.

Henry Poole & Co.:
inventors of the Tuxedo
The short evening jacket, or Tuxedo, or dinner jacket, is a very specific animal. It was invented by Henry Poole & Co. of London in 1860, and got its name after having been worn in the Tuxedo Park Club in NewYork in 1886. It should be of midnight blue or jet black wool, completely matte, with no sheen at all. The lapels should be peaked, well-shaped, and completely faced with black grosgrain silk right to the edge. It can be single breasted (one button only) or double breasted, and should fit as well as absolutely possible. The cream-colored tropical dinner jacket is often seen, but is not technically correct for this venue. Wrong time of year, unless you are really in the tropics. The jacket should never be removed. Double-breasted should never be worn unbuttoned; single breasted should never be worn buttoned.

The tie should be a self-tie bow (no cheating!) of grosgrain silk to match the lapels. Absolutely no long ties.

The trousers should be of high waist, of the same material as the coat, with a single black grosgrain stripe down the outside seam, and should be exactly fitted to length.

Shoes should ideally be black patent-leather plain toe balmorals with no decoration and flat silk laces.

The waist of the trousers should never be seen: with a single-breasted jacket, either a black cummerbund, or waistcoat in any style of black or white, must be worn. The shirt should be white, crisply starched, with a fold collar. Pleated shirts are a bit passé. Yes, I know you want to wear a wing collar, but it's not strictly correct for black tie. (Save your wing collar dreams until you can do it right, please, with a proper detachable collar and stiff-bosom shirt. You'll be glad you waited.)

If you must wear a hat, a black homburg is most correct...but you won't be wearing it indoors anyway.

Walking sticks, capes, top hats, and other silliness have no place with black tie. White tie, maybe, but this isn't that, and don't pretend it is. Keep accessories and jewelry to a minimum: shirt studs and cuff links. No wristwatches. (If you have a pocketwatch with a tasteful chain, now's the time to use it.) Pocket squares should be white linen. A small single boutonniere of dark crimson or dark blue, if worn, should be the only color on your person at all.

The purpose of evening wear is to not stand out, and by doing so, to make your date stand out all the more. Events like this, "formal" or not, are all about making your date the star and center of attention all evening. Is it fair? No. Is it chauvinistic and archaic? Yes.  Does she deserve all the attention? Probably not. Is it awkward and uncomfortable for an adolescent? You bet. But you wanted to play like the big boys, so suck it up and get with the program.

This doesn't mean you get the evening off: it does mean you get to work hard all night and get no recognition for it. You have to be witty, charming, aloof, respectful, and obeisant as the circumstances allow, all with the end goal of making your date appear perfect. The old saying, "treat every woman as if you loved her, and every man as if he bored you," is a good adage to keep as a buffer between your brain and your mouth. You must look irreproachable, so as to take nothing away from your date.

A real limo: this Rolls Sedanca de Ville
has an open chauffer's compartment
It's popular nowadays for a gaggle of giggling children to pool their parents' money and buy a 20-person stretch limousine. That, my friends, is not a limousine. That is a bus. A low, cramped, awkward bus. If you are to do this right, that is, treat your date as if she is someone special, and not someone on public transportation, you will be better off driving her yourself, if your event has valet parking, and if not, rent a proper limo: chauffeured, division-window luxury transportation for two. If you can find a rental service that has vintage autos in its livery, especially Rolls-Royces, you are set.

Another real limo: Rolls Landaulette
has an open passenger compartment
Do all the things you've heard of: hold the door. Stand up when she does. Hold her chair. Take her wrap. Proffer your arm. Better still, read a vintage copy of Emily Post's Etiquette online and brush up on the basics.

After all this pregame preparation, you may notice that the evening will seem a bit shallow to you. The hooting masses in their underlit Humvees, baby-blue suits matching the baby-blue miniskirts and stiletto heels, might seem a tad crass now. You just might find a more pleasurable evening leaving the boozy crowd behind, and motoring self and date to a nice restaurant instead. And then, you'll find yourself ahead of the game, by several years, over your peers. And that will be a memory that'll last awhile.
Disclaimer: This post contains images of prompersons of yore. I don't know any of these folk personally, but I'm sure they were all fine upstanding young people who had a grand time at their prom. I mean them no inadvertent disrespect by using their images of really embarrassing sartorial choices. I hope it's taken in fun, but if one of these is your image and you are offended, let me know and down it comes!

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