The Prom, Gen X Style

by Nicole Johnson
Originally Published: 
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When we were teenagers, prom night felt like the most important night of our lives. It was something we’d looked forward to all through high school. We dreamed of the dress we’d wear, the boy we’d go with, and the after-party. We hoped the right guy would ask us so we wouldn’t have to ask him. Prayers for perfect hair and makeup were whispered as the day neared. We practiced Footloose dance moves in the mirror and dreamed of the big night.

There was so much planning to do. The dress-hunting trip at the local mall often turned into a battle of wills between mother and daughter. We wanted off-the-shoulder, lace, or sequins in bright pinks and blues, sparkle and flair. Our mothers picked dowdy, demure dresses we wouldn’t even consider. The disagreement would escalate as our mothers threatened not to pay, and we offered, in a show of equal parts rebellion and independence, to use all of our hard-earned babysitting money to buy the dress ourselves.

Usually, by the time it came to picking out matching shoes, we’d declared a truce. The only non-negotiable thing about shoes was that they had to be dyeable. A swatch from the dress ensured the perfect match. Shoes had pointed toes and thin high heels. We practiced walking in them in front of our full-length mirrors in the days and weeks before prom.


Hair, whether hot-rolled, pulled into a twist, or crimped, had to be high. We teased it. We pinned it. We sprayed it. Aqua Net or Bold Hold and no less than 65 bobby pins held our creations in place. Sometimes a fancy rhinestone or beaded hair pin and blonde highlights completed the look, which often took hours.

Makeup was next. Blue and pink eyeshadows, dark eyeliners and pale lipsticks in corals and pastels were applied with a heavy hand. A spritz (or half a bottle) of our favorite scent completed our style. Love’s Baby Soft, anyone? Or perhaps some Obsession?

On the night of, our parents all came together at a designated spot and took too many pictures and offered unsolicited compliments and ominous warnings. Fathers slipped sons extra cash, and we waited as our dates pinned matching corsages to our dresses or slipped the white elastic around our wrists. The flowers always matched or complimented the cummerbund and bow tie that, of course, perfectly matched our dress. It was absolutely critical that we had given this color information to our date before he went out and rented his tux.

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The limo we rented with a group of friends was driven by a guy who wore a black chauffeur’s cap and a tux. He always seemed so old and out of touch, though we secretly felt important when he opened the door for us. Inside the limo, we snuck drinks, rolled up the glass partition, and listened to our favorite hair bands while we drove by our favorite hangouts before heading to prom.

Prom was held either at the high school gym, which would have been decked out with streamers and colored table cloths, or a rented banquet hall. The dance was usually themed and often based on a big song or movie from that year. When we walked in, we would be greeted by chaperones who were there to ensure we didn’t drink or leave the prom. It was odd to see our teachers and the administration dressed in gowns and suits—the kind our own mothers wished we would have picked out.

Refreshments were punches, sodas, and mixed non-alcoholic drinks. Dinner was usually nibbled on in between dances. We’d slip off to the bathroom to fix our makeup or talk with friends about our dates and how far we might go with them at the end of the night.

Then it was time for pictures outside of the hall or gym, more dancing, and crowning of the prom queen and king and their court. As we danced to the final song of the night, we began to realize that this would be one of our last nights together as high school kids. There were smiles, laughter, and even a few tears as we took pictures with cameras borrowed from parents. Someone won the centerpiece, a gaudy floral arrangement or something that went with the theme, and we all loaded back into our limos with smudged makeup and our date’s tux coat thrown over our shoulders.

The final stop of the night was either a local hangout, where we did our best to keep it quiet so the cops wouldn’t make an appearance, a friend’s house where the cool parents let us drink and took our keys ensuring that we wouldn’t leave until morning, or a hotel room rented for us by an older sibling or one of our group who was over 18. At our after-party, we waxed nostalgic about the four years we’d just survived and knew we’d miss. We drank, we made-out with dates, and we did our best to stay up all night so we wouldn’t miss one single moment.

Prom will always stick out as one of the most memorable nights of our teenage lives. When we look back now, it is with fondness and love. Oh, and maybe with a bit of wincing at the questionable fashion choices and too-tall hair.


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