Gen Z Does Prom Totally Different Than You Remember It

For a generation that doesn't care about norms, their version of prom sure looks like an over-the-top dating show.

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If you’re a parent who has a child that may attend prom one day, I want to warn you: Prom is not what it was in the 90s. I had lunch with a friend last week and we both have daughters who are seniors in high school. I felt her pain when she said, “My daughter wants a wedding dress. For prom.” And she’s not alone, either.

I don’t know about you, but my prom dress was a cute little number I got at a department store on the clearance rack. It was purchased a few weeks before prom. And while it was a nice dress and I liked the way I looked that night, I never wore it again and have no idea where it is. If I had told my mother I needed a wedding dress for prom, she would have laughed into her can of Tab and told me to be serious.

It’s all very, very different now.

Nowadays, kids feel the need to have the dress before Christmas, regardless of whether they have a date or not. Teens are searching for the dress as soon as their senior year starts. Many of them start saving in advance so they can afford their dream outfit, while others find dreamy thrift store dresses.

Some spend hundreds, buying bridesmaids' dresses or even wedding dresses from places like David’s Bridal or their local bridal shop. Other teens get a great bargain on a dress from Amazon. My daughter is over-the-moon about a long, black number we found at the mall — yes, Gen Z still goes to the mall occasionally — for less than $50. There’s not one “look” or fashion that dominates: kids can opt for flowy, fairytale styles or the little classic black dress, and you can never go wrong with a sleek silhouette. It’s not as simple as chasing designer labels, either. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter as much where they get their dress or how much they spend, as long as one thing is done as soon as they lock their outfit down: A picture must be posted on all social media channels to announce they have the dress, the most important reason being to make sure no one gets the same one.

When I bought my prom dress, the lady working there took down my name and the school I went to as a way to try and make sure no one from my school got the same dress. It was common practice in the early ‘90s but guess what? It didn’t work. Another girl from my school showed up in the exact same dress and somehow, neither of us was traumatized or even the least bit upset. In fact, we took a picture together documenting the moment. But today, it’s absolutely crucial to teens that they stand out and show their unique style. My daughter didn’t want to stuff herself into a big pile of tulle that didn’t feel like “her” — but she wanted something. Something that felt right. Our teens want their moment.

It’s also rare for kids these days to simply ask someone to prom. I remember my prom date called me one night in April and asked me over the phone. I stood there wrapped in a pink towel and a shower cap and said, “Sure, that will be fun.” Then, he mentioned we should go on a triple date with a few of our friends and we hung up the phone.

Today, there’s an entirely different protocol, which I’m sure you’ve heard about in recent years. Enter the promposal. It’s not enough to call someone over the phone and ask them to prom. Even if you are in a relationship, you are going to ask them in front of as many people as possible. The whole thing has serious Bachelor vibes. You make signs, you get balloons, and you try and get some kind of microphone. It may involve getting down on one knee. The promposal might happen in the lunchroom, after a basketball game, on the football field, or in the parking lot before school. Oh, and somebody is recording this whole scene so they can post it on social media later.

My son once saw someone being asked to prom on the football field at half-time — yes, it was in the fall, despite the fact that prom is in the spring. It didn’t end there, either: The girl’s car was also filled with balloons and flowers.

If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking, This is out of control! I’m right there with you. I don’t care how old-fashioned and cringy I sound. I think the promposals are ridiculous. It’s so much pressure.

Of course, prom night doesn’t stop at the dress and the over-the-top invite. Oh no, we are only getting started. There are kids who rent out party buses, go out for lavish dinners, show up to prom for a short amount of time, and then stay in a hotel room for the evening or weekend.

When I went to prom we made a plan to get Chinese food first and then show up to prom late because that was cool then. Then I slept on the floor at a friend's house. There were no hotel rentals or party buses.

Well, I refuse to partake in the prom madness. I don't care how old it makes me look. You will not find me shelling out hundreds of dollars so my son can ask someone to prom with balloons and flowers. I will not convince him he needs to ask someone in front of a crowd or put on a production. And I will not make my daughter think that’s how she should be asked to prom. I will not buy a wedding dress for prom, but I am more than happy to buy my daughter a reasonably-priced dress. My kids are more than welcome to spend their own money on whatever they want and ask someone to prom in a way that feels comfortable to them.

If they ask, I will tell them my thoughts on all these new prom traditions, and remind them they don't need to feel less than if they don’t want to partake or they don’t get a promposal. I want them to enjoy their prom, and all other social occasions, in a way that feels organic to them.

Because honestly, no one is going to say, “That kid was really nice but they never asked anyone to prom in an epic way.”

Diana Park is a writer who finds solitude in a good book, the ocean, and eating fast food with her kids.

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