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Prom magazine cover.

Prom has become a significant commercial industry, with young partygoers spending $150 to $500 each on the big night.

Prom night: The U's Karal Ann Marling weighs in on individuality, culture, and c

The U's Karal Ann Marling weighs in on individuality, culture, and clothes

By Martha Coventry

All over town these spring Saturday evenings, stretch limos glide through the streets by the dozens. Inside their dimly lit interiors are scores of young men and women--boutonniered, straplessed, cummerbunded, and corsaged--yearning for nothing less than a perfect night.

It's prom time and that night of wonder "anticipates all the perils and pleasures of adulthood, including sex, alcohol, speed, and difficult choices. And greasers, geeks, freaks, and weirdos are always welcome under the canopy of crepe paper streamers," writes U art history professor Karal Ann Marling in her new book Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom.

According to Marling's book, prom gets its name from the French promenade, the grand march that still takes place in high school gyms all over the country, the promgoers parading before throngs of admiring onlookers like the starlets stepping out of their cars at the Academy Awards, flashing their beauty to the crowds.

Prom is the chance to be glamorous for a night, dress-up made real. These days you can go alone or in groups, with your boyfriend (even if you're a boy), or your girlfriend (even if you're a girl). Prom can be the stuff of legends or heartbreak, and it has the power to take hold in our consciousness and stick around for the better part of our lives.

We asked Marling--culture critic and resident prom expert--to talk about America's most enduring teen ritual:

Is the high school prom as popular as ever?

Oh, yes. I don't think there's too much doubt about that. When whole stores like Glitz and temporary prom shops begin opening at Mall of America, one can hardly overlook the fact that prom is massively popular.

With all the things our country has gone through over the many decades prom has been around, why does the power of this night continue to endure?

I think prom has actually gotten more popular than it used to be. It's part of a whole sort of revised self-definition that young people, particularly, are undergoing. I was doing a radio show recently and we were talking about the whole idea of personalization--people have weird phone-ringing sounds [based on the individual caller] and the fact that you can't buy a purse these days unless it has an initial on it. I was saying that I think there's a lot of insecurity about, and interest in, establishing a personal identity in a culture that has become increasingly 1984ish. We feel kind of powerless politically--certainly many of my students do, as though nothing they say will alter the situation one little bit--and they're starting to feel that they're numbers and not faces or people. And this leads to a great desire to express individuality. I think that is a lot of what prom is about.

Now days we have services where you register your prom dresses so yours won't be like anybody else's. For girls, expressing individuality has never been much of a problem because everybody has always wanted a dress that's different from everybody else's, but what's amazing is the growth of a sort of dandyism among young boys--matching their tuxedos to their date's dresses, or picking out mad touches of their own, like wearing a tuxedo with a cowboy hat. When they have the grand marches, the boys show off in the way they walk and their gestures to the crowd as much as the girls ever did. And of course they're the ones who are responsible for the transportation, and that's led to the big jump in, for example, Hummer limousines. Boy toys.

This has been a gradual change, but an important one. Whereas school boards of education and parents used to pretty much control what went on at prom, things have really changed so the students have taken charge of creating their own identities. By and large, the parents still pay the bill and hope their daughters don't get pregnant.

Do you think prom will ever change much?

I don't know what possible changes it could go through. It's basically the same structure today as it was 20 years ago--going out to dinner, having a nice dress, going in a fancy car, flowers, dancing the night away, and then going to after-parties--only more so.