Prom Gown Blues

This week’s writing class assignment was to write a memoir piece about a time you did something you didn’t want to do or you wore something you didn’t want to wear.  I have been shopping with my daughter for a prom dress, which brought back the awful memory of my first prom dress.

My first prom dress may not have been the ugliest dress ever, but you would be hard-pressed to find another gown so awful. The early 1970’s were a style backwater, a fashion wasteland wedged between the mod fashions of the 1960’s and the polyester revolution of the 1980’s disco craze. Even so, my mother managed to find a stand-out example of unattractiveness. I still have the painful photographic proof of that gown: floor length polyester the color of the popular blue eye shadow of the day, long-sleeves that ended in white cuffs that stretched from wrist to mid-forearm, and an enormous white square collar that the Puritans had made fashionable in the 1600’s. The empire waist and ties accentuated my adolescent plumpness.

This was not the dress of my adolescent fantasies in the age of dresses inspired by rock’s fairy queen, Stevie Nicks and British designer Laura Ashley. Some classmates were wearing muslin Gunne Sax floor-length dresses with leg o’ mutton sleeves and tiny floral prints.  The more daring wore sleeveless gowns of shiny satin in bright bubblegum colors, with thin shoulder straps, trimmed with enormous bows at the hip and short sheer chiffon capes that covered their shoulders.

The occasion was the senior prom at a Catholic boys’ prep school, the brother school to my Catholic girls’ academy.  I was only a sophomore but I was the date of a friend’s older brother, a tall gangly boy with gleaming braces and rectangular wire-frame glasses.   Bob was soon to graduate and leave to major in engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.   Hard to believe that he didn’t have a steady girlfriend and needed his sister to fix him up with a date.  That was how things were done:  Mercy girls and Chaminade boys were often paired up when dates were needed.

Armed with the spring issue of Seventeen, I had pictures of my dream dress:  floating white muslin, sheer long sleeves, lace trim at the cuffs and high collar. Unfortunately, that dress cost $50, an impossible sum. I shopped with my mother for several weeks before she discovered the dress. Why was it my mother’s choice? Well, I was just 16 without any source of income, I was a dutiful daughter, and my mother was (a) conservative and (b) frugal.

This prom dress satisfied her requirements.  It was modest, covering all of me, leaving only my face exposed. (If the burka had been available in suburban Long Island  in the 1970s, my mother would have bought me one.) The dress was on the clearance rack at Best & Co., a store known for its superior quality and expensive clothing.  Of course it was on clearance-no other high school girl would choose it. It was on sale for $25, which was the most my mother had ever spent on a dress for me.  That was an outrageous sum for the wife of a postal worker back then, especially for a dress that would only be worn once. Swallowing my objections, I allowed my mother to buy it.

The Dress worn several years later at another formal. It did not improve with age.

The Dress worn several years later at another formal. It did not improve with age.

Clothing was not a high priority for me in high school.  Attending an all girls’ school, I had to wear a uniform consisting of a pleated blue plaid skirt and a blue blazer with the school’s insignia on the breast pocket.  Freshman and sophomores were required to wear the school blazer at all times.  Once you reached the elevated status of junior, you could wear a navy or grey cardigan or pullover sweater, the height of fashion in the 1970’s.  The seniors had the extreme privilege of an entirely new uniform for their last year at the academy:  pleated hunter green plaid skirt and a green blazer or green or navy sweater.  The fashion combinations were endless.

The pleated skirts did so much for our self-esteem, enhancing our hips, calling attention to our calves and ankles.  The regulation length was one inch above the knee and the nuns enforced it by occasionally making us kneel down to ensure that our hems skimmed the floor.  Of course, this was the age of the mini skirt, so what was a girl to do?  Why, roll the waistband up to shorten the hemline, of course.  In that way, if a nun thought your skirt was suspiciously short, you could quickly release it to regulation length.  When the nuns weren’t looking, we’d roll the waistbands back again. The girls of Our Lady of Mercy Academy had the shortest skirts and the thickest waistlines.

Even with my limited exposure to stylish clothing, I knew that this prom gown was a fashion disaster, a Glamour “don’t” but there was no alternative. My date dutifully ordered his powder blue tuxedo, completed by a sky blue ruffled shirt and over-sized black bow tie, the kind seen in The Godfather.  He arrived to pick me up in his father’s pea green 1972 Pontiac station wagon with wood trim, bearing a wrist corsage of white orchids suitable for one of my elderly great aunts.  After the mandatory posing for photographs of our stunning attire, we dashed off to the Colonie Hill for a magical evening in a convention center ballroom, dancing under a ceiling of twinkling electrical stars, every high school girl’s dream come true.  Slow dancing to Stairway to Heaven, I forgot what I was wearing that evening.

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