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How British Schools Fell for American-Style Proms

A Welsh school's appeal for donated dresses has highlighted the issue of prom’s affordability at a time when UK child poverty rates reach record highs.

by Louis Staples
19 July 2019, 8:00am

Photo via Alamy.

In recent years, the end of the British school year has become synonymous with students attending American-style prom nights. A final blowout before they disappear for summer, then on to further education or employment, prom is slowly becoming a rite of passage for teens in the UK.

But behind the glamour lies the fact that, for some young people, a prom night is just one more thing they can’t afford. In March this year, it was revealed that the number of children in absolute poverty had hit a record high of 3.7 million in Britain. Over half of children are living in poverty in ten UK constituencies.

Prom is expensive. In America, the average family spends $919 in total on their child’s prom. In the UK, the BBC reported last month that some parents are spending £1,000 on “the big night”. Retailers say that some parents spend £500 on dresses, while others fork out for sports cars, limousines and even helicopters (yes, really) to send their children to prom.

“Schools don’t recognise the pressure they must put on families and students,” says Lucy Bonnar, 26, who was unable to attend her high school prom.

Lucy tells me that the cost of attending her prom, including the venue hire fee, food and transport, was around £100 – and that's not including her outfit. This is more than most 17-year-olds can afford without help from their parents.

“People are certain to judge or speculate about you if you don’t go,” remembers Lucy. “When I couldn’t attend my prom, it was particularly embarrassing because other people’s opinions of you are so important at that time of your life.”

Lucy isn’t alone. As prom continues to gather momentum in the UK, against a backdrop of rising child poverty, the Welsh government has been called on to look into the issue of high prom costs. This came after news emerged that a school in Maesteg in South Wales had put out an appeal for dresses so that pupils struggling to afford outfits could still attend their prom. Miraculously, over 250 dresses were donated to the school.

“When I couldn’t attend my prom, it was particularly embarrassing because other people’s opinions of you are so important at that time of your life.”

“Some people can’t afford a dress for one night – that’s just not achievable for everyone,” says Abigail Steele, a year 10 pupil at Maesteg Comprehensive School. Like many of the students, Abigail shopped for her dress in the makeshift “donations shop” in her school, which was staffed by the two PE teachers who started the viral appeal. “What our school did helped massively to make sure people felt able to attend,” she says. “No one should miss out for financial reasons.”

Shannie Bowen, a fellow pupil at the school, also wore a donated dress. “From seeing prom in films and TV shows, you know you it's a night you have to look your best,” she says. “The shop was an amazing help with that, without any costs.”

Like many communities across the UK, Maesteg’s local economy has suffered in recent years. Car manufacturer Ford recently confirmed that it will close its Bridgend plant (located just 20 minutes drive from Maesteg) before 2020, taking 1,700 jobs from the area. A quarter of Maesteg School’s pupils are entitled to free school meals, which is above the national average.

Head teacher Helen Jones tells me that the school decided to hold an event to reward students for their hard work over the exam period. After students decided that they wanted a prom-style celebration, Jones immediately started thinking about how she could facilitate this in an inclusive way. “We pay for the tickets, we pay for the cost of the room hire,” she says. “We insist that all children meet at the school to go on a bus so you don't have any of that nonsense of limos and the one-upmanship that goes along with that.”

This left prom attire as the primary cost for students. As it wasn’t the school’s first prom celebration, Jones knew this would be an issue for some. “We became aware that last year there were children who we had expected to see but didn't come,” she says. “When we spoke to them, it was a case of not wanting to put the financial pressure on their parents. So we were desperate to ensure that that didn't happen this year.”

In the end, 90 percent of students attended the Maesteg prom. The majority of its staff also attended, with many wearing second hand dresses to remove any remaining stigma. Next year, Jones tells me she wants to focus on the pressures affecting young men too, but will continue to “go after” the culture of disposable fashion that permeates events like prom. “We've got more than enough to be able to offer dresses and accessories to other schools,” she says. “In fact, we were already contacted by some young girls outside of our catchment area who had sad stories to share. But they came along to our shop to borrow dresses too, so we’ll definitely be expanding that.”

Maesteg’s prom is clearly a success story. Yet it’s worth remembering that not every school has access to viral dress appeals, or teachers who can spend days gathering dresses for students.

So, why are so many British schools still so keen to adopt this pricey US tradition?

US-based fashion historian Dr Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell tells me that the adoption of prom in the UK feeds into a long history of Britain appropriating American traditions. “This is happening faster today because we are so connected by social media, as well as regular media like American television shows,” she explains. “For decades, the prom (or ‘the big dance’) has been the climax of the American high school narrative in popular culture. Think of movies like Grease, Carrie, Back to the Future, Pretty in Pink, Ten Things I Hate About You and Spiderman: Homecoming.”

Chrisman-Campbell tells me that clothes form a central part of cultural traditions like prom. “In every culture, ‘rites of passage’ like prom often involve special clothes,” she says. “For many American teenagers, prom may be their first opportunity to wear high heels, an evening gown, a corsage or, for boys, a tuxedo. All of these events resemble mini-weddings, and that's no accident. It's a ritual pre-enactment of a wedding – a dress rehearsal for adulthood.”

One of the most influential factors behind prom’s rising popularity is, of course, capitalism. Retail brands in the UK have profited from prom’s popularity. “There's a lot of competition to look your best. Sometimes a literal competition for the title of prom king and queen,” Chrisman-Campbell says. “Many retailers now keep track of who's wearing what to ensure that no one will show up at the same prom in the same outfit.”

american-prom-trend-uk
Photo via Alamy.

Beyond Retro, the UK’s leading vintage retailer, has noticed an upsurge in prom purchasing. “This past prom season we definitely saw an increase in people shopping for prom dresses,” says the brand’s press and marketing coordinator Mary Costello. “Prom always felt somewhat like an American import, but in the past couple of years, Beyond Retro has observed a sense of British teenagers really wanting to make prom uniquely theirs.”

Responding to the increasing demand for prom products, the brand’s online retail teams have created prom-specific edits for their website, as well as prom-themed email newsletters. Costello says that sustainability is the “biggest catalyst” for customers shopping for vintage prom garments.

While it’s encouraging to see a growing focus on sustainable fashion coinciding with the rise of prom in the UK, it’s odd that a night so rooted in nostalgia, consumption and heterosexual norms proves so popular with today’s young people – young people who are, after all, more likely than previous generations to reject capitalism and just 50 percent of whom identify as heterosexual.

Nineteen-year-old Sarah Garland, from Edinburgh, organised her school prom in 2018. She tells me that the popularity of prom feeds into the gradual “Americanisation” of the UK education system.

“This Americanisation has intensified in the last 20 years, especially if you look at nursery children having a graduation ceremony for leaving nursery,” she says. “With prom, there’s definitely some weird old-timey nostalgia stuff that’s going on. It has very heteronormative traditions and ideals associated with it, plus it costs so much. But I think people are fed this idea of the old ‘golden days’ and associate that with the idea of prom.”

Prom isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But as families across Britain struggle to make ends meet, all this nostalgia comes at a price. It is imperative that more schools, and even retailers, find ways to give this celebration an inclusive, waste-conscious revamp and take responsibility for ensuring all pupils are able to attend. Because if returning to “the golden days” means a wasteful, archaic night that people can’t access unless their parents pay huge sums of money, then this is one US import the UK can do without.