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The prom: Then & now
While hemlines rise and fall, the core traditions of prom hold steady throughout generations
Nicole Williams models her prom dress for this year, a 1970s-inspired style that could also fit well in Hollywood. - photo by DEMETRIUS FREEMAN

The first rule of prom is, the guy has to ask the girl.

He could be a boyfriend or someone who wanted to be. But either way, said Hoschton resident Traci McBride, you had a date.

"It was pretty much up to the guys to ask the girls out to prom," said McBride, 45, of the late 1970s and prom etiquette. "It was typically, if you already had boyfriend, it was understood you went with your boyfriend. It was sort of the assumption that you would go to prom."

Such is the nature of high school proms, which begin their season in a few weeks. Some traditions remain the same, even after generations.

More than 25 years later, Michael Holland, 24, followed tradition and asked his date to his West Hall High School prom.

"I did it with flowers and I asked her if she'd go with me," said Holland, of Gainesville, who ended up marrying his prom date, Jessica Lee. "She said ‘yeah.'"

But like most rules, there are always exceptions. Other girls plan to go to prom if they find a date or not.

"If somebody asks me, yes. But if not, then (I'll go without)," said Raeanne Pagliarulo, 18, of Braselton. Elisabeth Schacht, 19, of Flowery Branch said she doesn't require a date, but when asked if she will go with a date to her school's prom this year, she said, "Hopefully."

So aside from the date - girls aren't scared to go as a group - the dress usually causes the most consternation for the ladies going to the prom. It doesn't matter what year it is, each spring brings a new crop of young women who hit local stores in search of the perfect prom frock.

These days many students find dresses at department stores such as JCPenny and Belk, Pagliarulo said. Becca Mann, 16, of Flowery Branch said she shops for her dresses at Kohl's or Macy's.

Many girls are willing to go from store to store and mall to mall in search of their dress. Many say price is as much a factor as style.

Nicole Williams, 17, of Gainesville was one of the lucky few who found her dress at the first store she went to, Arete, at the Mall of Georgia. But this was the first time that's happened.

"It usually takes me several stores to find a dress," she said.

But while girls still search out that perfect dress as their mothers did before them, the differences lie in the details.

There was once a time, according to Carolyn Jarrard, 51, of Flowery Branch, when the men's tuxedos would match their dates' dress. Pastel colors, ranging from a bright pink to a baby blue, she said, were a big hit to wear to prom.

"The guys would go with whatever color the girls' dresses were."

Sharon Combs, 48, of Oakwood said she and her date - now her husband - matched in powder blue style.

"My husband now, he wore a powder blue tux with ruffles and my dress was powder blue," she said. "We looked like Smurfs."

Yet others remember dressing a little more elegantly.

Helen Dunn, 48, of Flowery Branch said she wore a white chiffon strapless dress.

The style was antebellum, which meant wearing a dress "that was big," she said.

"I didn't wear one, but my friend did," she added. "We could barley fit her in the car because it had a huge hoop underneath it."

Nowadays, styles are much more simple. And while students today said they are buying a range of looks - from styles inspired by looks on the red carpet to short, flirty dresses - it's the price that dictates what dress is bought, too.

Jordan Weldon,16, of Flowery Branch said her limit to spend on a dress is $300.

"If you go to a dress shop, no more than $300 and that's if it's absolutely amazing," she said. "If you spend more than that you're wasting your money. You have to think about alterations, also.

"If you go to a department store, (spend) no more than $200 because there is a chance someone could get the same dress as you and that wouldn't be good at all, so don't spend that much money on something someone could possibly have."

Ashley Blankenship, 17, of Lawrencville, had mixed emotions about spending a lot of money on a dress.

"I don't see a point in buying something you're only going to wear once or twice"

But while the highest she said she would spend was $300, she added that if she had the money she would spend as much as she could.

But fashions are cyclical, and even today promgoers can be found in teal blue or hoop skirts reminiscent of past generations.

Another big difference between today's proms and those of even 10 years ago can also be found on the dance floor.

"The Shag was the dance at the time," said Jackie Adams, 59, of Lula and principal of West Hall High School, about proms in the 1950s.

At McBride's prom, the music was disco - music from "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" were popular. "So all of us girls know every Olivia Newton John song from ‘Grease' and sang them all the time," McBride said. "It's really great because I know all of those songs and they're coming back."

Today, the pumping bass beats of Usher or Mariah Carey are more likely to be heard on the dance floor, along with some dance moves that might make today's grandmother's blush.

"There was no such thing as booty dancing - it would not even been thought of; that would never be in your mind to do that," said McBride. "We just sort of moved around to the music, nothing really organized. Everybody always waited on a slow dance."

Unfortunately, most prom traditions come with a price tag. And that price, over the years, has grown exponentially.

Getting to the prom, for example, wasn't such a big deal 50 years ago. "The boy would clean the car, vacuum it and wash it," said Helen Dunn, 48, of Flowery Branch. "You took the family wagon."

McBride said her boyfriend took his parents' Cadillac - nobody ever went in a limo.

But today, the lucky ones get to pack 10 couples into a stretch Hummer limo in order to arrive in style. And that comes with a price.

An average estimate of stretch SUVs, which include Hummers, Ford Excursions and Cadillac Escalades, that seat one to 18 people, range from $100 to $200 per hour. With many proms starting at 7 p.m. and ending after 11 p.m., that means groups have to shell out at least $600 just to get there.

The pre-prom primping has increased in recent years, too, said Amy Casper, 28, of Flowery Branch. And with that comes extra costs.

"We had to start the day early," Casper said. "We had to make hair appointments, nail appointments, pedicure appointments and dentist appointments. But we always did our own makeup."

Dunn said things were much simpler when she went to her prom in 1980 in Gadston, Ala. While the women still got gussied up, it was much more low key.

"We didn't do the nails, the hair," she said. "We didn't do that."

Instead, it was a more low-key affair.

"Nobody really went to as great a length to get their hair done up; usually your mom did it," McBride said.

"Everybody looked forward to it for forever and you planned and planned and planned," she said. "Girls of course had to get their dresses, their shoes and make sure you had the right kind of makeup to match and a nice hairstyle. Although, no one really checked out of school."

But ask many promgoers, years after they plunked down hundreds of dollars for one night of primped-up dancing, and they'll tell you it was money well spent.

"Prom is one of those great experiences unlike any other that you ever have in your lifetime," McBride said. "Go to the prom because that's where the fun is."

Staff writer Kristen Morales contributed to this story

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