From ‘promenades’ to ‘promposals’: A look at prom through the years

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Julia Petree poses in a prom gown. Photo by Will Crooks.

Baylee Holder probably tried on 25 dresses before settling on the slinky, monochromatic gown she will wear to the Daniel High School prom this year.

It will be her third year at the social event, but the first time she’s old enough to attend on her own.

This year, Holder is going for suave — her date will wear a matching black-and-white tuxedo reminiscent of a James Bond character. Next year, her senior year, she might go for extravagance — prom is perhaps one of the few adolescent events where extravagance is expected and encouraged. The portmanteau “promposal” draws a correlation between wedding proposals and the elaborate scenarios high schoolers manufacture to ask a date to prom for just that reason — they’re often equally as public or extravagant.

“My promposal this year was from the movie ‘The Greatest Showman,’ and we’re actually both in Glee Club together, and he had a sign and he dressed up as the ringmaster, and it said, ‘Prom is the greatest show, so tell me do you want to go?’” Holder said.

The theme of Daniel High’s prom, coincidentally, is also based on the movie “The Greatest Showman.”

Originally called a “promenade” to represent a young college student’s first introduction to society, prom has marked the pinnacle of youth for about 100 years — prior to the 20th century, it was solely a higher-education, debutante-esque event.

Now, spring is often synonymous with prom season around the United States — high schools form prom committees to come up with themes, determine venues, and select music playlists.

Although the styles have changed over the decades since prom became a national phenomenon in the 1950s — most puffy sleeves have been traded for mermaid cuts and heart-shaped necklines — one constant has been its perennial significance for high schoolers.

Mercedes Purington poses in a prom gown. Photo by Will Crooks.

This year will be Southside High School cheerleader Zilliah Turner’s first time going to prom.

Turner’s boyfriend got her fellow cheerleaders to do a cheer in the cafeteria that said, “Are you ready to prom it up?” before he showed up with a sign asking her to the dance.

“’An Enchanted Evening’ is [the theme of] our prom, and it’s at the Hilton Palmetto Ballroom,” Turner said.

Both Holder and Turner spent a Saturday at Dimitra Designs looking for their dresses. The shop, which has been a staple in Greenville’s formal wear market for about 30 years, is run by Dimitra Mandalas and a small team of consultants. One consultant — Kim Holloway — is known by her moniker “Ms. Magic” for her ability to pick out the perfect dress for clients.

Just a few minutes after Turner asked about mermaid-cut gowns while shopping there on March 23, Ms. Magic was back with an armful of dresses.

“We are really running out of mermaid dresses,” Holloway said. “Everybody in here wanted mermaid.”

But even if patrons don’t immediately find the dress they’re looking for, part of the charm of prom is in the planning — girls flock to dress shops nearly every weekend in spring, mothers and friends in tow, trying on gowns that range from the flamboyant to sleek. Hair appointments get booked months in advance and dinner reservations stack up at some of the pricey prom-dinner venues in town the weekend of the events.

“I am really excited to experience everything,” Turner said.

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