Why Proms – Supersized, Superglam – Don’t Look Anything Like The Ones You Remember

illustrated by Paola Delucca.
To say that prom has changed since I attended my own over a decade ago is an understatement. When I went to prom at a swanky hotel in downtown Chicago, about 80% of our dresses were handmade from the same satin material in an assortment of colors. We didn’t look like Beyoncé fresh off her Destiny’s Child split, J. Lo at the Grammys, or Rihanna at the Met Gala. We looked like piñatas. Sure, we followed the rules of formal engagements by wearing more makeup than usual, spending an extra hour or two in a hair stylist’s chair, and wearing strappy, non-designer, 3-inch heels. Still, our efforts didn’t suddenly catapult us into video vixen territory. But it’s a much different prom story for high schoolers today.
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Every spring, prom goers make me look back on my own experience with regret and shame. But I’m also awestruck when I come across present-day attendees on social media. Young women and femmes pair elaborate dresses with Christian Louboutin shoes. Professionally done makeup is par for the course, as are soft, expensive-looking weaves. We can thank the internet and social media for such meticulous, flashy looks – and, of course, the luxurious aesthetics of music videos.
The visuals made to accompany songs have long allowed artists to really come out and play. Cardi B’s recent video for “Bartier Cardi” is a perfect example. The rapper, forced to swim against a wave of respectability politics and doubters for the past year, appears in surreal, high glam ahead of her long-awaited Invasion of Privacy album release, proving that she is indeed a girl who could do both. In music videos, stars like Cardi experiment with different looks and inhabit conceptual wonderlands that take their brand and sounds to new levels. Simple songs get amplified, and musicians blossom into completely different versions of themselves – thanks to some creative direction and (often) a big budget.
For a student who has just spent four years (or eight semesters) living on a monotonous schedule that rarely requires more than joggers and a hoodie— or, god forbid, a uniform — prom has the same transformative effect. This glow-up is by design. Eighteen-year-old Shaderria Thomas, who attended her senior prom in Atlanta this year, explained why the event is so important. “It's formal, but it's something where you can come out of your shell and show everyone that you’re somebody,” she said. “I'm from a small town, and no one really knows me. But after that prom dress, and all the ideas I put together, I've made it all over the world.”
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And she’s not exaggerating. Thomas was inspired by the gold dress Beyoncé wore to Tina Knowles’ Wearable Art Gala back in March. So the teenager donned a frost-blue, exaggerated mermaid dress with a sheer bodice, embellished with gems and feathers lining the hem of her train. Her hair hung behind her in a long, sleek blowout with a deep side part, studded with bedazzled pins. Thomas opted for a smokey eye (always a popular choice) to complement her gown and a nude lip gloss. She looked like an ice queen I would serve over Frozen’s Elsa any day. She rented a silver BMW i8 with blue accents that matched her outfit. Thomas clarified that she chose the sports car (worth more than $170k) not to get to her prom, but to a local town square where prom goers from the area traditionally take pictures and make an “entrance.” She drove a rented Camero to the actual dance.
Last year, Refinery29 writer Judith Ohikaure reported on a Visa study that revealed the average cost to attend prom was a little over $900. That’s far more than most wedding guests expect to spend when attending a wedding, Ohikaure concluded. This excludes fancy promposals (the act of asking someone to prom) which can also add expenses. Paradoxically, the same study also found that households with incomes under $25,000 will spend more, pushing upwards of $1,300. For lower income communities, where fancy formals aren’t the norm, the ambition to get prom right can be even stronger.
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Thomas and her mother, who works in retail, spent closer to $2,000. Thomas told me that her mother never went to prom, so she “went so hard” to pay for Thomas’. That blue gown alone was nearly $600, and renting the BMW and Camero brought her to a grand total of around $1,750, according to Thomas’ estimates. When you factor in hair, makeup, nails, shoes, and a ticket to the actual dance itself, it’s easy to see how the costs crept up.
Thomas made damn sure it was worth it. She tagged The Shade Room and Baller Alert in her prom photos. These two hubs for Black entertainment, culture, and news boast 4.5 and 12.7 million followers, respectively, and both are known to repost beautiful prom images. The Shade Room even has an official hashtag: #TSRPromQueenz. That connoisseurs of celebrity news and beauty are also validating these teens’ glammed-up moments speaks volumes about prom’s new elevated platform.
Music videos used to be like fairy tales to me. They transported me to places of excess and easy abundance. My house parties were never as cool as the bash Pharrell threw in his “Frontin” video . I’ve been to many a strip club, but none of them lived up to the expectations I had built up after years of seeing them sparkle in slow motion over trap beats, like in the Rae Sremmurd “Thrown Sum Mo” video. Singers and rappers could be swaggered out superheroes or African Queens, depending on the vibe.
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But that ritzy creativity is no longer limited to the those with major label financing at their disposal. High schoolers are figuring out ways stunt and ball just as hard as their favorite artists, even if for just one night only. Want choreographed dancers to open your big reveal? Why not? Want to take the phrase “casket sharp” to the next level? Fine. Want your classmates to know just how much you admire Michelle Obama and Beyoncé? Go off, sis.
Some would argue that we are living in a post-music video world. With MTV playing practically zero videos, fewer viewers tuning in to actual broadcast television (opting for on-demand content on streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu) and more people dedicating screen time to social media, music visuals have been forced online. And in order to really dominate the public imagination, they require the same production effort as feature-length films. (Case in point: Lemonade.) And with the omnipotence of social media, it is Instagram, not MTV or BET, that operates as the platform of choice for people — musicians and prom goers alike — to bless their followers with dazzling visual displays that make them wish they were there.
Celebrity itself is up for debate in a moment when influencers span the gamut from actors and musicians to beauty gurus and reality stars. However, all of them are under the same pressure to look impossibly well put-together at any given moment, setting impossible, grandiose standards for everyday civilians. And they all share the same platform to show us what they’ve got. The result of this multi-media barrage of aspirational content are these supersized prom efforts. What was once a modest, traditional rite of passage for American teens — putting on a fancy dress and recreating the “prom pose” in your living room before heading off to the dance in a limo — has become a full-on production.
And that’s what makes it worth it – and still relatable – in the end. The common thread that links my prom days with those “kids these days,” — especially those of us from middle- and working-class communities of color — is the feeling that we have to make this one moment count, because we’re not guaranteed many of them. When else do Black girls like Thomas, or even Cardi, get to express themselves creatively, execute their vision, share it with the world, and receive the praise they deserve? Not often enough. So to the girls who do the most in their videos and for their classmates, I say: slay.

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