An American Dream in Scotland

What was once synonymous with America is now becoming a staple of Scottish tradition, but how is it being adapted across the pond, and how has the recession affected the prom business? Patrick McPartlin went to find out.

For most British schoolgirls, the idea of a prom normally involves splashing out on expensive dresses, getting their hair and nails done, and deciding whether or not to book that pink fire-truck as transport. For the boys, it’s looking awkward in dinner jackets or Highland dress. It’s normally a process that lasts for the majority of the school year. University applications are neglected, schoolwork lags, and nothing seems quite as important as the school prom.  Most long-suffering teachers and parents would point the finger at Hollywood creations such as Grease and in more recent history, 1980s films such as Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles. Of course the recent influx of American teen movies in the vein of American Pie, which often focus on the hapless hero’s attempts to woo the girl at the high school prom. Recognisable by the ill-fitting suit and crushed corsage, these reluctant protagonists have become something of a poster-boy for awkwardness, reflected in part by some of Scotland’s teenagers.

A scene from American Pie, with the main characters at their high school prom (nydailynews.com)

The first recorded account of a prom as we know it was by a student at Amherst College, Massachusetts, in 1894, who described what would now be recognised as a formal senior ball. Proms on the other hand, have evolved from something traditional to something decadent. One of the main differences between proms in America and proms in Scotland is the choice of dress for the guys. As if there was an unwritten law about what to wear, nearly every male shows up decked out in a kilt. There is an almost insatiable desire to emulate the Americans, especially in terms of limousine transport. I spoke to a representative from a limousine company and asked him how profitable prom business was for his company. Steve, who’s been organizing limousines for proms for the past six years is well aware of the benefits: “It makes up our biggest percentage; the next percentage is the wedding side of things, but the schools’ proms is a big section of it.” Classic cars and party fire-engines, complete with uniformed drivers are proving big hits with the kids, but limousines are still the favoured method of transport. The very idea of a school leavers’ prom has invoked ideas of celebrity and rockstar lifestyle. The more expensive the dress and the flashier the limo, the better, but it’s not just the 17 and 18 year olds who are fighting to be in the spotlight. In recent times, the idea of a prom to mark a coming of age has spread, as Danielle, who has been doing prom manicures for nearly two years explains: “a lot of the high schools are getting more and more into it and so’s primary seven; it’s a growing kind of thing now.” She later went on to tell me that despite specializing in wedding hair she was noticing that more and more school children were getting their hair done. It’s a similar story with nail-care experts and dress-makers.

There’s an underlying worry with some parents about their children attending a prom between primary school and secondary school. Some parents I spoke to voiced their concerns about their children ‘growing old before their time,’ whilst others questioned the point in having a prom for eleven year olds: “It’s all very well having a prom at the end of high school; it’s a rite of passage, it’s marking the end of school education. But to have a prom for primary school kids is nonsense.”  In a day and age where there is an ongoing battle between consumers and companies over the type of products marketed at younger children, the idea of a prom for pre-pubescent children seems a little, well, premature.

From my own experience, it wasn’t just tartan and Irn-Bru that helped my own high school prom feel distinctly Scottish, but the numbers of drunken sixth years, staggering about with an alcopop in one hand, and their makeup smeared halfway down their face. And that was just the boys. In what was an alarming comment on Scottish society, most of my peers had decided to use their prom as an excuse to get drunk. I hadn’t particularly wanted my lasting prom memory to be of me holding up one of my classmates, underage and severely under the weather from knocking back a few too many lagers, but it’s one that will remain with me.

Obviously for the primary-age children, one would hope that it wouldn’t be a similar story. But that’s where the worry lies. Children are starting to drink from younger ages. A recent article from the Guernsey Press highlighted the worrying trend for pupils as young as 12 turning up at school on Monday with hangovers. Due to the nature of advertising and television programmes, it’s nearly impossible to place children in an adult setting and not expect them to ape adult behaviour. Diana Appleyard pointed out how children are becoming ‘mini adults’ in the Daily Mail last year, titled The Primary School Prom Queens.She produced eye-opening figures about children as young as seven wearing dresses costing hundreds of pounds, along with fake tan, fake nails and makeup. Yet the parents seem to have no problem with forking out for outfits, or the idea itself, calling it ‘cute’ and citing the introduction of films like High School Musical as having given rise to this obsession with proms. When I asked a few parents for their opinion of proms for primary age children, none of them fully supported the idea. One mother admitted that she was uncomfortable with the idea of allowing her younger daughter to attend such an event, but had let her daughter go regardless, saying that she didn’t want her to feel left out. It’s clearly more of a dilemma for some parents than others.

So, with the country coping with a recession, it would seem sensible to assume that the money spent on proms would diminish. From what I’ve seen, it’s actually the other way around. Some parents were quite surprised at the suggestion that the recession would have limited spending on proms. I asked a few parents how they would cope with higher prices and less money. None of them felt that the recession was a stumbling block whatsoever. Some pointed out that they were actually spending more money on their child’s prom because they hadn’t gone on holiday this year. Others were adamant that such an important rite of passage shouldn’t be affected by money issues.

I visited a school that is well known for its charity work and donations to organizations such as the Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund (SCIAF) and the Seed of Hope charity that helps girls in Kenya to receive an education. The school, along with final year students, has held a fashion-show-cum-prom-fair with a difference, for the last five years. Cath Whitten, the head of sixth year told me more about the idea behind the event: “Tonight’s fashion show has two different themes, really. It’s to allow all of our pupils to see the variety of dresses they can buy, where they can get limos, anything they need that will make their prom a success and it’s also in aid of various charities that the kids themselves take part in. For instance, part of the money tonight will go to help a number of people go to Lourdes in the summer with the archdiocesan pilgrimage.”

It was all very well organizing this fashion show under the banner of charity, but the real question is how effective it is. I know for a fact that a lot of the pupils taking part in the event regularly give to charity, even if it’s just emptying coppers from their pockets at the end of the week, but it almost feels a bit paradoxical, to be advertising decadence alongside charity. Perhaps that’s the way forward; the charity angle is certainly one to be commended, but I think there’s a bit of a concern that it’s the guilt factor dictating the dual purpose behind the event. Besides that, it’s the parents who turned up on the night who were the ones most likely to be footing the bill for their little darlings’ prom. Haircuts, fake tan, manicures, expensive dresses, eccentric modes of transport, makeup, a bag to go with the dress, perhaps some matching jewelry as well are all on the list for those graduating from high school next June.

In America, high school proms are limited to high school graduates. There are no imitations for younger children. Whether this is down to the difference in the education system or America’s more conservative nature is unclear, but from speaking to a few American students, some who have already been to their high school prom, and others who are eagerly awaiting their turn, the attitude is vastly different to that of Scottish pupils. Aubrey, who attended her prom in May of this year was very enthusiastic about the event as a whole: “It’s more about the end of an era. It’s still very traditional; you pick a date, and the two of you go together to the prom. It’s not even necessarily a ‘love’ thing; it’s often friends who go together, which reflects the overall feeling.” When I asked her about the drink culture, and explained how it was in Scotland she was shocked: “There isn’t really a drinking culture per se at our proms. I mean sure, we drink, there’s often a punch bowl for example but it’s all very measured. It’s not a party, it’s a formal event.” Allie, who graduates next summer, is looking forward to her prom already but remembers the media coverage that lesbian teen Constance McMillen received earlier this year after she challenged her school’s policy on same-sex prom dates:It’s ridiculous really. One of my friends is gay and the school has no problem with him bringing his boyfriend to the prom. It’s not about opinions or morality. It’s about having a good time with the people you’ve spent most of your life with for the past few years. It shouldn’t be about politics.” Both girls were more interested in the sentimental aspect of school proms than anything else, something that doesn’t play as big a part as it should in Scotland. The unanswered question is whether Scotland’s drink culture is responsible or whether it’s a difference in society in general.

At the end of the day, the prom business is one which appears to have been unaffected by the recession. It’s still an important rite of passage, the bridge between school and further education, or the world of employment. Girls are still buying dresses worth £800-£1000, and paying significant amounts of money in order to get their hair styled like a Hollywood celebrity attending an awards ceremony or a film premiere. Whilst the Tinseltown effect hasn’t really rubbed off on the guys to the same extent, it might only be a matter of time before they start to rival the girls in prom spending. Or they could save the extra cash for another pint of Tennent’s. The surprising thing is just how much the prom culture has taken off and how it affects other businesses. In a small provincial town like Livingston for example, the high school proms provide business for local hairdressers, manicurists, dress-makers, limousine companies, even the local tanning salon. So it’s just possible that the growing prom business is actually providing a bit of relief for local businesses despite the recession. It’s unclear where proms will go next. The big business side of proms will surely continue to thrive, as will local companies. Perhaps the dresses will get more expensive, the haircuts more elaborate…who knows, maybe flying in by helicopter will become de rigeur. That student from Amherst College may well be spinning in his grave come June next year.

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