It’s prom season here in the United States. Millions of high school students will be taking part in this springtime ritual that got its start in the 1890s in the Northeast. Since then, every April young people have been donning tuxedos and dresses to eat, dance, and have a good time. Some of my best memories from high school are from my prom nights (prom was for both juniors and seniors at my high school).
When it comes to prom, there are generally two groups of people: those that think “Prom is awesome! I’m really excited to go,” and those that grouse, “Prom is sooo lame. What a waste of time.”
Really, both groups are right. Prom can be a fun and memorable night, or it can be a big letdown. The difference doesn’t come from prom itself, but what you make of it. Special nights don’t just happen–you create them.
AoM has a surprising (and heartening) number of high school-age readers, so to help them plan and carry out a successful and memorable prom night, we’ve created this comprehensive guide.
Ask the Girl
Probably the most important step in this entire process…and the one most fraught with pitfalls. Your enjoyment at prom will depend heavily on the person you take–choose the wrong gal and you and your friends will still be laughing about it 10 years later. If you’re dating somebody, your choice is easy. Just take your girlfriend. If you’re not dating somebody, you can always take a girl that’s a friend. I did that for one of my proms and had a great time. Took away some of the romantic pressure that a lot of young people experience at prom. We were just interested in having a good time.
You can also ask a girl you’ve had your eye on for awhile, but never had the nerve to ask on a date. Be warned. There’s some risk in doing this. First, if you don’t know the girl too well you might end up having a bum time because she’s a bum date–just because sitting behind her in algebra class and smelling her apple-scented hair gives you butterflies, doesn’t mean you’ll connect once you have to, you know, actually have a conversation. Second, girls can imbue a lot of meaning into an invite to prom from a guy. Some might think that it’s the first step into a serious relationship. If going steady (or whatever they call it these days) isn’t in your plans, you’ll have to navigate an emotional minefield when you let the gal know you’re just looking for a prom date. Finally, she could say no. Being turned down by a gal you’re interested in is always hard, but keep your chin up and find somebody else.
Whomever you ask to prom, make sure you do it about two months before the big shindig. Picking out a prom dress is a big deal for a girl and they’ll want plenty of time to make the right choice. Asking two to one and a half months beforehand gives her time to prepare.
How should you ask a girl to prom? I usually just pulled the girl aside during school and asked her straight up, “Would you like to go to prom with me?” Simple and got the job done. Some guys did some elaborate and creative invitations that rivaled wedding proposals. Chalk writing on driveways, creating poster boards using candy bars to create a message, treasure hunts, serenading Elvises…Kate tells me the ladies love this, so if that’s your style, then go for it.
After you’ve secured a date, you’ll need to buy tickets to get into prom. Purchase them as soon as they go on sale.
Find a Group
In my experience, attending prom with a group of friends is the way to go. It just makes the night more enjoyable and removes a lot of the pressure a young couple might feel if they were to go by themselves. The tricky part is figuring out who to group up with. While you might want to experience prom with your best buddy, your date might want to go with a different group. I never had a problem with this, but I can see it happening and causing all sorts of high school drama. My advice: be flexible and play it cool no matter what group you end up with. Even if you don’t have dinner with your buds, you can still see them at the dance, and at after prom festivities.
Get Fitted for and Rent a Tux
In most places in the U.S. prom is a black tie affair, so that means you’ll need a tuxedo. For most men these days, whether young or old, life gives you very few chances to wear a tux–so enjoy it! Our resident style man, Antonio Centeno, did an excellent video explaining exactly what a young man should wear to prom for his own site, Real Men, Real Style, that should answer a lot of your questions about what to wear:
Of course, you could have some fun as well. You’re young. There probably won’t be another time in your life that you can get away with wearing a zoot suit or a powder blue 1970s tuxedo to a formal affair, so if that’s your thing and your date’s okay with it, go for it. Just stay away from the duct tape tuxedos and neon-colored pimp hats. (Note: The zoot suit and powder blue tux bit is solely the responsibility of Brett McKay and does not necessarily reflect the views of Mr. Antonio Centeno…who is probably shaking his head right now in disbelief.)
Rent your tux, don’t buy. It doesn’t make sense for a person your age who’s still growing and probably isn’t attending a lot of black tie events to buy a tuxedo. Because you’re renting, you’re not going to get a tuxedo that fits like a custom suit, but try to get something as close as possible to it. If your tuxedo jacket fits well in the shoulders and in the chest, you’re golden. Also, make sure the pants are as close to your size as possible.
Visit a rental place as soon as you can to ensure you have the greatest possible selection to choose from. You’ll have to decide on what jacket style and shirt collar type you want, whether you’re going bow tie or neck tie, and whether or not you’ll be wearing a waist coat or cummerbund. You can also rent shoes there if you need them. After you’ve been fitted and have placed your order, the rental place will let you know when you can pick up your tux.
Keep track of all the stuff that comes in your rental bag, especially the small stuff like the tie and cufflinks. Make sure to return the tuxedo to the rental place as soon as possible. Don’t worry about laundering. They take care of that.
Buy the Corsage
A corsage is a small arrangement of flowers that is usually worn on a woman’s wrist or pinned to her dress. Traditionally, the guy is responsible for buying the corsage for the girl, and the girl is responsible for buying a boutonniere for the guy.
The corsage needs to compliment the color of your date’s dress, so you’ll need to ask your date what color her dress will be. You can also ask if she has a favorite flower. Make sure to ask if her dress will be sleeveless or strapless too, as this will determine whether you should get a wrist or pinned corsage. When you get the information, head over to a florist, and relay the information to them. They’ll offer suggestions on flower types and color, as well as what sort of greenery to include in the corsage. Roses are a popular pick. Keep it small and simple.
Florists get slammed at prom time, so don’t wait until the last minute to order it. Two weeks before prom is plenty of time. Also, don’t dump this job off on your mom because you think it’s “girly” to go into a flower shop. I knew a lot of guys in high school who did this. Total Dim move.
Make Reservations for Dinner
Some schools offer dinners at the prom itself. If that’s your situation, you can skip this section. If your school’s prom doesn’t offer dinner, you’ll need to find a place to eat before you head over to the dance. While you may be going to prom in a large group, take the initiative in finding a place for the group to eat. In my experience, everyone in the group expects someone else will take on the responsibility. Might as well be you.
Picking a place to eat for a large group can be tricky. Everyone has different tastes that you’ll need to accommodate. Stay away from exotic and ethnic restaurants. Everyone might not share your passion for Indian food. Steakhouses and bistro-type places are a safe bet. They offer traditional fare that will likely please most palates. Just make sure the place offers vegetarian dishes as well.
Choose a restaurant that’s local and has a nice ambiance. Prom night is supposed to be special. Don’t spend it at the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, or P.F. Chang’s where you’ll have some dude wearing cargo shorts, a visor, and bright orange Crocs sitting next to you. And ideally, you’ll want to go someplace that’s relatively close to the prom.
Make your dinner reservations early. Places fill up quickly near prom time. Play it safe by locking down reso’s a month to three weeks in advance. Tell the restaurant how many you plan to have in your party. If they can’t accommodate your group, you’ll need to look somewhere else.
Get a Straight Razor Shave and a Haircut
Girls usually treat themselves to a pedicure, manicure, and a trip to the hairstylist before prom. Who says the guys can’t pamper themselves a bit before the big night, too? The dude equivalent to girls’ pre-prom ritual is a straight razor shave and a haircut at a barber shop. Call around the shops in your town.
Start getting ready an hour or so before prom. Shower up, brush your teeth, comb your hair, and put on your tuxedo. Gather everything you’ll need for the evening–corsage, prom tickets, after-prom party tickets, cash, and mints. Put the tickets, cash, and mints in your inside jacket pockets and the corsage in the car. Throw an umbrella in the car too–if it rains, your date will be none too happy if her carefully crafted up-do gets ruined. Now give yourself a look in the mirror and point at your reflection like the Fonz. Tonight’s going to be a great night.
Skip the Stretch Limo
Despite what you’ve seen in movies and television shows, stretch limousines aren’t fun. I can’t recall a single experience in a stretch limo where I was like, “Man, I feel like a balla’!” Instead I was like, “Man, I’m feeling cramped. And what’s that funky smell coming from the seat?” With so many people in the car, you’ll be cramped and hot, and you’ll pay some guy a lot of money to feel cramped and hot. In my opinion, it’s just not worth it.
Just use your own car and carpool with your friends. You’ll save money and you’ll ride in comfort.
Pick Up Your Date
Many of the guidelines that we laid out on picking up your date in Road Map to the Perfect First Date apply for picking up your date for prom too. Make sure your car is clean, arrive on time, and come to the door with your corsage. Warmly greet her parents with a smile and firm handshake. Chances are your date is still doing some last minute gussying up. Make some small talk with her parents–compliment their house. Tell them about the restaurant you’re going to. Also let them know your plans for after prom and when they should expect their daughter will be home.
When your date enters the room, give her a big smile, walk over and give her a hug, and immediately compliment how she looks. She probably spent all day getting ready for tonight. Suggested compliments: “You look stunning!” or “That dress looks amazing on you.”
You and your date will now exchange corsages and boutonnieres. Traditionally, your date is supposed to pin the boutonniere on you and you’re supposed to place the corsage on your date. Placing a wrist corsage on your date isn’t hard; pinning a corsage on her dress is trickier. In my experience, moms usually get involved with the pinning part when they see the guy stick himself with the pin five times. Let them help.
Her parents will probably want to snap some photos. When that’s done, head towards the car and open the door for your date.
Parents will want to take pictures before you and your date head over to prom. It seems the girls were really into it and the guys just tolerated it. At my high school, the pre-prom photo session was a big event. Our prom night group would gather at someone’s house, dozens of parents (usually the moms) would show up with cameras, and the hosting family would have hors d’oeuvres for people to eat. Mom’s would gush over how pretty the girls looked, while the dads that showed up generally stood by the food table munching on cheese and crackers.
Whether your pre-prom picture event is just you and your date at her house or a big event, be cooperative and smile. It will make the experience better for everyone. Also, NO HOVER HANDS! In pictures of just you and your date, proper arm placement is behind the small of the girl’s back with your hand resting on her waist. Capice?
After pictures, head over to the restaurant. Make sure you get there at the time of your reservation. If you and your group are running late, call the restaurant and let them know. When you get to the table, and if it’s convenient, pull out your date’s chair and help her in her seat.
Remember your basic table manners. Napkin in laps, cell phones off, elbows off the table. When your food arrives, don’t start eating until everyone has been served. Break the stereotype that many waiters have about high schoolers being loud, rude, and poor tippers. Be on your best behavior; the pre-prom meal sets the tone for a special and classy evening. Treat your server with respect and tip them generously after your meal.
Finally. It’s time for the big event. When I attended prom, I always planned to arrive about 45 minutes to an hour after it started. That will allow enough time for things to get going. When you enter, you’ll need to give your tickets to the ticket person. The first thing you’ll want to do is take your picture while you and your date are still looking fresh. Usually there’s some kinda-cheesy background based on your prom’s theme. Take your picture and then go stake out a table.
Make sure to get out on the dance floor as much as possible. That’s what you’re there to do, right? Feel free to take off your tuxedo coat and place it somewhere safe. It’s completely acceptable. You don’t want to become a sweaty mess.
Don’t be the guy who’s too cool or too shy to dance. Get out there and let loose. You’re 18 years old, you’re with your best friends, and life is good. Have fun! However, it should be noted that grinding your twigs and berries on your date’s backside does not rise to the definition of “dancing.”
When you slow dance with your date, you can take a couple of approaches. You can go with the middle school-style, hands on your date’s waist and her hands draped around your neck while you sway side-to-side in the same place. Personally, I liked to mix things up a bit with turns and swirls and dips and whatnot, so I usually assumed a more traditional dance position with my right arm around my date’s waist and left hand holding her right hand. While you probably won’t have room (or the music) to do a waltz, this position offers more possibilities besides simply swaying awkwardly.
Even if your date has turned out to be a dud, or you paired off through some less than ideal circumstances and you weren’t excited to go with her in the first place, don’t ditch your date at the dance. No matter what happens, you’re her escort, and you should stay by her side for most of the evening. If you want to go your separate ways after the dance and enjoy the rest of the night separately, so be it.
The official prom is over. A king and queen have been crowned, you danced, and lots of pictures were taken. But prom still isn’t over. We’re now entering the stage of the prom night ritual that’s fraught with parental worry and hand-wringing: the after-prom party. Movies and TV have created a powerful narrative that after-prom is the time for young high schoolers to get plastered at a giant party and finally lose their virginity at some seedy motel.
You don’t need to do that.
By all means have fun, but do so without the alcohol, drugs, and sex. Make prom night something you’ll remember fondly 20 years from now and not something that will make you cringe whenever you’re reminded of it. Also, keep in mind that as a prom goer in the 21st century, you have to deal with something that high schoolers just ten years ago didn’t have to think about: smartphone cameras and Facebook. What you do on prom night will probably be cataloged by friends on their cameras and they’ll probably share it on their Facebook profiles. Don’t engage in any behavior that you wouldn’t want shared publicly. That picture of you doing keg stands in your tux might come back and haunt you.
I was fortunate enough to live in a school district where the parents put on a big after-prom party for the three high schools in the area. They’d rent a local amusement park for the entire night and give the kids free rein on the park. It was a blast and offered some of the best memories of my prom nights.
If your school doesn’t offer some sort of after-prom party, you can make up your own after prom activities. Kate and her friends followed prom with a bonfire, some hot tubbing, and an early breakfast back at her place prepared by her parents. And everyone had a blast.
Make sure to get your date back at the time you told her parents you would. Get out of the car and walk her to the door. Thank her for the great time. If it seems right, by all means go in for the kiss. While generally a kiss on the first date can be iffy, everyone is primed and kind of hoping for something romantic or at least memorable and out of the ordinary to happen on prom night. So go for it and then see her into her house. Walk back to your car, go home, and go to sleep. You just made some great memories, my friend.