Writing left handed

Prom: Awkward Teenagers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

Mary Ellen Mark

Michael Glorioso and Eliza Wierzbinska, Staten Island, New York, 2006. Mary Ellen Mark (American b. 1940). Polaroid. 20 x 24 inches (61 x 50.8 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and © Mary Ellen Mark.

For all the hullabaloo of my Senior Prom and the associated hoopla of the central New Jersey homeschool community, I’m not sure that going to prom is an experience I’d ever like to repeat.  Sure, it was fun helping my mom with the centerpieces and dragging my long suffering Canadian boyfriend with me but between the dress (which I made myself), the actual event (which I spent moping around in anticipation of missing my boyfriend when he returned to Montreal) and the after party (which consisted of A Knight’s Tale and a dozen friends crashing on the living room floor), the entire experience was rather anticlimactic.

But old habits die hard.  I went to not one but four proms in high school and ended up in tears over so-and-so not asking me to dance more times than not.  In college, I joined the Social Planning Committee about seven minutes after I arrived on campus, thus earning myself the distinction of the only freshman able to score two tickets to the annual Goucher College Gala, and during my year abroad, I dragged my flat mates to the Oxford Union at 6:00am to join the “queue” for tickets to the Blenheim Palace Masquerade Ball.  Despite the fact that my dress was—and I’m being objective here—totally fabulous, I was dateless and therefore miserable the entire time.

As such, it was with great fear and trepidation that I accepted the invite to attend the press preview for the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s newest exhibit, Prom: Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark (which runs from July 1-October 28 at the Perelman Building).

Mary Ellen Mark

Michael Glorioso and Eliza Wierzbinska, Staten Island, New York, 2006. Mary Ellen Mark (American b. 1940). Polaroid. 20 x 24 inches (61 x 50.8 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and © Mary Ellen Mark.

The exhibit comprises 41 portraits taken at high schools across the country.  I couldn’t believe the variety: there are gay couples, pregnant couples, super conservative and ensconced in lace couples, Goth couples, punk couples and the list goes on.  Mark used a Polaroid Land Camera for the collection so the portraits have a Victorian feel to them: they’re black and white and hardly any of her subjects are actually smiling.  (We were told this was because Mark, a photojournalist, wanted to honor the students as they embarked upon this American rite of passage but I think the majority of the kids just didn’t like their dates.)

Mary Ellen Mark

Toccarra Baguma and George Wilkinson, New York City, 2007. Mary Ellen Mark (American b. 1940). Polaroid. 20 x 24 inches (61 x 50.8 cm). Image courtesy of the artist and © Mary Ellen Mark.

Having been rather disappointed by the majority of proms and college formals I attended, I was somewhat relieved to see that of the 41 couples depicted, less than half a dozen actually lived up to the Seventeen magazine version of looking good.  In more portraits than not, the young women towered over their dates and I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them are going to look back ten years from now (as I’m doing right now) and ask themselves “What was I thinking????”

Mary Ellen Mark

Nonetheless, it was a fascinating exhibit—and by fascinating, I mean kind of like a car crash: you can’t bear to look, but you can’t bear to look away either.  Mark’s husband created a 33 minute film to accompany the exhibit so you can also hear the kids talking about the trials and tribulations of being an American teenager, including their feelings towards their dates, their hopes and dreams and their sex lives (or lack thereof).  I’m not usually a huge fan of photography but I’d definitely recommend a visit for those of you who live in Philadelphia.

As for the rest of you: how was your prom?  Did it live up to your expectations or did you spend the whole time crying in the bathroom?  What did you wear (if you’re not too embarrassed to tell)?  And: most importantly, are any of you still with your prom date?  Perhaps I’ll post a photo from my prom if enough of you respond 🙂

24 Responses to “Prom: Awkward Teenagers at the Philadelphia Museum of Art”

  1. Maia

    I was stood up for my senior prom. I did go to the Drexel Spring Formal – I was picked up in the ice cream truck my date used for a part time job, in the pouring rain, and fell down the steps for the grand entrance.

  2. Amanda

    I thoroughly enjoyed my prom. My date was a good friend of mine who loved dancing as much as I did, so we had a fun time.

    I saw the NPR story about this exhibit-I’m jealous! My BF and I are trying to plan a trip out there to see family, so maybe I’ll get lucky and be able to go.

  3. Landlord

    Junior prom; full of pre-prom anxiety as I really didn’t like anyone enough to make myself vulnerable to be asked/not asked by them, ending up going w/ a friend who liked to dance, but who wanted to be more than a friend, and ditched him afterwards (he had a curfew, I didn’t) and spent the rest of the evening w/my friends who also ditched their quasi-dates. Senior Prom; much better, (of course I was on the planning committee–none of that queen and king crap, just good decorations, good music and fun) and YES, still with my prom date!

  4. chaufeur

    I went to 2 proms as my date and I went to different schools, so her prom and my prom. Despite my beige tux, 2 left feet, and suffering from being an all around dufuss, she has not dumped me as yet. 🙂

  5. Chicago-Style Girl

    My prom was amazing. I was with my high school sweetheart and friends I’d known for years. The whole night was romantic and fun. And my dress was custom-made: red satin mermaid style. That was a a great night that went according to plan all the way to the horse and carriage ride after dinner.

  6. Wilma

    This looks like it would be a really fun exhibit. Thanks for sharing it.

    I went to two proms in high school, one as a sophomore and one as a junior. I opted out in my senior prom for a trip to Washington D.C. instead. My prom pictures are awful. It was the 80s. I don’t think I have to say much more.

  7. jlillymoon

    My Jr prom, my boyfriend at the time broke up with me a few days before. It sucked. Now, he’s gay…. I didn’t go. My Sr prom, I had a date with my friend who had just graduated a year ahead of me. It was the day after Thanksgiving. We were all set to go when he couldn’t get home from Dartmouth to go… later found out he had a nervous break down and ended up doing some time in a rubber room. I ended up going with a friend. Mom and I had made my dress. I still have it and Mom still has my pictures. I ended up spending the night in the basement section of the resturant, with the “geeks” who were my friends, sucking helium out of the balloons and messing with the video camera for the video yearbook. Everytime we tried to venture upstairs to dance… they were playing a new hit song…. Ice Ice Baby. Ahhhh…. sweet 1990. How we miss your wonderful music. I haven’t spoken to my Sr date in years, lost track of my date who bailed and I am very good friends with my Jr year boyfriend.

  8. Jill

    I went to 3 proms, my jr & my boyfriend’s sr (he went to a different school) wearing a Gunne Sax dress (1982, what can I say?) and then my sr prom w/ a different boyfriend who was also a sr at the same school. That one I wore the hot pink bridesmaid’s dress from my cousin’s wedding the previous September. Possibly the ONLY case in history of someone actually being “able to wear the dress again.” I had an awesome time at all three, but the best time was my senior prom because I was so in love. We broke up when I went away to college and I have no idea what he’s doing now despite Facebook trying hard to introduce us. The bridesmaid dress was pretty unoffensive, but both years I had seriously dated updo’s with 200 hair pins and baby’s breath in them. It was the mid-80s and I lived in Rhode Island. I was lucky my hair wasn’t even bigger than that. I think, collectively, we’re up to the level of posting Kat’s prom photo, don’t you think?

  9. Katie @ Domestiphobia.net

    What an interesting project! I never went to prom, so it’s kind of cool to see how the kids are doing it. Based on the few pictures you show, it doesn’t look like I missed much. 😉

  10. debwill72

    I was a Dancer! Or at least that was the excuse I used not to have to admit that I was terribly shy and didn’t go to a prom. I also wasn’t in a physical high school so that narrowed down my opportunities. (Although I was asked by my best male friend…) So I never went to a prom until I worked at a high school and a fellow teacher and I “crashed” the prom to see what all the girls were wearing. They all looked beautiful, but after seeing it, I don’t think I missed much. I have had much better fancy dress parties in my life…

  11. Philly Tap Teaser

    I went to three proms. Couldn’t tell you the names of the dates I took to my proms or even any highlights of the evenings. I went to an all girls high school, so all my friends recycled all of the available dates from various boys schools. They were just props for the pictures. But I definitely remember my dresses! My junior prom, I wore a red silk spaghetti strap slip dress with some pretty fabulous Steve Madden patent leather platform heels. I still have them. Pretty ugly by today’s standards, but for the mid-1990s, they were the height of fashion. For my senior prom, I had my Cinderella moment in a light blue, off the shoulder ball gown (ball gowns were very trendy for prom in 1997). My senior year, out of the blue, my high school crush of 4 years asked me to his prom. I was so excited to go. I assumed that all of my pining for him had finally paid off – surely, if he asked me to his prom, he secretly liked me, too! Well, it was a pretty dismal evening. He ignored me the entire time, didn’t want to dance with me, I didn’t know anyone there, and then, to cap off the evening, he decided he wanted to go to an after party, but I had to go home. So, he went off to the party with friends and put me in the limo to find my own way home. Unfamiliar with the area, I gave the limo driver the best directions I could, but this was before the days of GPS and cell phones, and I got home late. Angry parents. Never heard from my crush-date again. Weeks of moping around afterward ensued. 🙂

  12. Landlord

    So much fun reading about the prom experiences and true to form (aside from chauffeur) no guys posted, which just proves the point that young women obsess about this event waaaaaay more than is necessary. I forgot to say I made my dress for my prom and got bargain “designer” dresses from a lady who sold them out of her home for the junior prom and chauffeur’s prom) Going to a prom with a friend or someone you are already dating seems to be the winner, since the other choices are ripe with anxiety ridden possibilities.

  13. Artsy Sisters

    Lol! Great post. I didn’t go to prom, though but I can totally relate to the prom experiences! I really enjoyed this. I’m checking in from 20sb!

    • Kat Richter

      Cool, thanks for stopping by! (And as you can tell, you didn’t really miss much in missing your prom…LOL)

  14. sarahnsh

    I never had prom, which I actually take as a really good thing. I was home schooled 8th grade through high school so I never even went on a date until I was 18 years old or so. When people find out I was home schooled through high school they look at me like I’m some kind of science exhibit, “How did you survive? How can you talk so easily to people if you were home schooled?” So, the painful prom thing I was luckily spared from doing it. 😉

  15. becky119

    Once I was at the age where I could attend prom I decided that the best thing would be to go with a friend. That way I didn’t have to worry about some guy trying to get into my pants and I could just have fun.

    Junior prom was more fun than senior prom. My date ‘Beige’ (John in reality) was a good friend whom I still talk to on occasion. My dress was very pretty, a silvery fade-to-black kind of thing. (I actually picked it out on the one day I cut class :P). Beige enjoyed dancing, so I spent most of the night on my feet having fun. The only regret I have from junior prom was that I thought it would be a good idea to dye my hair black two days beforehand. I looked like a ghost.

    Senior prom I took my older brother’s best friend. He didn’t like to dance, so we didn’t get to do much of that which was a little sad. The dress was a very pretty red gown that I wore in my older brother’s wedding. Thank God his wife has good taste. It was one of those dresses that you look at and think, wow, she doesn’t hate me.


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