Proms have evolved over the years. Decorating the school gymnasium has been replaced by booking a brave restaurant venue. A one-man DJ substitutes for the local band and limos and coach buses line up to transport the youths instead of a mom’s minivan. A few things have not changed, though. There is always the excitement of this special night out, the hope for a romance to begin, the solidification of romances already in progress, and the ushering of a new life chapter. The kids are, all dress up looking like they are ready for the challenges the world is ready to throw at them.
My senior prom was in June 1975. My boyfriend, Matt and I had been dating less than two months. It started with the need for someone other than my father, the engineer, to get me through the physics lab final and regents exam. The teacher was letting me pass the class out of pity. My attendance was perfect, but I quietly sat glazed over in total confusion for every class. Dad could not understand why I didn’t get it. It was all so obviously simple. Matt was kinder. Although I never did get a physics epiphany, my guesses were at a bit more smarter than the “eeny-meeny-miny-moe” system. We went on a few bowling and movie dates. By senior prom time, we were officially “going out”.
Dress shopping was the big part of prom prepping. The Charlotte Shop had the latest fashion in the storefront windows along Main Street. Some girls ventured to Swezey’s in Patchogue or the big Smith Haven Mall in the middle of the Island.
I was never much of a shopper. Somehow the rack selections did not peak my interest or fit me as well as the manakins. It did not matter since I came from a line of dress makers.
My mom sewed. She had a heavy Singer machine that folded into a sturdy desk. It had standard stitch capabilities including zigzag and reverse. She sewed curtains, cute outfits when my siblings and I were small, and repaired seams.
My grandmother and her sisters were garment workers. They sewed dresses, lingerie, blouses, and way back when, shirtwaists. My grandmother worked directly with a designer in the New York’s fashion district. I never knew his name since she always referred to him as “Her Designer”. She made his drawings into gowns and fashionable coats and blazers.
My grandmother was an amazing seamstress. When I was a child, my lanky body did not fit into store bought coats. Grandma took me to the A&S department store, found a coat that that closely fit me, turned it inside out to exam the lining and sleeve, pulled it right side out, and returned it to the rack. The following week I had a perfectly tailored Easter coat complete with silky lining, pockets and a Peter Pan collar. Since she worked with what fabric and notions she had handy, the color and buttons were not my favorite. It did not matter since the sleeves reached my wrists and the pockets were deep enough to hide almost any small treasure.
Aunt Lil, Grandma’s younger sister who lived in our neighborhood, was just as precise. Aunt Lil was frequently asked to sew my sisters and my blouses, dresses, and skorts. My sisters, mom, Aunt Lil and I went on shopping sprees to the fabric store. We browsed through Simplicity or McCall’s patterns and touched all of the fabric before deciding on the perfect material. Aunt Lil had us cut out the patterns and mark the darts and zipper seams. Although she sewed at her house on her industrial machine, she liked to show us how she pleated and turned over seams to create a clean line. I didn’t realize it then, but my sisters and my wardrobe consisted of tailored clothing. No wonder we had no patience for off the rack garments.
For my senior prom, I choose a powder blue fabric and a Butterick pattern. Aunt Lil had the dress ready for hemming within days. I saved a swatch of the blue fabric for Matt to match with his tux. That was a thing back in the day.
Some girls were transformed into glamorous young women who looked like they had always worn gowns and very high heels. They were able to work makeup magic and long silky straight hair to mimic the teen idols of the day like Susan Dey of the Partridge Family or Maureen McCormick of the Brady Bunch.
Me? I looked like myself in a long dress that fit perfectly. Not much of a transformation. Matt drove to my house in his father’s Suburban. He said I looked beautiful. I returned the compliment. What could be more adorable than a six-foot-three football player wearing thick glasses and a powdered blue tuxedo and matching ruffled shirt?
I remember the prom as being a fun night with friends. We were all dressed up, dancing, eating a sit-down dinner, pretending to be grown up. At the end of the evening, the words to the theme song, Seals and Crofts We May Never Pass This Way Again, seemed certain, but for Matt and I, it meant a beginning. For the record, I passed Physics with two points to spare.
Antoinette Truglio Martin is the author of Hug Everyone You Know: A Year of Community, Courage, and Cancer. The memoir is a wimpy patient’s journey through her first year of breast cancer treatment.