Prom Then and Now: Why We Looked 17 and They Look 25

A look at prom in the 80s and 90s versus now... things sure have changed

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: Prom Then and Now: Why We Looked 17 and They Look 25

Written by: Marybeth Bock

It’s not quite the end of the school year, but you’d think it is with social media overflowing with pictures of high school girls shopping for the perfect prom dress.

And, just like so many other aspects of our kids’ lives, prom shopping and all the prep that goes with it begins much earlier than it did back in our day – especially if you have a daughter who wants to snag the perfect prom dress and publicize it before anyone else at her school considers buying the exact same one.

The truth is, nearly every parent who’s been through the prom experience with their teen will likely admit it’s unlike anything we lived through in the 80’s and the 90’s.

This American rite of passage has become nothing short of a “dance on steroids,” with a competitive flair that rivals high school sports and college admissions, and it sometimes leaves us shaking our heads in disbelief at the expense and all that extra-ness that goes along with it.

When we sift through our old high school prom pictures all tucked away neatly in a yellowing, sticky-paged photo album, we see gawky kids smiling back at us who actually look like teenagers. 

We can’t help but laugh at gowns that look like hand-me-down bridesmaid dresses or something a lass herding sheep on the highlands would be wearing. We gaze at big hairstyles that often curled on one side and fell flat on the other because we got tired of burning our fingers on our hot rollers or because the cheap drugstore hairspray we bought never seemed to hold up to the wind or humidity. 

There were boys in rented tuxedos with trousers too long or sleeves a tad too short. There were shiny foreheads, crooked bow ties, acne splotches, and stiff and awkward poses – all captured in fuzzy pictures that your mom took in your living room with her Kodak Ektralite camera before you dashed out the door.

We all piled into someone’s older brother’s Mustang and at dinner, someone inevitably spilled pasta sauce on their shirt or dress.

Yep… we arrived at the dance a little wrinkled and a little messy, yet it never stopped us from having the time of our lives dancing the night away to Prince, The Rolling Stones and Journey.

But somewhere along the way, thanks to the siren calls of social media platforms, prom has become a wildly anticipated night where teenagers are transformed into red carpet-worthy superstars – complete with crazy expensive dresses, top-of-the-line shuttle service, parent paparazzi, and extravagant after-parties that rival weddings – all with millions of TikTok videos, IG stories and selfies posted by kids throughout the evening in hopes of documenting one of the most amazing nights of their life. 

Dresses, Hair, Makeup… A Lot Goes into Today’s Prom Prep

Back in “our day,” the selection of prom dresses was limited to a handful of department stores. And, anyone who splurged and spent more than a hundred bucks for a dress was considered a “big spender.”

Prom-goers today not only have mounds of dresses to choose from at malls and boutiques, but the internet has made it possible to shop until your heart’s content with unlimited dresses from around the world at nearly every price point imaginable. 

Girls can find inexpensive, but beautiful, prom dresses from places like SHEIN or Lulus, or they can flex and rent a designer gown costing close to a thousand dollars for one night’s wear.

And, considering the average cost of a prom dress now ranges from $100 to upwards of $600, it’s no wonder that so many girls look like they stepped out of the pages of the latest Vogue magazine.

Tux and suit rental prices run about the same as buying dresses, depending on the quality and the look the guy is going for. Although, one nice trend is that lots of kids are now choosing to wear athletic shoes with their suits and even their dresses, and so many dresses have pockets, so phones don’t get lost!

It’s also now commonplace for girls to get their hair professionally blown-out or styled in an elaborate updo and pay for a makeup artist to give them eyelash extensions, flawless eyebrows, airbrushed foundation, and perfectly puckered matte lips. Heck in my day, we were considered “decked out” if we were wearing mascara, lip gloss and blush. 

And let’s not forget the spray tans to cover up pasty skin, and salon-perfect mani/pedis so that no matter what length dress a prom-goer is wearing, every inch from head to toes looks polished and camera-ready.

All the “Extras” Have Ramped Up, Too

Before the dance, it all begins with pictures – which is an event in itself. The stage is usually set with a picture-perfect designated spot like the grounds of a beautiful hotel, golf course or picturesque park chosen so big groups of kids can get together and snap literally hundreds (and hundreds) of pictures of the memorable event. (Years ago, pictures were taken in someone’s backyard or living room.)

Transportation to and from prom is also a far cry from what it was when I went to prom. From ride-share options and fancy limousines to elaborate party buses for large groups and high-end rental cars for those who really want to make a statement. 

Teens can rack up big flower and restaurant bills, too, and let’s not forget ticket prices to the prom are now crazy expensive.

And we can’t gloss over the expense of what starts this whole prom ball rolling – the Promposals that get more elaborate and flashy with each passing year. Gorgeous bouquets of roses, huge stuffed animals, clever posters, or miniature pony parades – there is no shortage of creative and pricey ways to ask someone to prom, so that it will forever have a place on the ‘gram.

But They Are Our Babies, No Matter How “Grown Up” They Look

It can be jarring to see our teen’s transform from their gawky, awkward (amazing) selves into someone who looks like they’re ready to walk the red carpet, but in our heart we know our kids better than anyone…

A stranger might look at our kids and see someone much older and sophisticated, but we know that beneath all the sparkles and glitz, makeup and accessories, perfectly styled hair and cuffed pressed pants is our once chubby-faced toddler that lies just beneath the surface. 

Seeing them looking so beautiful and handsome, so grown-up and poised brings a tear to our eyes because it’s yet another reminder how fast these days are fleeting, how little time they have left under our roof and how amazing this journey with them has been. 

Our sweet babies are growing up. And so, today, we want nothing more than for them to have the night of their lives, to make memories they’ll never forget and to dance the night away with friends they love. So… go ahead and take a hundred pictures, and savor every minute. Because it’s all going by faster than the flash of your camera phone. 


Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor, and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.



If you enjoyed reading, “Prom Then and Now: Why We Looked 17 and They Look 25,” you might also enjoy reading:

22 Cute and Romantic Promposal Ideas You Need to See

10 Clever Ways to Save Money on Prom

28 Stunning Hairstyle Ideas for Prom

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