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March 15, 2001 The glamour and the horror of the prom dress





Prom accessories

Image courtesy of Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell



by Jane Shulman

Whether it was the best night of your life or the worst, just about everyone has a story to tell about her senior prom. Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell offer the chance to share those memories.

The two education professors (Weber at Concordia and Mitchell at McGill), have researched women’s prom experiences for the last few years. They put them together in a film Dress Fitting, which had its Canadian premiere at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute’s Feminist Film Festival a couple of weeks ago.

“When Claudia and I remembered our proms, we discovered that we had completely different experiences. Claudia had a fabulous time and it was one of the worst nights of my life,” Weber said.

“We figured that if our experiences were so different, there were probably a whole range of stories and issues around the prom that we could look at.”

That theme opened a Pandora’s box of interesting ideas – body image, identity, sexuality, and mother/daughter relationships.

The “biggest night of a girl’s life”

In Dress Fitting, Weber and Mitchell invited women to tell the story behind their prom dress. Some talk about not being able to find the dress of their dreams in their size, while others said their mothers wouldn’t let them wear dresses deemed too revealing.

Juxtaposed with these first-person accounts are images of these women’s dresses and photos from magazines that reinforce the notion that the prom is the biggest night of a girl’s life.

Girls currently in high school reveal their expectations about the prom. One admits she is focusing on it because she is concerned about what awaits her after high school.

In the discussion that followed the screening, many viewers said the film jogged memories they hadn’t shared in years, and there was a contagious urge to compare experiences.

Weber said that they never planned a film. She and Mitchell usually developed their work into books and research papers. They had often filmed meetings and interviews for documentation purposes, but the material they had collected for this project, including photos, magazine covers and the dresses themselves, were too vibrant to write up.

Multidisciplinary exploration

“We decided we didn’t want to write a paper — the whole thing was just too visual,” Weber explained.

Dress Fitting is part of a larger project looking at image, body and identity. A book and another film are in the works, as well as an installation art project. Weber and Mitchell have formed the Image and Identity Research Collective to generate more material.

“We’re hoping to show how much an event like the prom can reveal about ourselves. How do we remember being adolescents, and how does that affect us in adult life?” Weber asked.

She says the film’s purpose is two-fold.

“First, to make parents see it with perspective and realize how much pressure it is for their kids, or ask themselves if their knee-jerk reactions come from their own experiences.”

Second, she hopes the film speaks to teens who have not yet had their prom, and hopes they will think about the social and cultural aspects of the rituals.