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|Did it all start
by Shirley Mason of The Frock Exchange, Fenstanton, Cambs
At The Frock Exchange in Fenstanton, we like to think that the UK school prom phenomenon started here in Cambridgeshire. Eighteen years ago, our daughter left school at 16 with few qualifications but plenty of "attitude". We managed to persuade her to attend a Lucy Clayton modelling/finishing course in London, to give her an advantage at interviews. The graduation ceremony included a fashion show, with the girls in ball gowns for the grand finale. To our surprise, our 'rebel' thoroughly enjoyed going 'girly', and subsequently persuaded her friends in the local sixth form to organise a Leavers' Ball instead of the inevitable end of term disco.
Within a short time, every school in Cambridge was having a Leavers' Ball, with the name "Prom" taking over, as more and more American prom dresses appeared in the shops. To everyone's amazement, the boys soon wanted to smarten up too, and trainers gave way to black Oxford shoes (usually borrowed from Dad), and T-shirts to replace tuxedos. This transformation has been encouraged by teachers, and several have told us that they can see the boys grow in stature and confidence as they don the suit. This year, one local prom was graced by a Fred Astaire look alike, complete with white tie, tails and top hat!
Along with the obvious benefits to hire shops and retailers, a whole industry has grown up around the proms. The best hairdressers, make-up artists and manicurists are booked up weeks ahead of the special evening. Taxi and limousine companies are fully committed too, and boats and vintage cars are rising fast up the list of 'gotta haves'. Sadly, this year's rain has not helped some of the red carpets on display, and shoes have been stained even before the evening gets underway.
Next to our clients, our alteration ladies and our dry cleaners are all best friends, and are treated with lots of TLC! We spend nearly £8,000 a year on dry cleaning, and no, we don't want to buy washable dresses. With an increase in turnover of £7,000 so far this year, and working days of 7.30 am to 7.30 pm for the past month, when would we have the time to wash and steam them?
On the whole, the prom girls are a joy to look after, and they cherish the dresses - unlike some at the Uni who will insist on punting down the river for breakfast, with our fragile frocks billowing out into the smelly water. We obviously prefer to sell them the dresses, rather than hire them!
At this time of year (late summer), it is quietening down, and we can analyse our results before placing orders for next spring. We rely on our suppliers to support us, and they in turn get a very rapid response from us, along with our thanks at the end of another successful season.
As for our rebel daughter, who initiated her school prom, her course in confidence certainly worked. She has never applied for a job that she hasn't been offered, and she is currently a Business Development Manager of an international recruiting agency in Melbourne, Australia. I understand that Proms are very big over there - maybe an Australian branch of The Frock Exchange is next on the agenda ......