AS prom season reaches its peak this month reporter SOPHIE BROWNSON looks at the rise of the former American tradition and its impact on Gwent’s youth.

STRETCH limos, lash extensions and spray tans are all common denominators - for girls, at least - in what has become known as the ‘prom package.’

As school kicks out for summer, Year 11 and Year 13 students from across Gwent, and the UK are preparing themselves for the most important night of their lives so far-the school prom.

Proms are no longer a trivial end of year party to celebrate exams and new starts, indeed, what was once a disco in the school hall is now a three course meal and a dance in some of Gwent’s most glamorous venues.

Originating in America, proms were until recently a little-know phenomenon but have since become a rite of passage for many UK teens.

The term “prom” comes from the word “promenade,” which means a march of guests into a ballroom to announce the beginning of a formal event or ball.

In Victorian America members of the upper class would hold grand balls and debutante balls for the younger generation with the first proms coming about as middle-class replications of this.

Evidence of the first high school proms was not recorded in high school yearbooks until the 1930s and 1940s; historians believe proms existed at the college level well before that time period.

Up until the 1950s, proms were still being held in high school gyms, but as the country benefited from the America's post-war economy, proms began to transform into more glamorous events held at hotels and country clubs.

By the end of the 80s, the prom had gained the reputation as a significant event in the school experience which it continues to hold today with parents spending hundreds to ensure their hold has a night to remember.

Sixteen-year-old year St Julian’s Comprehensive pupil Jemima Hughes is eagerly anticipating her prom on July 2 at the Hilton Hotel in Newport.

“I started looking for dresses last summer and bought it at Christmastime last year,” she said.

“I’m really excited about it.

“I got my dress in Quiz for £70 its royal blue and long but some people go all out (and spend much more) its insane.

“But I did take a long time to find the dress as I am quite fussy.

“It took ages because I didn’t want a fluffy dress or anything too girly.

“I am going to Jenna McDonnell with my friends to get the prom package so we’ll begin there throughout the day.

“I had a trial day in February half term to try out hairstyles where I looked through Jenna’s photos and tried out hair styles for a few hours.

“The prom package means I’ll get lash extensions, hair and makeup, gel nails, and a photographer will be there to take photos of me and the girls and we will have non-alcoholic cocktails.

“At the end we will receive a free CD with all our photos on.”

Jemima said the appeal of the day is the chance to have fun with her friends before they go their separate ways.

“It’s so fun and everybody is really excited,” she said.

“I can’t wait to see everybody I think it’s important as it’s the last time we are all going to see each other all together before we go our separate ways.”

Former St Joseph’s Comprehensive pupil Megan-Elizabeth Smith also had her prom at the Hilton in Newport last year and is looking forward to her year 13 prom next year.

“I had my makeup done by Jenna McDonnell and had a picture of what I wanted my hair to look like,” she said.

“I was on the prom committee and it was really good helping to organise it and it was really nice to see the finishing touches.

“I think it’s become a tradition for different schools to dress up and meet up as it makes it special for the whole year group.”

Megan started looking for her dress three months before her prom but believes some people started looking as soon as they went into Year 11.

She spent more than £200 on a Karen Millen gown and also had he prom package including lash extensions and make up.

Jenna McDonnell has become one of the go-to hair and beauty businesses for Gwent pupils preparing for their prom.

Miss McDonnell offers the ultimate prom package for just £23 instead of the usual rate of £79.99 which includes gel nails, hair and makeup, drinks, photos and lash extensions.

She has seen a huge number of girls come in for trial hair and makeup sessions before the big day booking in appointments months in advance.

“They have got really popular,” she said.

“People are quite serious about it and come in for trials - I even had a girl crying last year because somebody from a different school had the same dress as her.

“Some even have bridal accessories in their hair and they don’t care about the price.

“They bring in pictures off Pintrest with what they want.

“This year quite a lot of people are going for chunky plaits and messy side buns.”

Some spend over £100 on hair alone with one spending £120 on a head piece.

She has event seen primary school pupils come in for their end of primary school prom ages 10 for a hair and makeup trial.

“Six weeks before they come in for a trial lasting four hours and can pick up to three hairstyles to try and we do make up skin tests,” Miss McDonnell added.

“Proms are a big business.

“I’m not complaining they’re quite nice and easy to do as their skin is quite fresh faced.”

Such preparation extends to the dresses with some pupils like Jemima choosing their gown a year before the event itself.

Caerphilly dress shop Carols Bridal and Proms know all about it.

“Proms are something that have just been going on in the past eight or nine years,” store manager David Thomas said.

“Before that it wasn’t something that we had heard of.

“American label Mori Lee supply a lot of our dresses.

“Money seems to be no object.”

Mr Thomas puts this down to reality TV programmes promoting prom culture.

“Programmes on TV that teens watch such as The Hills and Made in Chelsea emphasise designer labels,” he said.

“Some of the dresses in shops are £800; here our most expensive dress is £450.

“They are increasing in price.

“The modern teen can be very demanding and know what they want because they have seen it on TV.

“This year there are a lot of champagne nude colours which are quite popular and a slinky style dress is also trendy at the moment but we sell fuller and slinky styles on a 50-50 ratio.”

The store gathers are range of stock by Christmas and start selling from January 2 with pupils coming in to try up to 20 dresses before they choose ‘the one.’

For venues and limo companies it is also peak season with proms bringing in big business.

The Hilton Hotel in Newport is a popular venue for many schools offering a prom package comprising of a three course meal, disco and photographer along with a red carpet from £24.95.

“We used to have a buffet but now the school want it to be more formal,” said Nadia Vecchio, manager of the Hilton in Newport.

“We have about five proms this year and they can be mid week or on a Friday-it varies.

“Generally we have 80 to 100 people depending on the size of heir year group.”

Cwmbran Limo Hire’s Christian Sinclair agrees.

“We are quite busy this time of year as May to August is the highest peak of the season and we are flat out now with proms.

“We take 16 students form schools including St Julian’s, West Mont and Blackwood, to their prom, its mostly a one way trip and they pay to hire the limo for an hour costing £400 or £25 per person.

So behind the glamour, what do students get out of them?

Duffryn High literacy tutor and PTA treasurer Anne Llewellyn said the prom creates lasting memories. Their prom was held on May 22 at the school.

“My eldest daughter is 26 and hers was the first ever prom, 10 years ago,” she said.

“It started off with just a disco and a big chocolate fountain and has progressed to a red carpet.

“It has become a really big thing now-parents and ex-students come down to watch them walk up the red carpet.”

Mrs Llewellyn agrees the prom is part of American culture but said the school are careful to keep the cost low enabling all of the students to attend.

“We hold the prom at the school and tickets are £10 instead of the usual £40,” she said.

“It’s not to make a profit to celebrate their time at school with a memorable night to leave with.

“The prom follows our record of achievement ceremony in the day; they (the students) all leave that and come back for the prom and then go on to after parties.

“Everyone comes together-that is the whole point-to celebrate their time with us.”

But some American aspects remain such as Prom King and Queen, with students voting who should be crowned during the night, along with a host of other awards up for grabs including best dressed.

“(But) It’s all about the memories,” Mrs Llewellyn insists.

“Children come up to me and say it is the best night of their life.”