Hoop Dreams: East of St. Louis, the prom attire is right out of Gone with the Wind

Hoop Dreams: East of St. Louis, the prom attire is right out of <i>Gone with the Wind</i>
Jennifer Silverberg
Roxana High School senior Jordan Sheraka (in green) goes the old-fashioned route with a custom-made hoop. For more photos, click here: The Hoop Skirts of Metro East

On a warm evening in May around 6 p.m., a crowd gathers at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois, a small town just north of Alton. An aerial view of the campus tonight would show a bunch of big round shapes in bright, happy colors on the lawn next to the lake.

What's the occasion? A balloon ascension?

Drift on down for a closer look. Those inflated ells of neon-pink and fluorescent-orange and acid-green fabric aren't filled with helium. They're filled with girls — girls wearing, of all things, hoop skirts.

At the Roxana High School prom, Scarlett O'Hara is the fashion plate to emulate. For as long as almost anyone can remember, the students here (like their sisters in the neighboring Metro East towns of East Alton, Wood River and Bethalto) have said fiddle-dee-dee to the curve-hugging strips of clinginess so popular with America's would-be Kardashians. In these refinery towns, they like their dancing dresses ample.

The Lewis and Clark campus is a natural setting for such an antebellum spectacle: It once quartered the Monticello Female Seminary, which was founded in 1835 by a former slave trader. All those hoop skirts against a backdrop of ancient towering trees inevitably brings to mind the Twelve Oaks barbecue scene in Gone with the Wind, though no textiles were quite so vividly dyed in 1861.

The classmates chatter in admiration of each others' ensembles while proud moms in capris and dads in Harley tees snap pictures of their daughters' buoyant finery. One grandmother puts her cane down onto a skirt ruffle by mistake; momentarily tethered, the girl attached turns to check what's hindering her flight. She sees her granny's flustered face, flashes a big brace-filled smile and kisses the old lady on the cheek. Then she's off to be photographed by one of her friends. She may be dressed for a bygone age, but when her hoops tip indecorously high, she exhibits colorful boxers personalized with her name and class year.

Despite the flouncy ball gowns, there's no forgetting this is 2011. The maidens of the Old South were careful not to show even a single shocking glimpse of ankle. The young ladies of Roxana come prepared for a much bigger reveal.

A few months earlier, four days before Valentine's Day, three females from across the river in St. Louis pull up to a snowy curb in Wood River, Illinois. The car parks in front of a large window display of hoop-skirted gowns, all in sweet chocolate-box colors of fuchsia, scarlet, blush and mauve. And so the shoppers get their first amazed look at Memory Lane, a special-occasion clothing store which specializes in both prom consignment and new prom apparel.

Soon, two supposedly mature women in dusty barn boots and flannel shirts are peeking through the curtains of one of the spacious, hoop skirt-specific dressing rooms inside, trying not to laugh at the frowning teenager who can't zip up her dress. The girl eyes her reflection with disgust, but instead of whining the expected "I'm too fat," the strapping volleyball champ states, "This ugly thing is too small. And what's with the color? Psycho-skank pink!"

The women stop trying to suppress their laughter. Miranda, a pretty girl with an approaching prom date, has even less interest in fashion than they do, so they've assumed the task of combing through the racks in search of dresses for her to try on. Her mother chose this first one. It's strapless, with a long corset bodice and huge, swagged bouffant skirt. The taffeta fabric is such a weirdly acidic shade of pink — not Barbie, not watermelon Jolly Rancher, not Hawaiian Punch, but something even more artificially colored than any of those. Mom snorts, then repeats, "Psycho-skank pink!" and everyone, including Miranda, breaks into giggles.

The giddy atmosphere of the store has gone to the shoppers' heads. All three profess to scorn girly girl stuff (the mother and her friend would rather pick out horse hooves than have their own cuticles trimmed, and the teenager lives in Puma), but when they were first led into the store's show room, the kaleidoscope of purely feminine opulence in front of their eyes dizzied their equilibrium with frivolous, uncharacteristic visions. Miranda stroked a pair of magenta opera-length gloves on one wall's rainbow display in awe, breathing, "Look!" And after a cursory glance at the simple sheaths they allegedly came in search of, they all headed straight for the puffiest, fluffiest, ruffliest dresses instead.

Now that the pink corset dress has taken its place on the "rejected" rack, the next dress in line is thrust through the curtains. This one is lavender, and elaborately trimmed. Its satin bodice is overlaid with the same hue of tulle, which is stitched with a million squiggles of silver embroidery and then further embellished with silvery sequins and beads. The satin skirt is not only full, it's also covered with clouds and clouds of tulle ruching. This is a dress that would have taken the eighteenth-century modistes of Marie Antoinette months to complete. Thanks to 21st-century breakthroughs in both technology and overseas sweatshop practices, though, it was likely knocked out in just a few hours.

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Ye gods, look at all that fug!

White Trash Peg
White Trash Peg

Interesting study on downstate Illinois culture =) Thanks!Have you seen the program about Irish Travelers and the amazing hoop skirts they buy for their over the top weddings and confirmations? The skirts are so heavy with fabric that they wear their resultant scars on the hips as a badge of honor ('if ye' don bleed, it ain't a big enough dress!')

I made my escape...
I made my escape...

My grandmother made my mother's dresses (Roxana, class of 77) and my mother made my sister's dresses (Bethalto, class of 05), not a Chinese sweat shop. Although, I obviously didn’t witness my grandmother detailing my mother’s dresses, I remember watching my mom make four different dresses over a four year time period for my sister. All were different than the year before, and required hours of detailing (she’d typically start two months out and do the final fitting on the Friday before the event). My grandpa worked at the refinery for 40+ years and my grandma worked as a seamstress. I had no idea this wasn’t the tradition at every high school in the nation until I went away to college.

Tricia Nixon
Tricia Nixon

I just counted the hoopskirt pictures (very popular 30s-40s boudoir print motif) I have in my work room: 18!

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