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

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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
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 Jennifer Silverberg

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

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.

The store clerk pokes her head through the curtain. "That one needs a six-hoop," she asserts.

If you judged this clerk on appearance alone, you would have voted her least likely to know a damn thing about hoop skirts. Her hair is scraped into inch-long pigtails, and she's wearing the antithesis of promwear: tight T-shirt, grungy hoodie, ultra-skinny jeans and high-top sneakers. She's the quintessential modern girl.

Modern girls aren't supposed to know anything about hoop skirts except that Lady Gaga's wardrobe contains a few, but this one seems to know everything about them: in particular, just what kind of hoop skirt goes with what kind of dress. Yes, there is more than one kind of hoop skirt! The clerk slips into the empty room next door and pulls one down from a hook on a wall, shaking it out. It's a circle of flimsy, graying white fabric with six sewn-in hoops of graduated diameter and a drawstring waistband to fit all girths.

Miranda takes it from her and pulls it on over her hips. When the yards and yards of pale purple slide over all those hoops, it's clear that the clerk was absolutely correct in her assessment. The gown takes on a life of its own, and on the glide out to the three-way mirror for a better view, Miranda seems to be along for the ride, with the hoop skirt as her wheels.

"In this area, we've always done the hoop dresses for prom. Always. East Alton-Wood River, Roxana, Bethalto. I have no idea why. It's just the tradition," says Sandi Blair, owner of Memory Lane. "People come from other places and are just amazed by the sight of all those hoops on the dance floor. They're like, 'Are you kidding me?'"

Despite her everyday outfit of slacks and blouse, Blair has a definite fairy godmother vibe: tall, white-haired and so perceptibly full of energy that you feel that she actually could transform some drab little nobody into a dazzler worthy of a prince. Which, with the help of her seemingly endless supply of enchanted dresses, she has done many times here in this industrial corner of the Metro East.

"Back when, you couldn't buy a hoop dress," Blair says. "They just weren't out there. There was only one company who carried them, and they did the same boring dress, over and over. So most of the prom dresses were custom-made. There were a lot of women in this area who made them, and I was one of them.

"Because they were custom-made, they cost a lot. Then there you were, stuck with this expensive fancy thing you'd never wear again. You'd look in the back of The Telegraph, and there'd just be row after row after row of used hoop-dress ads. I thought, 'How inconvenient is that, to have to look at all these ads, pick out a dress that might be your size, then figure out a time to go look at it?' And then if you don't like it, how do you say that to the owner's face?"

With the acumen of a born mogul, Blair found a way to fill the demand she'd spotted. In the early 1990s, she started reselling prom dresses on consignment in a spare room of her house in East Alton. Business got so good that she soon kicked her son out of his bedroom and down into basement exile in the name of expansion. Growth then moved the business into an apartment above her daughter's garage, conveniently located across the street.

Blair credits her initial rapid success to the fact that she's an ace seamstress who has been sewing since childhood. "The reason I sold most all of what I consigned is because I could make pretty much anything fit. If I needed fabric to let out a seam and add a panel, I could just steal it from one of the ruffles that these dresses were then covered with." Of course, there was an extra charge for any alteration that could squeeze a size-twelve girl into a size-eight dress.

After only a year in her daughter's garage, the frill-centric boutique got too big for its girdle and needed some major wardrobe alterations of its own. So Blair bought another business — one that came with its own building. Which, again, was soon outgrown. (Hey, hoop skirts take up a lot of room!) Six years ago, after a few more moves to evermore ample spaces, Memory Lane landed in its current spot on Wood River's main drag, Ferguson Avenue, in the old Schwartz furniture complex: three connected buildings that take up almost an entire city block. And there's a warehouse out back to boot.

Nowadays the store carries new prom dresses — many styles of which require hoops — in addition to its indigenous resale base.

Blair waves her hand to indicate her empire. "Yep, this all started with the whole big six-hoop Southern belle thing," she says.

She adds: "We get very few custom-made dresses anymore for consignment. The beadwork alone you can have done on the factory-made dresses is just so outlandish. They have little Chinese kids doing this stuff; it's crazy." And cheaper. Nothing like child labor to keep costs down!

Blair makes it a point to carry new promwear within a certain price range. "This is a depressed area, and kids don't have a ton of money to spend on a hoop dress. We have a few Mac Duggal dresses going for $550," she says, naming the high-end prom-and-pageant designer, "but even if they don't sell at that price, they look classy in the window." Most of Blair's hoop dresses retail from $250 to $400: "You can't sell them for lower than the minimum price the company allows, or they won't let you carry their dresses anymore. Of course, after market, you can price them however you want to."

Last year's dresses are the bargains, while custom gowns are the most expensive: A plain one starts around $400 and can go as high as the budget allows, usually capping out around $800.

Finding the right prom dress, to say nothing of the right hoop skirt to go with it, is a tough slog, and some girls can crack under the strain. Occasionally, a promzilla crosses Memory Lane's threshold: "Recently one just kept yelling at her mother, being nasty. And foul-mouthed. We had to go back there and tell her to watch her language; it was offensive. She did find a dress eventually, and her mother actually bought it for her. At the cash register, my clerk Karen said: 'I can't believe your mother is actually buying you this beautiful dress after you were so horrible to her. You need to thank her and apologize to her and give her a hug.' Moms need to crack down on their hateful little brats.

"Sometimes I can think a girl is going to be trouble just by the way she looks — and then I'll be wrong. One of nicest, sweetest girls I ever worked with was covered in tattoos, had piercings everywhere, and was completely bald except for a few blue spikes sticking up from the middle of her head. She picked out a dress that needed some alterations, and I tell you what, no one has ever been more appreciative of my help. She was adorable! I now make it a point to buy for our goth-punk girls. I have to: Most colors don't cut it with them. They only want red or black."

Petrochemicals have been the common denominator in the adjacent towns of East Alton-Wood River, Roxana and Bethalto since the early-twentieth century.

The water tower hovering over the Memory Lane store on Wood River's main street is painted with a banner inscribed, "Home of the Oilers," a team name referring to the old Standard Oil refinery, which has been closed since 1981. East Alton is so conjoined with Wood River that the two communities share a high school.

Roxana has an oil refinery of its very own, which has been cooking gas since 1917 — owned by Shell till 1995, it's now operated under the aegis of ConocoPhillips. Bethalto's proximity to both refineries means that it's historically attracted a good portion of the working population.

A community has to be cohesive in order to sustain a tradition as unusual as wearing hoop dresses to prom. Not surprisingly, hoops have encircled the thoughts of young prom-going women in the refinery area for a long, long time.

Sharon Rothe, 69, once owned two businesses that Sandi Blair eventually bought — the Bridal Suites store and the Memory Lane hoop-dress line. She still makes custom hoop dresses in Bethalto, where she also helps out at her son's screen-printing and embroidery shop, B-Town Designs.

"People think that every year the hoop dresses are going to go out," Rothe says. "But these adorable little eighth graders, that's all they talk about is hoop dresses. And then the minute they get out of the eighth grade and start high school, they're out there looking for that hoop dress. They'll buy them used or have them made or get them handed down from a cousin. I've altered dresses that I made ten, fifteen years ago. This place has always been tightly knit: I'm now making dresses for second- and third-generation hoop-skirt wearers."

One prom ritual that has never taken hold in the area is the limo-and-dinner package. It's not a lot fun riding in any kind of car, no matter how long and white, with hoops on. Engulfed in a big dress, the girls neither fit into a tightly packed restaurant nor dare the potential spillage of a fast-food drive-through. They eat before they get dressed. And when the prom ends at 11 p.m., everyone goes home and changes into shorts and T-shirts for the after-prom party. This parent-sponsored event is full of food and other goodies donated by local restaurants and businesses.

Hoop skirts first became popular in the 1850s as a practical way to free the movement of women's legs. Before the hoop, hobbling layers of stiff and scratchy crinolines were needed to give shape to the fashionable full skirts of the era. Around 1855, when elastic spring-steel hoops replaced the whalebone, iron and brass of the first "caged" crinolines, hoop skirts became all the rage, because they reduced the number of petticoats needed from two tons' worth to just two: one to go over the hoops to hide the ridging, and one to go underneath.

A hundred years later, in the mid 1950s, the full-skirted figure again became popular. This time around, lightweight nylon hoops buoyed the net petticoats necessary for the properly puffed-up mid-century silhouette. Beginning in Paris with Dior's New Look of 1947, this rebellion against the straight skirts dictated by WWII fabric rationing swept the Midwest a few years later.

But the critical year for generations of promgoers in the Roxana area might have been 1955. That year, Wanda Jennings, the wife of a Shell Oil research chemist employed at the refinery, reigned as Mrs. America. The coronation of one of their own sparked a new tradition at the Shell Club's annual spring dance: the crowning of the Shell Queen.

A photograph of the event, which was graced by the royal Mrs. America Jennings herself, is featured in John G. Schroeder's 1993 book, Shell at Wood River: 75 Years of Progress. Not only was the first, nameless Shell Queen wearing a hoop skirt, but the back of her throne — a giant Shell Oil logo — resembled a hoop skirt turned upside down. Perhaps not so coincidentally, because so many local parents were employed by the Shell refinery, 1955 was the same year that high school yearbooks for both Roxana and East Alton-Wood River showed full hoop-skirt dresses at prom.

The Wood River Refinery History Museum, housed in the former Shell Oil research lab outside the gates of Roxana's ConocoPhillips complex, is run by knowledgeable volunteers — most of whom, like Dave Peterson, Ollie Schwallenstecker and Dave Lewis, are retired refinery workers.

After an off-topic discussion about pipelines, oil sand, catalytic crackers and venting flares, Peterson volunteers some insight as to why the towns in the area have the same prom-time hoop-skirt tradition. Sure, there were rivalries over football and softball teams. But when it mattered, they all came together.

"When the refinery in Wood River was still open, we shared stuff back and forth all the time," he explains. "You have to get along with the other people in this business; things can go wrong, and then you need help fast. When Standard shut down, a lot of the people who worked there came over here." Like corroded old spiders, the refineries of Roxana and Wood River spun a web of shared company-town values.

Roxana's prom coordinator, David Watts, a junior high school teacher, is not thrilled by the whole hoop-skirt phenomenon. "I seriously wish the girls would go to straighter skirts," he gripes. "We have 280 guests at prom this year, and the hoops take up a lot of room on the dance floor and at the tables." But, he sighs, "it's the tradition around here."

Of the slim minority of Roxana girls who wear straight gowns, many were members of the autumn homecoming court, and so have already done hoop duty for the year. The others either espouse an alternative lifestyle — such as the two girls in matching black mini-dresses and Keds, who are each other's dates — or just don't want to spend the money and effort. The full-skirted hoop dresses cost at least three times as much as sheaths do, and are not easy to maneuver.

Watts is not the only one done with hoop skirts. An informal poll on prom night suggests many girls love wearing the look, with responses including, "It's fun!" "It's awesome!" and "I feel like a princess!" But there are a few dissenters.

One tall brunette, Taylor Habbe, wears a lavishly beaded lilac taffeta, custom-made at Memory Lane for her stint on homecoming court last fall. "It cost a lot," she says. "So I wore it again for prom, even though it has a train." She looks gorgeous, but squeezing through the door into the dance's foyer, the girl turns to her date, who is holding excess fabric off the ground, and scowls, "Don't ever wear a dress like this to prom!"

Not much later, the ladies' room is full of hoops and petticoats. The girls very carefully navigate the facilities — two girls per handicap stall, one to help bear things up. Then Taylor of the homecoming taffeta swishes in. She begins shedding that expensive custom-made gown: "It's heavy, and it hurts. I don't want it to spoil my night." Off comes the dress, six hoops, an extra hoop and a crinoline. In a tank top, boxers and running shoes, the girl now looks ready for a track meet. A friend in a more sensible sheath has to help her wrestle the lilac beast and all those falderals out to the car.

Back in the prom auditorium, the dancing has begun. A few girls still sit at their tables, texting, as the music begins to blare, hoop skirts either squished to one side or draped over the back of the chair, hiding the entire piece of furniture and giving the illusion of Little Miss Muffet on a tuffet. But most of the hoops are now on the dance floor, and it's true: They do take up a lot of room.

When the girls' dates snuggle up from behind, the skirts billow out front. And there they go, jamming to a hip-hop beat that has nothing reminiscent of the waltz about it.

At least three-quarters of the Roxana girls report that they bought their dresses, either new or used, off the rack at Memory Lane. But one standout in the prom crowd, Jordan Sheraka, had hers custom-made the old-fashioned way, by Sharon Rothe.

Jordan took her high school's golf team, the Roxana Shells, to the state finals in Decatur last October. This scholar-athlete not only loves to golf, but she's also a science nut: "My seventh- and eighth-grade year, I qualified for the state science fair. I'm all about inorganic chemistry." She'll be entering the mining school at the University of Kentucky in Lexington this fall, to study minerals and become a chemical engineer.

"A lot of the curriculum will have to do with explosives and blowing things up," she says. "I'm super excited. Two of my professors are the hosts of that Discovery Channel show The Detonators."

After she earns her degree, Jordan wants to come back to her hometown and work at the refinery, just like her father and grandfather. "Maybe someday, with advances in technology," she says, "we can transform oil refining so it's not so bad for the environment. I want to change people's view of the process as a dirty old thing."

If anyone can do that, it's a girl who wears a hoop skirt with such panache. Jordan's iridescent strapless number for prom was overlaid with black netting — fabulous with her blonde hair and green eyes.

Its simple design, she explains, may have been reactionary: "I was looking at old prom pictures of my mom's. She graduated from Roxana in 1989, and back then it was all about the ruffles. I was like, 'Mom, what were you thinking?' Thank God it's not all about the ruffles anymore!"

Jordan carried a full bouquet, as did most of the other girls not wearing straight gowns. The sheer size of the hoop skirts demands flowers more substantial than a wrist corsage. Jordan's floral arrangement was a symphony of reds, pinks and varying shades of green. "Jeffrey, the owner of Jeffrey's Flowers by Design in Wood River, has been a family friend for beaucoup years," she says. "He's one of my favorite people in the world. They call me the Flower Diva at his shop. I have a title! With this last bouquet, I just brought in my green shoes, and Jeffrey went to town!"

Which brings us to her shoes.

Jordan's design inspiration — for both gown and bouquet — came from a source unavailable in Scarlett O'Hara's time: a favorite pair of Nikes, which she had made online. They're customized in her favorite shade of green, with black and silver accents, hot-pink shoelaces and with her name stitched on the side.

"I only wear them for special occasions; I don't wear them to go running. I've had them since my freshman year. They're my good-luck shoes." When it came time to find a dress for senior prom, naturally, Jordan looked to these talismans.

Before turning to Rothe, she shopped at Memory Lane, but just couldn't find anything to match those shoes.

"I have this craze about wanting to be unique," she says, adding, "Sure, everyone else is wearing a hoop skirt, but I'm not going to wear a sheath!" A well-mannered girl, Jordan almost spits out that last word.

"Prom is your time to feel like a princess," she says. "The hoop skirts are so much fun, you have no idea! You just feel like you're floating in your own beautiful cloud." 

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