Have fun at the prom, kids. You look amazing or hilarious, whichever it was that you intended. Please forgive Miss Manners if she can't always tell.
But you should not imagine that what you are wearing and doing represents formal dress and etiquette, even in the mild form in which these survive today. The formality occasionally practiced by people who do not confuse their blue jeans with their personalities, and are thus able to manage more than one style without getting sulky, goes by different rules.
Irreverence and discontinuity both contributed to fashioning the current American prom style. When proms resumed their importance in student society after a period in which they had been denigrated as too frivolous and conventional for the young, the cover story was that the revival was distinguished by irony. But satirists need a clear vision of their target, and the revivalists had only the haziest notion of how things had been done in earnest.
The result is what might be called Cartoon Plutocrat. This style has been depicted, almost without change, for three-quarters of a century, in both political humor and simple comic strips.
The male who embodies this wears a tailcoat, top hat and an assortment of odd clothing, mixing full evening dress with morning clothes. The female equivalent is festooned with long pearls over her tank-like bosom, a tiara and a lorgnette with which to look down on the world.
But this pair seems only to have an opera subscription together, where he goes for napping and she for frowning. The female with whom he indulges in other activities wears a tight-fitting black dress not quite covering her ample bosom, gloves up to her armpits and lots of sparkles at ear, throat and wrists (over the gloves).
Their drink is champagne, which has the curious property of projecting bubbles out of his head. Their transportation is a block-long car. He deals in cash, peeling bills from a fat roll; she deals just as frankly in goods, which she carries on her person.
Politically they are depicted as vicious exploiters of honest folk. In other contexts, they are merely foolish providers of merriment to sensible people.
If prom-goers find it funny to impersonate these figures, Miss Manners considers it harmless enough. You have only one senior prom, as the young plead when arranging the sponsorship of their whims.
The same cannot be said of weddings. Miss Manners does not mean to suggest that it is harmless to make such serious occasions amusing, nor that most people can expect to have only one (and perhaps there is a connection here). It is to rescue those who want dignified formality at their weddings that Miss Manners warns against confusing it with prom style.
True formality is to prom style as sport is to roughhousing: You can have as much fun and as much competition, but only if you play within the rules.
There are now two degrees of formality for evening and two for daytime. The most common evening dress, which should never see the light of day, is called "black tie." This means dinner jackets (the black suit for which the slangy term "tuxedo" has become common) with white shirts and black bowties for gentlemen and long dresses (narrow and sleeved for dinner parties, but rather more bare and pouffy for dances) for ladies. White tie involves a tailcoat, wing-collared shirt, white bowtie and white waistcoat for gentlemen, and even more effort on the part of ladies.
Morning dress, the most formal of daytime clothes, is a black (sometimes grey) cutaway worn with striped trousers, grey tie and waistcoat for gentlemen; the daytime equivalent to black tie is the black sack coat, or club coat, without tails, but also worn with grey waistcoat, striped pants and grey tie. Brides have special dispensation to wear long dresses, and other ladies wear short but dressy clothes and, if they really want to be correct and outrageous, hats.
To mix these elements, wearing evening clothes at an afternoon wedding, wrist watches and leather shoes with evening dresses, tailcoats with black tie, ladies' hats in the evening, odd colored ties and so on, is not amusing. But then weddings, unlike proms, are not supposed to be funny.
And to mix any of this up with throwing money around is to mistake vulgarity for manners. Etiquette has nothing to say about limousines, except what a peculiarly pretentious word that is for a car.
DEAR MISS MANNERS: What do you do when you are talking to a friend who just had a baby, and all of a sudden you cannot remember the child's gender, let alone the name?
I don't mind admitting that I've forgotten a name so much, but you can't even ask "What's his name?" without running the risk of being wrong about the child's gender. It's possible to get around this by addressing the baby and saying, "Well, what's YOUR name?" but I find it a bit cutesy to talk to an infant like that.
GENTLE READER: All newborn babies are cutesy by definition, and therefore may be correctly addressed as either Sweetie Pie or Honey Bunch.
Furthermore, they never leap out at you shouting, "I bet you don't remember who I am!" Miss Manners thinks it a shame that they so quickly outgrow this polite restraint.