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A night to remember

From the satin to the sequins to the dyed-to-match shoes and wrist corsages, prom sticks in our memories like Aqua-Net in an up-do.

The hiking up of strapless gowns. The leafing through dress ads in Seventeen magazine. The saving-up for a limo. The anxiety over finding a date. So many photographs out on the lawn.

On the threshold of prom season, when The Baltimore Sun started asking prominent Baltimore women about their proms, not a single one had forgotten that night. Even after decades. Some compared it with their weddings — maybe not so ultimately important, but certainly up there in pomp, circumstance and sheer primping time.

After years of raising kids, teaching school and running for office, Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke remembers the feel of her dress. News anchor Denise Koch remembers wanting so badly to stand out. Disc jockey Kiki Brown can still feel the pang of embarrassment over a discount dress.

Socialite and former Ravens cheerleader Molly Shattuck remembers prom because she didn't go. While the kids in her class were slipping into their outfits, she was sliding down the trails of the Grand Canyon, on a trip with her mother that she wouldn't trade for all the taffeta in the world.

Prom matters, one way or another. If you went. If you didn't. For what it was supposed to be and what it was. For the magic and the lack thereof. Here are five women's thoughts on high school's big night:

Mary Alice Fallon Yeskey, office manager at Charm City Cakes: Like any girl who came of age in the 1980s, Yeskey watched a lot of John Hughes movies. And so when she thought of prom, the image in her mind was Molly Ringwald in "Pretty in Pink," short on money but long on creativity and spunk, pulling a prom dress together from bits of vintage castoffs.

"That's probably the idea I had in my head," she says. "I think that the whole making-it-yourself, not-being afraid-to-do-what-you-want-to-do thing was an ideal I held dearly."

In the 16 years since high school, Yeskey hasn't changed all that much. She's still got a streak of individuality. She still doesn't follow fashion. And, yes, she still has a bit of a thing for the poodle skirt era.

So though it wasn't the style of the day in 1994, and certainly not a trend at Montgomery County's Quince Orchard High School, Yeskey decided that she would go to prom retro — 1950s to be exact. Most girls were looking for long, tight and slinky. She wanted to be Lucy Ricardo, with a cinched-in top and impossibly poufed bottom.

Her mother took her to a fabric store where they found a pattern and, as Yeskey puts it, "the most obnoxiously bright pink satin I could possibly find." Her mom made the dress.

"It was exactly what I wanted," she remembers. "Exactly."

She remembers cutting school early on prom day for an afternoon of primping.

A long relaxing bath. Lying on the sofa in a bathrobe with cucumber slices on her eyes. Lots of curling-iron action. Lots of hairspray.

When she and her date, Craig Updike, got to the party, she kicked off her shoes and wanted to hit the dance floor. But because she had lost a bit of weight between the time her mom started the dress and prom night, it had become a bit loose in the bosom.

"Once I started dancing, it was strapless and I kept sort of yanking it up," she remembers, laughing. "I couldn't dance really fast lest I have a wardrobe malfunction. At prom, you want to dance your tail off; you don't want to be doing that."

Looking back on her prom now, Yeskey might be more impressed with her dress than she was at the time. Certainly more sentimental about it. Her mom still has it, tucked away for safekeeping in a basement closet.

Mary Pat Clarke, Baltimore City Council member: Clarke can't conjure up a single detail about her prom, surprised by an out-of-the-blue phone call about it. She's pretty sure she went She wouldn't have missed it. Right? Wait. Right?

"Well, I'm sure I did. … Let me just think about that for a minute," she says on the phone. "I'm sure I did."

To be fair, Clarke's senior prom was in 1959. After 50 years, even the most vivid memories tend to blur. But apparently she needs a few more decades to erase the itch of starched tulle on soft skin.

She can't remember anything about the dress?

"All the dresses of that time can all be summed up in one word," Clarke says. "Scratchy. They were made of netting. Bouffant-y and strapless."

And just like that — "Oh, my God!" she says — she's back in Moyan, Pa., at Notre Dame High, Mary Pat the cheerleader, surrounded by stern nuns waiting to see if her itchy, scratchy dress passed muster.

"Oh, my God," she says, laughing. "We had inspections! Prior to the prom, a week ahead of time or something, we'd have to carry our gowns to school and try them on so they could be inspected by the nuns to see if they were modest enough.

"I know people won't believe this but, literally, literally, we were not allowed to wear pearls because they reflected down or patent leather shoes because they reflected up."

Like most girls in her class, Clarke bought a strapless dress. Her mother sewed straps onto the shoulders to satisfy the nuns. It was a vivid royal blue, tea-length and fitted in the bodice but full at the bottom so it would swing gently when she danced.

Her date? That was Joe Clarke — a nice boy from Monsignor Bonner High. He's now her husband.

Kiki Brown, disc jockey with 92Q: Prom was huge in the rough neighborhood near downtown Pittsburgh where Kiki Brown grew up and attended John Brashear High School. It was the pinnacle of the teenage years.

There's a tradition aptly known as "the lineup" where, at a designated scenic spot, couples pose and strut before their camera-wielding friends and family — the whole community, really. "It was a big deal," she remembers. "That was the thing you looked forward to and you had to have the best dress and the best car, or else — well, you were like mud."

Mud was the last thing Brown wanted to be, but growing up in public housing and being raised by a single mother made it quite clear to her that the best wasn't what she could afford.

Her heart sank when her mom told her she'd have to rent a dress.

In a clutch of teenage angst, she found a rental shop on the other side of town to reduce any chance that someone from school would spot the drum major rifling through used gowns. She could only pray that the store had something that wasn't utterly horrifying, something that would fit a girl who might brush the 6-foot mark on a big- hair day.

But at the store, it didn't take her long to find something that eased her mind — and then some. It was perfect, this strapless, stretchy, mermaid-style dress in fire engine-red sequins. In this, she would turn heads. She'd be queen of the lineup.

"I said, ‘Oh yes.' And then, ‘Mommy, please?' "

Because dyed-to-match pumps would be too expensive, she and her date, Oji Murray, a running back on the football team, decided red and white would be their colors. She bought satin shoes, gloves and a purse in white. He coordinated with a scarlet cummerbund and bow tie and, because it was 1991 and he wanted to stop traffic, a cane, a box haircut and big sunglasses like all the rap stars preferred.

Brown had never done it before, but for the big night, she tried some makeup. When Murray saw her, he smiled — revealing his braces.

Katie O'Malley, Maryland first lady: In the hours before her prom, O'Malley (then Katie Curran), a senior at Baltimore's Notre Dame Preparatory School, washed her hair, blew it dry and styled it full. She leaned into a mirror at her house to sweep on eye shadow and mascara, lipstick — "tons of makeup," she says.

But her girls? They're leaving it to the professionals.

"I don't think I prepared for my wedding as much as the kids do for prom these days," O'Malley says. "I did my own hair — and it looks like I did, too."

Grace, the O'Malley's eldest daughter, went to prom last year; this is Tara's year.

Girls start tanning a month before so, come prom night, the glow is even. Nails are buffed and painted. Limousines are booked. After all the Baltimore-area stores have been checked for dresses, the search goes global as the girls troll the Internet, unwilling to settle for just anything.

"They're more high-maintenance," O'Malley says. "It's all fun, and they look sooo beautiful."

O'Malley, who was going to the dance with her boyfriend, Joe Boddiford, didn't even go prom shopping.

Her aunt spied a dress while shopping at Hutzler's —one of the city's iconic department stores. She bought it on the spot, thinking, "This would be perfect for Katie."

Long, sleek and bright turquoise, in a most unforgiving silky quiana, it was a bold choice.

Yet it worked.

"It was really cute," O'Malley says. "Back then, I was 110 pounds, and anything looked good on me."

She can't remember much about the rest of the night. There might have been dinner. There probably was dancing. Who knows? "I was 17," she says dryly, "I wouldn't say it was romantic."

Looking back now, she thinks, it's all about the masquerade.

"It's just the whole idea of everyone getting dressed up," she says. "It makes you feel like a grown-up, and you're really not."

Denise Koch, WJZ news anchor: In a graduating class of 1,000 kids, one could get lost in the crowd. Easily. Young Denise Koch was determined that wouldn't be her.

She cultivated an air of worldly maturity — or at least that's what she thought she was doing at the time. It involved liberal use of black eyeliner, dating a boy two glamorous years older and becoming the leading lady of Pasadena High School's Class of 1970, starring in one production after another.

Striving California sophisticate that she was, it struck her as uncool to make too much of prom. Except, that is, for the dress.

"I wanted to look really exotic and very different from the usual prom person," Koch recalls. "It had everything to do with my sense of drama and flair."

Nothing in a store would do. She envisioned something part- Indira Gandhi, part-Mata Hari, with a little Greek goddess thrown in for good measure. With what Koch calls "incredible devotion," her mother put it together for her from snow-white crepe, painstakingly sewing what must have been hundreds of individual beads and pearls along the floaty trim.

She found big earrings that nearly dusted her shoulders, glued on false eyelashes and clipped a bit of faux hair, called a fall, onto her bun so that curls spilled down her back.

With its off-the-shoulder cut, flowing fabric and Bollywood vibe, Koch would have given her classmates at the Hollywood Palladium a little theater every time she crossed the dance floor.

"Back then, it seemed wild," she says. "I wish I kept it. It was the only time I wore it."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

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