‘Back in the ’60s I broke the nuns’ only school formal rule’

Aug 22, 2019
Robyn (left) and her mother right before Robyn's school formal in 1967. Source: Robyn McCoy

In Australia most students celebrate the end of school years in some way or other and, notably, that tradition has changed greatly over the years. The majority of schools these days commemorate this milestone with huge parties known as ‘formals’, but the one thing that has not, and will never, change is that it costs a lot of money, usually parental money.

In Brisbane, Queensland, the 2019 school formals are well underway and, looking at the choice of clothing styles, venues and detailed peripherals, it got me thinking of not just my own daughter’s Year 12 formal (1995), but my own end of school celebrations (1967). Talk about a mammoth, dramatic fashion and attitude change.

The biggest difference between mine and my daughter’s celebrations was that I did not want to attend but my daughter was beyond excited. Let’s compare — 1967 first. I think the photo of my beautiful mum and me speaks volumes; she looked so proud, I looked miserable.

Robyn (left) and her mother right before Robyn’s school formal in 1967. Source: Robyn McCoy

All the girls had to assemble at our same sex school to be ‘looked over’ by the nuns; hairstyles had to be approved, no bosoms were to be showing and the length of dress was to be measured. Any ‘enhancements’, e.g. tissues or socks, were zeroed in on and immediately yanked out of the offending bras. How in heck did ‘the penguins’ know?

I actually did feel the verbal sting of the head nun’s disapproval. We were all expected to bring a shawl. I really did not want to attend this sham evening and my radical streak allowed me to rebel by … you guessed it … not bringing a shawl. Revolutionary dissenter baby steps; shocking!

Robyn is one second from left; the only one to attend the formal WITHOUT a shawl. Gasp! Source: Robyn McCoy

Now began the exciting evening of enjoyment and frivolity — not! Unceremoniously, we were herded onto a city council bus and in our brand new dresses sat on dirty, soiled seats while our pretty new shoes were immediately scuffed with filthy, grimy floors and chewing gum. Some clever clogs had foreseen the filth and bought handkerchiefs in sit on; I wasn’t one of them.

We arrived at the inner city restaurant where a fun-filled gala was hoped for. What awaited us was a sit down formal dinner where even the food was preordered; we were not even allowed to choose from the menu. And my parents wondered why I didn’t want to go, imagine that.

Naturally, there was not a boy in sight and nary a glass of booze anywhere. Dinner finished, back in the grubby bus, back to school where parents were waiting to take us home; it was approximately 10pm.

Fast forward to 1995 and my own daughter’s formal. I was determined she was going to enjoy this significantly monumental celebration, but I think I may have overdone it.

Please keep in mind I’d been saving for this event for four years. Ridiculously, I had a gown designed and made by a rather well-known designer; somebody should have stopped me then and there, but it was beautiful. We had a few ‘dry runs’ for her hairstyle and professional make-up.

Robyn (right) with her daughter in 1995. There was a lot more excitement about this school formal event for everyone involved. Source: Robyn McCoy

The ‘finished product’ that was my daughter bloomed as absolutely stunning but had cost a fortune; my husband was just as bad. He invited family, friends and neighbours in to see his beautiful baby girl so, you know, more expense on food, booze; he was so proud. And, of course, he’d organised a limousine. Over the top you say? Ya think!

The only disagreement we had was my daughter’s repeated attempts to lower her dress at the front. She pulled it down, I shimmied it back up; repeat. As we waved them off in the limo I felt a tad silly for trying to make up for my own disappointing end of school nonsensical debacle. Over-compensation on steroids.

My mum looked so proud of me the night of my school formal and I looked like an ungrateful, miserable brat. I thoroughly enjoyed getting my daughter ready for her big night but hindsight 20-20 has me querying my motives. Needless to say, end of school celebrations should be joyful no matter what form that takes but first perhaps examine your own psychological shortcomings and then, maybe, hide the credit cards.

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