The 14 days Daphne Fong spent quarantined in her bedroom earlier this year were among the most challenging she has ever endured. A small coronavirus outbreak in August at her school, Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta, forced all students into self-isolation just days out from trial HSC exams.
"It was quite draining, emotionally and physically, not being able to leave the room except to go to the bathroom," she says. "We were stuck within those four walls all day."
Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta student Daphne Fong prepares her dress ahead of her school formal.Credit:Janie Barrett
Hanging on her bedroom wall the whole time was her year 12 formal dress: a black frock with a corset that billowed out at the bottom. Daphne and her mother had driven half-an-hour to Fairfield from their Winston Hills home to purchase it just weeks prior. "I knew it was the one. I wanted to get it ASAP, because you don’t want double-ups," she says.
But whether she would ever wear the gown became a touch-and-go topic, when new COVID-19 cases led the government to tighten restrictions on school events. "I could see it hanging up there, it kind of gave me something to look forward to," Daphne says. She also feared the flipside: that formals, which were cancelled state-wide for term three, would not eventuate at all.
So it was "quite stress relieving" when thousands of HSC students learned the events could proceed from November 11, Daphne says. "It was meaningful to have those final moments together. I think they're memories that are going to stay with us for years to come."
Daphne Fong with her parents, Selin and Martin Fong, as she prepares to leave for her school formal after months of uncertainty.Credit:Janie Barrett
This month's celebrations have been particularly sentimental for the Class of 2020, who have endured a year of global uncertainty and cancelled milestone events. Students pre-emptively mourned the loss of formals in term three, and their parents mourned with them.
Then 200 school captains joined forces in August to launch a COVID-safe formal campaign, and the government gave them the green light in September. Events would proceed with safety plans as soon as HSC exams finished, to ensure no tests were jeopardised.
Everybody has their temperature taken before entering Curzon Hall for the St George Girls High School formal.Credit:Janie Barrett
Dancing was permitted despite early signs it would be off the agenda, although it came with caveats: dance floors had to be outdoors or in well-ventilated areas, and students' partners had to have an established relationship with the year group.
Dancing was a main event at the Strathfield Girls High School formal.Credit:Janie Barrett
Dancing off the year's stresses to a student-made playlist topped the night for Rose Bay Secondary College student Elsie Gillezeau. Hits from Queen and ABBA through to Come On Eileen and Cardi B's WAP blasted through their Darling Harbour venue for hours.
"The dance floor was so much fun," Elsie says. "We went in with no expectations, but a lot of us were allowed to dance at once. I hadn’t danced in quite a long time, because you can't have parties. This was my first experience of that [since COVID-19], which gives me hope."
Elsie Gillezeau and friends from Rose Bay Secondary College wait for their Uber to take them to Darling Harbour.Credit:Janie Barrett
Her day stretched from 8am until 5am the next morning: starting with a last-minute dash to Bondi Junction to buy high-heel shoes and finishing with a 10-person sleepover in lieu of an after-party.
The pre-formal drinks were as much for her parents as Elsie. "They wanted to get dressed up too. I’m their only child and this was my first formal," she says. "They’re both filmmakers, glamorous events are in their blood, so they were very excited."
Elsie Gillezeau's parents, dressed in matching florals, were as excited as she was ahead of the Rose Bay Secondary College formal.Credit:Janie Barrett
Students at the co-ed school paired up so the girls still received corsages and their year director had a surprise for them when they arrived. "He had set up a red carpet with balloons near the entrance, and there was a big board saying 'Congratulations class of 2020'," Elsie says.
While some schools forbade partners under COVID-19 restrictions, students from co-ed Rose Bay Secondary College took each other. It meant the corsage tradition could be maintained.Credit:Janie Barrett
"You could see the Harbour Bridge and new Barangaroo building, and it was sunset when we got there. Being on the red carpet in the sunset with my peers, not just my friends – that was the best part of the night."
For Strathfield Girls High student Sela Deng, the photo booth was an easy highlight. "Being with my friends, taking funny photos. [The printer] broke down after 10 minutes, but everyone still kept going," she says.
Students greet each other outside the Strathfield Girls High School formal. Credit:Janie Barrett
Mercoria Farhoud, from St George Girls High School, spent the day after the formal looking back at her photo booth pictures "about every five minutes". Her night had begun with pre-drinks at her Penshurst apartment: she set the tables, laid decorations, made sure the food platters looked aesthetic and that all her friends had the right address.
Mercoria Farhoud, from St George Girls High School, prepares for her group's pre-formal drinks.Credit:Janie Barrett
When they finally showed up, there was chaos. "Everyone was screaming: you look so beautiful! Show me your hair and nails!" she says. "We'd seen photos of the dresses but hadn't seen them on each other. Everyone looked so beautiful, like princesses, you know? It was just really nice."
Mercoria Farhoud and her friends from St George Girls High School leave her apartment in Penshurst.Credit:Janie Barrett
The girls' fears they would rip their dress or snap a heel while getting into their hired hummer disappeared when they arrived unscathed at Curzon Hall and joined everyone else. "Seeing it: wow," Mercoria says. "We were all in this moment, it was a good happy energetic vibe, and it was the best feeling."
Mercoria Farhoud and Emma Madden arrive at the St George Girls High School formal.Credit:Janie Barrett
The night ended to the tune of Mariah Carey's All I Want for Christmas is You and, when the lights came on, the girls burst into a spontaneous round of cheers for their school prefect Sarah Khan, who had organised the event.
When some students requested refunds when formals were cancelled, the St George Girls High School students pulled out all fundraising stops they could think of to ensure they didn't lose their deposit at Curzon Hall.Credit:Janie Barrett
Mercoria had sat next to Sarah in class throughout the year and watched the formal's financial account gradually deplete as students requested refunds for their tickets when restrictions set in. Without their usual fundraising options, they sold pre-wrapped ice-creams and took money out of their yearbook fund to hold the venue deposit.
"To see it come alive last night, and for Sarah to have a good time, that justified everything in the long run," Mercoria says.
Swathi Shan, Neha Sobin, and Induni Atapattu at the St George Girls High School formal.Credit:Janie Barrett
But restrictions and uncertainty around the formal were too much hassle for students at Blacktown Girls High School. Instead, groups of friends organised their own smaller outings and the school's official sit-down dinner was cancelled.
A group of six Blacktown High girls got ready together at Angela Mediana's house. Angela helped out with everyone's makeup, and then her dad drove them in a seven-seater from Blacktown to King Street Wharf.Credit:Janie Barrett
School captain Nashita Chowdhury combined a few friendship groups from her school and Blacktown Boys for a harbour cruise. "It was really lively and I feel like there was this nostalgic vibe to it – because we were craving something like this for so long," she says.
The combined group of students from Blacktown Girls and Blacktown Boys high schools celebrated on Sydney Harbour.Credit:Janie Barrett
The cramped space and wind posed a challenge, however. "Girls were falling in their heels all the time which was quite funny – 15 people would rush to help them," Nashita says.
Blacktown Girls students organised their own events because they were annoyed with the restrictions that would apply at the official school formal. So many students did the same that the official sit-down dinner was cancelled.Credit:Janie Barrett
And she also made a personal discovery. "I didn’t realise I got seasick, so after a slice of pizza I was hurling over the edge of the boat," she says. "My dress was safe because I knew it was coming. But after I vomited twice I just sat outside. I got up every now and then, but mostly just enjoyed the view."
Nashita Chowdhury, of Blacktown Girls High School, spent most of her time outside after becoming seasick during her long-awaited formal. But it didn't colour the night. "It was an impossible thing for a long time, so to get it to happen and come out as we wanted it to was pretty rewarding."Credit:Janie Barrett
Days later, Daphne remembers blasting Fergalicious in the limousine with her friends after waving goodbye to their parents from behind darkened windows. It joins memories from her final weeks of school - taking photos on disposal cameras, playing Connect Four over lunch and running onto the playground through a guard of honour - as one of her fondest from the year.
"Year 11 and 12 have been the most stressful years of high school," she says. "It’s been really special to have those final moments together."
Parents of the Our Lady of Mercy College Parramatta group wave goodbye to their daughters as they depart for the formal in a limousine.Credit:Janie Barrett
Did you attend your formal this year? Send us your photos and anecdotes to email@example.com
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