For those who think tradition has floated out to sea, or think kids are cads, or think the only clothes teen-agers own are jeans and Schlitz tee-shirts, there remains the senior prom.

It is not to be confused with George Washington's inaugural ball. No one dances the minuet these days. No one wears white gloves. People arrive in Cordobas, not coaches. And the word "promenade" has become curiously inappropriate. Kids dance and "hang out," but they don't walk around much.

Still, the prom remains the social event of the high school year. And it remains as traditional as possible at most schools.

"Every year we propose something a little different," said Stewart Christiano, assistant principal at Fairfax County's Fort Hunt High School." And every year the kids want it just the way their older brothers and sisters had it."

Such was the case last Thursday night when Fort Hunt's juniors and seniors gathered at the Springfield Hilton, more than 500 strong.

The tickets requested "the honor of your presence," and were printed in a gothic typeface usually found on wedding invitations. The girls were swirled in taffeta, gauze and chiffon. The boys had actually brushed their hair. And a good time was had by most, which is probably as much as anyone could wish. It went like this:

To walk into the Caribbean Ballroom is to know one is at a prom.

The rock music is so loud it threatens to knock people down. Couples, sitting eight to a table, have to shout to be understood. Three hundred people dance at once, bumping and hustling - and bumping into one another. The room swarms and pulsates with people.

Security is tight. Besides three rent-a-cops hired by the hotel, football coach Frank Creneti serves as doorman and first line of defense against alcohol.

There is misfortune, too. Four girls faint during the course of the evening. Rescue squads arrive, lights flashing, each time. Gawkers gawk, but none of the girls requires hospitalization.

The Melisa and Lisa Show has been going on for five years. All the way through junior and senior high school, they have been friends, and now they are seniors. So it was fitting that Melisa Weber and Lisa Clermont would be sitting at the same table with their dates.

But there was all the difference.

Lisa was there with her number one main man, Larry Haller. They danced whenever neither was out of breath. They smiled. They gave each other searching looks across their glasses of Coke.

But Melisa's would-have-been date was robbed of most of his money recently. He could not afford to escort her. So Melisa had pressed Brian Wooton into service.

A student at Northern Virginia Community College, Wooton had escorted [WORD ILLEGIBLE] older sister to the Fort Hunt [WORD ILLEGIBLE] four years before. He was being game and gentlemanly, but he admited he wasn't having the time of his life.

"Well, the music's different, I notice that," said Wooton. "But I enjoyed it more then. I don't know anybody here."

Preparations for this prom have been underway since the last. All through the school year, young people have been holding bake sales and raffles and have been soliciting funds from door to door. The final take was about $4,000, just enough to cover expenses.

Ticket prices are no worse than ever - $11 per couple for seniors, $15 for juniors. But this year has proven to be a milestone of sorts. For the first time, dinner for two, corsages and admission cost most males more than $100. And that does not count the cost of clothing for the females, which most estimated at about another $100.

Behind his massive back, Fort Hunt students call James Manning "Big-foot." It fits. At 6-feet-6, Manning is an authoritative figure, and, yes, he has large feet. He also happens to be the Fort Hunt principal.

"The kids do a lot of work on the prom, and it's something we're all very proud of," he said. "They raise a lot of the funds themselves, and they do some of the planning. It's something they want to go to and something they want to remember."

Manning acknowledged that he has been criticized for allowing the prom to be held on a Thursday, since some students skip school the next day. What would he say to critics?

"I'd say, 'You'd be amazed how many will come to school.' Some teachers even give tests the next day."

By midnight, corsages are wilting, and so are some spirits. At a corner table, a girl in a powder blue creation is asleep on her date's shoulder. How she stays that way is a miracle, for the band, Paper Cup, is still rocking like a hurricane.

"Aw, these boys won't let me be," wails the lead singer. "Lord have mercy on me." And 200 sweaty dancers sing along with the chorus: "Poor, poor pitiful me."

At the beginning of the evening, her hair had been perfection: a swoopy confection as smooth and sleek as a soft ice cream cone. Now, the left side is tumbling. The girl is crying as she and three friends head for the ladies room for emergency repairs.

"Why tonight?" the girl wails. "Why me?"

All night, Bernie the rent-a-cop has been patrolling the parking lot. He is supposed to confiscate all pot and potables, and to break up any and all lovemaking, but he is refusing. "Just no spectacles," he says. "Just don't want anyone making a spectacle."

He invites a bystander to accompany him on his 12:45 a.m. sweep. It is literally an illuminating experience. In several cars, pipes full of marijuana are being lit and passed.

"Now come on, y'all," says Bernie, as he stands by the driver's side door of one car. "No dope, now. Just take it somewhere else. The cops wouldn't like it if they saw this."

The revelers comply, but not happily. "I think they're being a little strict," said one sophomore. "The law's the law, yes. But the prom's the prom."

Nearing 2 a.m., and people are starting to leave. Yawns are evident. Some are heading at that instant for Virginia Beach or Ocean City, and some have scheduled champagne breakfasts. Many are heading for dreamland. But all feel the evening went well.

In the lobby, a custodian is posting the next day's events on a board. Up go the letters, one by one: "Wakefield Prom - 9:30 p.m." Another day, another prom.