It's a warm spring night. The moon is glowing, the stars are twinkling, and a 12-passenger stretch limousine has just pulled up to the high school parking lot. Out of the limousine step teenagers in full regalia, wearing tailcoats, top hats, slinky dresses, and fragrant corsages. As they enter the high school gym (or what used to be the gym but is now carefully transformed into an “Autumn in Paris” scene), the youth glance at the punch bowls, live band, silly favors, and professional photographer set up in the corner before joining their friends, ready to create memories that will last a lifetime. Their entrance was preceded by a dinner for two at a fancy restaurant, and their evening will end with an all-night party and breakfast at a local diner. The scene is familiar to most. This is prom, 21st century style.
The proms of today are lavish affairs that come complete with hotel ballrooms, live bands, glamorous clothing, and stretch limousines. As the first formal event in the life of a teenager, attendance at the prom is now popularly considered a vital rite of passage to adulthood. Yet, proms were not always so lavish, expensive, or widespread. At one point during their history, proms were actually quite simple affairs.
Proms were first mentioned in the high school yearbooks of the 1930s and 1940s, but historians believe they may have existed as early as the late 1800s.
Proms first began in the elite colleges of the Northeast, taking their cue from the debutante balls of the rich and well bred. Middle class parents admired the poise and composure of debutantes and their escorts and began to institute formal dances as a means of instilling social skills and etiquette in their children. The dances were strictly chaperoned and were often restricted to only the senior class.
The formal dance we now call prom was first christened “the prom” in the 1890s. The word prom is a shortened form of promenade, meaning a march of the guests at the beginning of a ball or other formal event.
The first reference to prom in popular history comes from the journal of an Amherst College student who described his invitation and attendance at an early prom at Smith College in 1894. While the writer used the word prom to describe the dance, it was likely just a fancy name for a customary senior-class ball held at the college. Prom, while important in the college setting, would fail to take on iconic status until it emerged in high schools.
When high school proms began in the early 1900s, they were relatively simple affairs. Students would come in their Sunday best, but would not purchase new clothes for the event. The occasion called for tea, socializing, and dancing. During the 1920s and 1930s, American youth began to experience more freedom with the arrival of the car and other luxury items. The high school prom expanded into a yearly class banquet at which seniors arrived in party clothes and danced.
In the 1950s, as Americans enjoyed the luxury of the post-war economy, proms began to become elaborate, expensive events.
It became very important to come with the best-looking date, and being named to the prom court guaranteed instant social status. It was also during the 1950s that teenage girls began to pay more attention to their prom dresses and make special shopping trips for the perfect outfit. While the high school gym was adequate for sophomore dances, the settings of junior and seniors proms were gradually moved to grander locations.
In the 1980s, the prom began to take on larger-than-life stature, as several teen movies advertised it as the ultimate coming-of-age event in a young person’s life. Competition for the prom court intensified greatly, with the title of prom queen becoming closely akin to true royalty.
Prom had become a climactic point in a teenager's life, the moment when fantasies and relationships either blossomed or disintegrated.
Today's proms have become expensive, all-night affairs, with after-prom activities often extending into the dawn of the next day. Stretch Hummers, fancy dresses, and glamorous ballrooms are now prom-night standards. Still, the prom has begun to relax a little in its dating requirements. While tradition still dictates that a boy ask a girl to the prom, more and more girls are beginning to take their prom destinies into their own hands and do the asking. Nontraditional couples are also becoming a more common sight at the prom. In practically every way, prom has moved beyond the days of strictly chaperoned, etiquette banquets to glamorous extravaganzas where nearly anything goes.