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From Debutante Balls to High School Hops

A History of Prom

Proms of the twenty-first century are elaborate affairs dominated by designer dresses, fancy stretch limousines, and incredible competition for a place in the prom court. Popular literature and movies of the day increasingly focus on prom themes, and teenagers may spend months planning and preparing for the all-important night. With all of the significance attached to the proms of today, it seems a bit surprising that the event has existed in all of its splendor only since the 1950s. While formal dances for young people were common as early as the late 1800s, proms began to take on today’s iconic status in a teenager’s life only as America recovered from the Great Depression and World War II. During their relatively short history, proms grew from simple affairs in Sunday dress to extravaganzas where competition for the best prom dress, the best date, and the best prom court distinction took center stage.

Prom Etymology

The term “prom” comes from the word “promenade,” meaning a march of guests into a ballroom to announce the beginning of a formal event or ball. During the Victorian era in the United States, when social class distinctions were much more important than they are today, it was not uncommon for members of the upper class to hold grand balls where each guest was announced before entering. A similar event for younger people, the debutante ball, was also quite common among the upper classes. In a debutante ball, girls who were entering a certain stage of adolescence officially “came out” into the dating scene to meet appropriate suitors their parents had selected. Strict etiquette was a must at these balls, and young girls and their escorts wore only the finest of apparel. 

First Proms

The first proms came about as middle-class replications of the grand debutante balls. Parents in the middle class noticed and admired the poise of the debutantes and wished the same for their own young teens. Thus, proms were created as less expensive, less elaborate affairs where teenagers could meet in their finest clothes to share dinner (and sometimes dancing) while learning social etiquette together.

While evidence of the first high school proms was not recorded in high school yearbooks until the 1930s and 1940s, historians believe proms existed at the college level well before that time period. Taking evidence from the journal of a male student at Amherst College from 1894 which detailed a prom he had attended at nearby Smith College, historians believe proms were common affairs at colleges in the nineteenth century (Marling 2004). While “prom” may have then been nothing more than a fancy name for a regular junior or senior class dance, its classification as a special night was definitely in existence and it would only continue to grow in status during the coming century.

Proms and High School

At the high school level, proms were likely a regular event by the early 1900s. These turn-of-the-century proms were generally simple affairs where youth came only to dine together in their Sunday best. However, by the 1920s and 1930s, dancing had also become an essential element of the prom. Rather than a simple gathering, the prom was now an annual class banquet where students met with each other and danced afterward.

By the 1950s, Americans were enjoying more affluence than ever before, and the importance and fancy nature of proms grew in relation. Proms began to move from high school gyms to hotel ballrooms or country club banquet halls, and competition for the best dress and the best escort greatly intensified. Prom also developed into a hallmark moment in a teen’s life, and being voted “prom queen” became a very important aspiration and distinction for young girls (Marling 2004). Indeed, as expensive prom dresses and fancy tuxedos became the norm, prom became less of a simple gathering of young people and more of a time to show off and be admired.

Proms of Today

Today, prom continues to be an important event in a teenager’s life. The prominence of prom and prom themes in popular literature and films attests to its importance at the high school level. However, while expenses and extravagant themes for prom continue to rise, proms are also beginning to grow more and more liberal in the twenty-first century. It is now not always required for a teen to have a date to attend the prom--and many teenagers are choosing to attend the prom in groups, making the night less of a date event and more of a meaningful way to commemorate high school friendships. Gay and lesbian youth are also revolutionizing the meaning of a “prom date,” as same-sex couples are becoming increasingly more common at proms. While the prom will likely continue to be an important event in most teenagers’ lives, in many ways its meaning and iconic status are splintering. Some youth see it as the ultimate high school event, while others see it simply as a fun and fancy way to celebrate high school life and friendship.

-- Posted May 3, 2007


Marling, Karal Ann. 2004. Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom. University Press of Kansas.