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The Origins of Prom

Sally King, President

Thursday, April 18, 2024

Like many things, the tradition of a coming of age celebration can be traced back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. Of course, these ceremonies were only for men, and they often featured theatrics, speeches, music, and more. Later in 18th - 19th century Europe, women began to hold similar celebrations, with debutante balls taking the lead in popularity as celebrations to present aristocratic women as of the marrying age. When these types of celebrations became co-ed, they were thought of as an opportunity for men to show women that they were distinguished gentlemen with great manners. In other words, they were leaving their boyhood behind and were prepared to provide for a family.

It is still unclear where the first American prom was held, but the first records of it are from an issue of The Harvard Crimson in 1879. The trend didn’t catch on right away, and it wasn’t until the 1930s that more schools began to adopt it into their social events. In 1936, a guidebook called “The Junior-Senior Prom” became the informational piece used by high school students around the nation for what to wear, how to decorate, and how to ask someone to be your date. By the 1940s-1950s, the rise of televisions in the average American home put high school experiences on the big screen, and the popularity of prom grew even more. Most high schools featured some sort of prom-like event, and the title of prom king and queen became a sought-after position for juniors and seniors around the nation.

Political and social turmoil in the 60s-70s caused many schools to cancel their prom - but this didn’t last. When the unrest was resolved for the most part, the dances came back to schools in the 80s, and movies like Pretty in Pink, Footloose, and Carrie featured the dances and further increased the importance of the dance in the eyes of American youth. They have not come without controversy, however. Dated back to the late 1800s, prom adopted the traditional expectations of the time. This carried over into the 1900s, with the laws of the Jim Crow South preventing African American students from attending the prom at integrated schools. Many p laces held segregated proms, a practice that carried on in some schools in the South until the 80s and 90s. 

More recent controversy has centered around the sexual orientation of certain prom-goers, with one school in Mississippi banning a lesbian from attending the prom with her partner, and telling her she couldn’t wear a tuxedo. In response, many students created alternative proms or “anti-proms”, with LGBTQ or religious themes, and the New York Public Library hosts a yearly “Anti-Prom” for teens of all “sexualities and gender identities”. 

The added expense of all prom-related items has grown exponentially over the years. Today, the average American family spends $900 on prom alone, with the biggest expense usually being the $100-$600 dress or the $200-$500 tuxedo. Not to mention the price of the “promposal”, an over-the-top display of affection to ask your date to prom, at an average of $324. 

Prom nowadays certainly differs from what was once expected of it in more ways than one. For some, it has become more of an ordeal, with girls preparing to get their hair done at salons and couples hiring photographers for pre-prom photoshoots. For others, however, it has more recently become less of a big deal, with many people opting to go with friends instead of a date and some not even staying for longer than 30 minutes. A recent online trend even features commentary on the style of dress that girls are choosing to wear to their prom this year, saying that it seems too “Easter brunch-like” than the sparkling gowns from the past. 

Regardless, prom continues to be a fun-filled evening to celebrate friendships, relationships, and the high school experience. We hope to see you at West’s prom this Friday!

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