In the United States and Canada, a prom, short for promenade, is a formal (black tie) dance, or gathering of high school students.
It is typically held at the end of junior and/or senior year. 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 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 personís 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.