The History of the Prom

photo180_1.gifThe Prom started in the 1920’s in the US and is the classic American rite of passage for students from all walks of life. One of the functions of the prom, planned from almost the very start, is to bring together people from all financial standings and heritage. Of course there have been controversies thoughout its history. Same sex and interracial couples have had to fight in court to get barriers to attending together removed. Photo,, 1950’s Prom Queen

The word “prom” comes from the French word promenade, which means walk or stroll. In the Deep South, early in the twentieth century, it was considered inappropriate to dance with men that you were not married to, so the girls would take short and heavily-chaperoned promenades around the block with their dates.

By the 1930s, proms were common and the popularity of “prom stories”, sharing both good and bad memories, were published in school papers all over the country and added to the mystique. Other schools would acquire and distribute other school paper’s stories so these circulated from state to state and were taken very seriously. It was implied that participation in proms meant you were a good citizen and supported your community.

As proms became a passion two people attempted to suggest a way to plan them. Marietta Abell and Agnes J. Anderson’s 1936 book called “THE JUNIOR-SENIOR PROM, Complete Practical Suggestions for Staging the Junior-Senior Prom” suggested that proms could be money-savers and should not be planned in less than four weeks. Of course things have changed since some couples today spend thousands and proms are often planned a year in advance. Conde Nast estimates an average 17 year old spends $638 on the prom, more than $1200 per couple.

The 1950’s brought about heavy competition for the titles of Prom King and Queen as a popularity contest. Usually going to the best looking and best dressed couple it has been shown that today, people not from the popular crowd can win when the focus is also shifted to creativity and intellectual appeals for votes to look beyond just appearances. MTV’s reality series “Made” has demonstrated this a few times with “ugly ducklings” and social outsiders taking titles in formal events.

The format of the prom today varies from place to place but a traditional prom usually involves high school students in tuxedos and gowns, dancing and music, combined with decorations and a theme. There are some professional event planners but it is usually the product of the hard work of a student prom commitee. The era of selecting popular song titles, as themes for the prom, began in the late 60s and early 70s. All of this includes corsages, limousines, photographs (high school yearbooks did not start covering proms and including prom pictures until the 1930s and 1940s), and in many cases post-prom parties. Proms are held in school gyms and cafeterias or in hotels, country clubs, and banquet halls. Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior Proms occur but are usually not considered as important as the Senior Prom, which is the final formal dance and gathering of the graduating class.

Proms are a party but they also resemble weddings. Couples often look like a young bride and groom in their gowns and tuxedos. Families gather to send them off, take pictures, flowers (carnations are the traditional prom flower) and gifts are exchanged. Some post prom parties become a kind of “honeymoon.” So teens need to know how to prepare for the peer pressure they will encounter and act in a way they won’t regret. Avoiding drug and alcohol use is the only safe bet at post prom parties. The prom is supposed to be a wonderful memory not a night to forget. Many schools stage fake car accidents and give pre-prom planning advice to help prepare students to make smart choices during a night legendary for its reputation of letting go and experimenting with a range of things, sometimes for the first time.

Prom is a great time to dress up, go out with friends, and celebrate high school. Many people say the negative side is that prom night takes attention away from studies and encourages superficial competition between peers at an age when self-esteem is fragile. It can also be the most memorable night of a student’s life. Throughout all of the high school experience there will be good and bad memories its not just going to happen at special events. Some appreciate the formal rituals of the prom and others don’t. There are anti-proms that occur on prom nights that can also be fun for those who choose not to go to the event.

You get out of the night what you want and cannot expect to just arrive and observe and be handed a good time. Its up to each person to make it memorable and special for themselves.

Other links of interest:

  • Meanings of flowers on
  • The Anti-prom, a humourous site covering “prom symptoms” and recognizing them in teens. A spoof of drug prevention sites where the prom is the drug.
  • Vintage Prom Pictures on
  • “Kings and Queens, Queers at the Prom” Read interesting stories beginning in the 1930’s about being gay and going to the prom with a member of the opposite sex.
  • 1 Comment (+add yours?)

    1. Trackback: Cool Prom Info Links! « Event Fashion

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