Prom, an iconic rite of passage for many teenagers, has been a tradition celebrated by students since the late 19th century. Short for "promenade,” proms are modeled after the debutante balls of high society and have evolved from semi-formal end-of-the-year dances held in school gyms to become a billion-dollar industry encompassing limousines, flowers, photography, special attire and over-the-top invitations.
Early Origins of Prom
The concept of a celebratory event for young people traces back to ancient Greece, when formal banquets, called “symposia,” were held for elite men to honor their transition into adult society. Often featuring lavish dinner parties, theatrical performances, speeches, debate, music and general revelry, the gatherings also involved excessive wine drinking. ancient Romans celebrated a young man’s coming of age with a similar banquet, called a “convivium.”
In 18th- and 19th-century Europe, women participated in aristocratic formal dances and balls that grew in popularity, with debutante balls becoming common as coming-out ceremonies for the elite.
The First American Proms
According to the Oxford Dictionaries, the word promenade, defined as a leisurely walk or place for walking, is also used to describe movements in ballet and ballroom dancing. It morphed in the late 19th century when promenade concerts often included attendees dancing in formal attire during Ivy League college festivities.
Although it’s not clear who hosted the first American prom, an article in the December 5, 1879, issue of The Harvard Crimson references the “Junior Prom,” and an 1895 diary entry from then-Amherst student Dwight Morrow, who later served as an ambassador to Mexico and U.S. senator, cited that he had been invited to a junior prom at Smith College. An 1895 photo in the Smith archives shows a junior prom held at the school’s Alumnae Gymnasium.
Prom Gets Popularized
The popularity of the dances quickly spread to high schools, becoming what Amy Best calls in her book, Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture, “a democratized version of the debutante ball.”
“The prom afforded anyone attending high school the opportunity to feel as though they too were ‘coming out,’ that they could transcend the boundaries of class,” she writes. “The message was that you did not have to be rich to wear a fancy frock, to be adorned with a corsage, or to waltz the night away.”
Proms experienced a surge in popularity in the early 1930s, and, in 1936, The Junior-Senior Prom served as the first guidebook for students attending the dance. A May 18, 1934, article in The Stanford Daily reported on that evening’s junior prom, held in the women’s gym, noting its decor would feature a mini replica of San Francisco “as a panorama surrounding the penthouse” along with trellises filled with climbing roses, sparkling fountains and red and white awnings.
By the 1940s, when teens came to be considered a distinct consumer category, the trend really took off, and the late 1940s and 1950s became the “golden age of prom,” writes Ann Anderson in High School Prom: Marketing, Morals and the American Teen. During this time, dances began moving from school gyms to luxe hotels and banquet rooms, and the crowning of prom kings and queens became commonplace.
President John F. Kennedy made news on June 7, 1963, when he stopped by the John Burroughs High School senior prom, held in the bigger ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, after attending a fundraiser in the smaller upstairs ballroom. The president, along with comedian Jack Benny, addressed the teens.
“Actually, this is a better room than the room we have upstairs,” he told the teens to laughter and applause. “Next to being president—in fact rather than being president—I’d prefer to be a senior in this high school. And if Mr. Benny and I are not too old, we may apply.”
Susan Ford, daughter of President Gerald Ford and First Lady Betty Ford, hosted the first and only White House prom about a decade later, on May 31, 1975. Susan, a senior at the all-girls Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland, and her class paid for the evening from fundraising efforts, according to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library & Museum. The prom committee made their own tablecloths and flower arrangements.
The menu included punch, miniature quiche lorraine and pigs-in-a-blanket hors d’oeuvres. Entertainment came from rock groups the Outerspace Band and Sandcastle. (The Beach Boys, reportedly, were too expensive.)
Her parents, however, did not serve as chaperones, as they were out of the country. (Ford did speak at the school’s graduation ceremony a few days later.)
Political unrest and the counterculture movements of the 1960s and 1970s reduced the popularity of prom, leading many schools to cancel the dances altogether. But the lull didn’t last long. By the 1980s, attending the big dance came back into style, as evidenced by a host of popular, enduring prom-themed movies from the decade, including Pretty in Pink and Footloose.
However, despite their popularity, proms have not been without controversy. In the Jim Crow South, many schools held segregated proms, a practice that continued well past the passage of civil rights laws. It wasn’t until 2013 that Wilcox County High School in Georgia held its first school-sponsored desegregated prom. In 2010, a school in Fulton, Mississippi barred a lesbian from attending prom with her girlfriend and told her she couldn’t wear a tuxedo. She sued the school after it canceled the dance for all students rather than allow the couple to attend. The school settled and agreed to create a policy banning discrimination or harassment based on gender identity and sexual orientation. In the 2000s, students have held their own alternative—or “anti”—proms with religious, LGBTQ+ and other themes.
Still, today’s proms are big business: According to a 2015 Visa survey, the average cost of prom was $919 per person, which includes everything from attire and flowers to dinner, tickets, limo services, photography and after parties, as well as the phenomenon of “promposals.” The survey found that American households spent an average of $324 alone on this practice of making elaborate, over-the-top invitations to the dance.