The History of Prom in America

Prom as we know it now includes expensive dresses, limos, and extravagant promposals, but the significance and intention of prom has transformed over the decades.


Kevin Yang / Unsplash

Prom in America has been a rite of passage for generations.

Many Americans have dreamed about their prom night for as long as they can remember. The vision of a night filled with dancing, limos, romance, and fruit punch bowls are as American as apple pie. Countless movies, books, and television shows bring our prom fairytales to life. The history of high school prom dates back many years to the early 20th century; it was an event founded by students, for students. Student publications have continuously referred to the prom as “the climax of one’s school career.”

Prom was a way to celebrate the passage from adolescence to adulthood, to give students a meaningful, shared celebration at the end of their high school career. Candace Chen, Ph.D. wrote her dissertation on prom’s unique symbolism, with a claim that high school proms had their own separate history, and did not evolve from debutante balls that were common during the 18th-19th centuries.

The popularity of high school prom began to take effect during a prewar period in which the majority of American youth were participating in school activities due to the expansion of public education. Social activities that were once reserved for wealthy high school students, such as the debutante balls, were now replaced by prom and became universal to virtually all American students. Thus, the significance of prom increased because it became a universal event.

 “One of the things that we lack as a society is universal rituals, and ways that we make meaning of certain stages of our lives. There are a lot of different cultural rituals, but few that are shared by all high schoolers the way prom is,” said Dr. Chen.

Prom differs from graduation because even though prom is still supervised by adults, it feels like it’s an event more for students, while graduation can seem to center around parents and other adults. Though prom was first founded by college students, the tradition was later mimicked by high school students. High school culture was becoming more like college culture, because high schoolers wanted to “taste the privilege of university life.” By organizing and participating in such dances, students claimed that they were preparing to assimilate into a higher social class during adulthood. Prom symbolized many things for students, but most importantly, it represented the adulthood that students perceived for themselves, one with formal social obligations and wealth.

Prom is not just a dream, but a business. The process of getting ready for the event — shoes, dresses, tuxedos, makeup — is just as significant as the event itself. The average American family spends $919 per child on prom. To students, the extravagant expenses were representative of their desires to be wealthy and successful .

To this day, prom culture still places much emphasis on expensive suits and dresses to make oneself look the most successful. Prom dates and promposals are a part of this new prom culture, where students will plan extravagant promposals that garner recognition in order to go out with the person of their choice. Movies such as 10 Things I Hate About You display romantic promposals and they reveal the importance that students place on promposals and the prom king/queen.

“In my experience being a teacher, the people who seem to be more excited about prom are girls,” said Dr. Chen.

The idea of practicing for adulthood by participating in prom also includes the social significance students place on prom. Prom king and queen elections served as the ideal representation of a student who would be successful in adulthood. Typically, the prom king whom students elect are a true example of masculinity and a suitable leader. Prom queens, on the other hand, tend to be a girl who fits the beauty standards and also displays strong leadership qualities. Candace Chen wrote about how these elections reveal the ties between adulthood and leadership, and the emphasis young adults placed on autonomy. The prom was about autonomy, but also about mimicking the traits of people of upper classes at the time: strong leaders, conventionally attractive, and predominantly Caucasian. By doing so, public school students who wanted to achieve social mobility presented themselves in a way that encapsulated wealth and success.

Although racial segregation in schools became outlawed in 1954 after Brown v. Board of Education, many schools, particularly in southern states, continued to segregate proms. In the 1960s-1970s, some integrated schools still hosted two proms: one for Black students and one for white students. At Charleston High School in Mississippi, when the school integrated in 1970, white parents began to organize “whites-only” proms. In protest, Black parents organized “Black only” proms. In doing so, Black students maintained their own celebrations and engaged with prom culture. The integration of proms would remain an issue for many years after 1970. Some schools, such as Wilcox County High School in Georgia, only recently integrated their prom in 2013.

 “One of the things that we lack as a society is universal rituals, and ways that we make meaning of certain stages of our lives. There are a lot of different cultural rituals, but few that are shared by all high schoolers the way prom is,” said Dr. Chen.