The high school prom is an iconic event in contemporary American society, often heralded as one of the most important coming-of-age rites for adolescents today. Part of school institutions, repositories for the formation of youth cultures, and shaped by an expanding commodity culture, the meaning of the American prom is ever changing.
The expansion of schooling in the early twentieth century, stemming from rapid urbanization and industrialization, played a key role in the American prom's development. Prior to the late nineteenth century only the wealthy attended school beyond elementary levels. With a steady increase of student enrollment, public schools emerged as major socializing agents in U.S. society. School dances, clubs, and student government increasingly became a part of young Americans' lives as the role of school changed. As a growing number of young people began attending college in the 1920s, the university emerged as a meaningful site for leisure and learning. By the 1920s the traditional academic concerns of the university lost ground as youth-centered social activities such as the college junior prom captured the attentions of a changing young America.
High school proms did not gain in popularity until the 1930s. Their popularity stems largely from the changes in how youth had been defined culturally as a distinct age group. Though scholars had treated youth as a cohort having distinctive habits and traits since the mid-nineteenth century, by the 1930s the idea of the adolescent was firmly entrenched in both popular cultural lore and scholarly work. At the threshold of adulthood, adolescence signified a tumultuous stage in the life course, one characterized by uncertainty and angst. Consequently, adolescents were thought to need moral and social guidance. Well-structured, adult-supervised social activities served as perfect opportunities to socialize youth to the practices and values of a middle-class adult world.
By the 1940s the leisure lives of adolescents were tied less to family and were increasingly bound to a rapidly expanding commodity culture. The emergence of a teen leisure market led to a mounting concern among (middle-class) adults about youth sexuality, delinquency, and complacency. The earlier concern for adolescents' moral development, combined with the fact that young people's lives were increasingly consumed by activities outside of the home, gave rise to more concerted efforts to manage and often overtly regulate youth activities and spaces. By the mid-twentieth century high school proms, along with teen canteens and sock hops, were a mainstay of middle-class American cultural life.
The prom's popularity receded in the 1960s and early 1970s as a growing number of American youth participated in the antiwar, civil rights, and free speech movements. Many youth refused to attend the prom as an act of symbolic resistance to middle-class Anglo conformity, adult authority, and the status quo. With shifts in the political culture of the 1980s and early 1990s, combined with concerted efforts by marketers to carve out and expand youth markets, proms once again gained in popularity and were radically transformed by the pull of consumerism such that limousines, expensive dresses, and luxury hotels became important to the experience of the prom for many American youth. Yet proms of today, like those of the past, serve as events where youth struggle to create and reshape American history. In 1981 a gay high school student sued his Rhode Island high school to attend the prom with another gay student. In 1994 the students of an Alabama school organized an alternative protest prom after the principal canceled the prom in an effort to forestall interracial dating among the school's student body. In 1995 high schoolers in California attended the first gay prom.
See also: Adolescence and Youth; High School; Youth Culture.
Best, Amy L. 2000. Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.
Graebner, William. 1990. Coming of Age in Buffalo: Youth and Authority in the Post War Era. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Kett, Joseph F. 1977. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books.
Palladino, Grace. 1996. Teenagers: An American History. New York: Basic Books.
Amy L. Best