Every spring, millions of teenagers across the United States take part in a quintessentially American rite of passage known as the high school prom. Experienced by rich and poor, black and white, Jewish and Catholic, Californians and Virginians, prom night is arguably the most widely shared of all modern American rituals. Certainly, it is one of the most talked about. Though the exact format varies, a traditional prom involves high school students in tuxedos and gowns coming together for a formal dinner dance. Corsages, limousines, favors, photographers, and post-prom festivities are all standard extras. Depending on the location of the school and the age of the participants, proms are held either in school gyms and cafeterias or in hotels, country clubs, and banquet halls. Freshman, Sophomore, and Junior Proms tend to be less extravagant rehearsals for the all-important Senior Prom, the final social gathering of a graduating class.
Though popular historical imagination, influenced by films like Back to the Future (1985) and Grease (1978), remembers proms as a product of the 1950s, they in fact long pre-date that legendary era of bobby socks and drive-ins. In Philadelphia, home to many of the nation's oldest public, private, and parochial schools, proms first emerged in the 1920s and rapidly replaced "Senior Play and Dance" evenings as the high school social events of the year. By the 1930s, proms were commonplace, their rise in popularity linked to several interwoven factors, including ongoing urbanization and industrialization, the expansion of secondary education, the rise of "youth culture," and, stemming from all of these, the mass dissemination of prom stories.
Tales about the glories and mishaps of prom night were first published in the pages of high school magazines which were then exchanged between educational institutions throughout the nation. Early twentieth-century student journalists were extremely zealous about this new event and appear to have regarded prom attendance as an essential marker of good citizenship. "If You Don't Like This," quipped the headline of a 1931 article on the merits of prom night, "Go Back to the Country Where You Came From." There is evidence to suggest that these early proms served an important unifying function, especially in city schools filled with first and second generation immigrants from around the world. Certainly then, as now, prom night was constructed as having been synonymous with "Americanness."
Prom night quickly became a hot topic for the writers of popular dramas and romance novels. From 1934 onwards, a whole series of prom plays, short stories, and novels went to press. The 1930s also saw the publication of the first ever prom guidebook, penned by Marietta Abell and Agnes Anderson. Writing in the midst of the Great Depression, the authors hailed the prom as a potential money-saver but admonished readers that "No one should think of planning and arranging for any one of the proms suggested in less than four weeks." To millennial readers, both statements seem laughably ironic. Modern proms cost individual students anywhere from $200 to $2,000, are planned a year in advance, and call on the expertise and services of a vast array of party professionals. Proms, 1990s style, are very big business.
The exact ritual antecedents of prom night are difficult to trace as proms draw on a number of earlier cultural traditions. To many observers, the prom resembles a democratic version of the elite debutante ball, which is in turn a Republican version of the aristocratic ritual of presenting young ladies at the royal courts of Europe. Proms are also closely related to the cotillions and college dances of the mid to late nineteenth century where formal dress and terpsichorean skill were essential and where the practice of giving out party favors was popularized. Important regional differences existed though: in the Deep South, where religious intolerance of dancing determined the shape and form of early-twentieth-century youthful pleasures, proms were literally "promenades" during which young ladies would take short and keenly supervised walks around the block with male escorts.
Throughout their history, proms have most obviously resembled weddings in both their ritual form and function. Weddings and proms share an emphasis on heterosexual pairing that is reinforced through parallel iconography and corresponding rites of exchange and remembrance. Prom couples often look—from the gown to the tux, flowers, limo, and location—like a young bride and groom. Their night together is subject to many of the same acts of ritual celebration and sanctification. Families gather to send the young couple off, photographs are taken, and flowers and keepsakes are exchanged. Late-twentieth-century prom couples also often share a post-ritual "honeymoon." Indeed, for many teens, these post-prom trips are now more eagerly anticipated than the prom itself.
Prom night's emphasis on heterosexual dating has, since the early 1980s, been a subject of public controversy. Several lawsuits have arisen at schools where students who wanted to attend solo, or who wanted to attend with a same sex partner, were barred. Aaron Fricke's Reflections of a Rock Lobster offers an autobiographical account of his legal battle to take his male partner to his senior prom in 1980. As the century draws to a close, many public schools have been forced to relax their boy-girl dating rules and many teenagers now regard prom night less as a night of romance and more as a night to have fun as a group. Meanwhile, since the late 1980s, lesbian, gay, and bisexual teenagers who want to celebrate with a date and who live in major cities in the United States have had the option of attending "gay proms" that provide a safe and friendly environment in which these teens can celebrate. Prom traditions, however, prevail, particularly in parochial schools. In Philadelphia, Catholic schools continue to insist that prom night be a heterosexual affair and they continue to bar both single teens and same-sex couples.
Prom night has also been involved in debates about racial discrimination. In 1994, an Alabama student challenged her school's policy barring interracial prom dating. Meanwhile, at schools around the nation that are de jure desegregated, de facto segregation within the student body often leads to heated disputes over music selection for prom night. Some schools have resolved tensions over musical tastes by holding two proms, one catering to what is seen as "white" musical taste, one to "black."
At all schools, the greatest ongoing prom battle concerns drug use. Prom night is mythically a night for letting go and experimenting, but a series of tragedies, most involving drunk driving, have led teachers, parents, and students across the nation to campaign against prom night's infamous excesses. Some schools have experimented with random breath tests and many lock students inside their prom venues to prevent furtive drinking. Pre-prom safety awareness programs are commonplace and all schools enforce tough penalties for students involved in prom night drug use. Eager to distance themselves from inappropriate symbolism, most school boards have also now banned the giving of glasses as prom favors. Savvy promware manufacturers have responded quickly; they now fill their ever-popular champagne, wine, and beer glasses with brightly colored wax and market them as "candles."
Perhaps the most famous prom controversy occurred in 1997 when an 18-year-old New Jersey senior gave birth at her prom. According to prosecutors, she then suffocated the infant and returned to the dance floor. She is now serving 15 years for aggravated manslaughter. Her case stands as a vivid reminder that prom night is not always as sweet and innocent an event as popular mythology would have us believe. Students make remarkable sacrifices on prom night, and though these are usually financial they can also be academic, emotional, and physical.
At its best, prom night offers adolescents a unique opportunity to dress up, go out with their peers, and celebrate their high school achievements. Many find the excitement, camaraderie, and grandeur of it all profoundly enjoyable and memorable. At its worst, prom night diverts students' attention away from their academic studies and breeds unhealthy and superficial competition between peers at an age when self-esteem is notoriously fragile. Certainly, this is the angle filmmakers exploit in classic prom movies such as Carrie (1976), Prom Night (1980) and its sequels, Pretty in Pink (1986), and She's All That (1999).
Prom night is as much a controversy as it is a national pasttime; few if any rituals are so widely shared, and few are subject to as much hope or hype. Proms are now featured in magazines and movies, talk shows and tabloids, soap operas and songs. They make millions of dollars for the numerous industries that have grown up around them and, for all the talk of declining traditions, proms show no sign of waning in popularity. For better or worse, prom night is a part of American popular culture that is very much here to stay.
—Felicity H. Paxton
Abell, Marietta, and Agnes Andersons. The Junior Senior Prom: Complete Practical Suggestions for Staging the Junior Senior Prom. Minneapolis, Northwestern Press, 1936.
Fricke, Aaron. Reflections of a Rock Lobster: A Story about Growing up Gay. Boston, Alyson Publications Inc., 1981.
Myrick, Susan. "Whatever Became of the Prom Party?," Georgia Review. Vol. 22, No. 3, 1968, 354-59.
A rite of passage for generations of American teenagers for nearly a century, the high school prom is usually the first formal event in the lives of young people. For many teenagers, the prom is the most stressful event of their lives. It intensifies peer pressure over issues of inclusion and exclusion. Some common stresses include, Will I get a date? Will my choice of a date change my reputation? Who will be excluded from the prom, and why?
The word "prom" was first used in the 1890s as a shortened form of "promenade," a reference to formal dances in which the guests would display their fashions and dancing (see entry under 1900s—The Way We Lived in volume 1) skills during the evening's grand march. In the United States, it came to be believed by parents and educators that a prom, or formal dinner-dance, would be an important lesson in social skills, especially in a theoretically classless society that valued behavior over breeding. The prom was seen as a way to instill manners into children, all under the watchful eye of chaperons.
The first proms were held in the 1920s. By the 1930s, proms were common across the country. For many older Americans, the prom was a modest, home-grown affair in the school gymnasium, often decorated with crepe-paper streamers. Promgoers were well dressed but not lavishly decked out: boys wore jacket and tie and girls their Sunday dress. Couples danced to music provided by a local amateur band or a record player. After the 1960s, and especially after the 1980s, the high-school prom in many areas became a serious exercise in conspicuous consumption, with boys renting expensive tuxedos and girls attired in designer gowns. Stretch limousines were hired to drive the prom-goers to expensive restaurants or discos for an all-night extravaganza, with alcohol, drugs, and sex as added ingredients, at least more openly than before.
Whether simple or lavish, proms have always been more or less traumatic events for adolescents who worry about self-image and fitting in with their peers. Prom night can be a devastating experience for socially awkward teens, for those who do not secure dates, or for gay or lesbian teens who cannot relate to the heterosexual bonding of prom night. In 1980, Aaron Fricke (1962–) sued his school's principal in Cumberland, Rhode Island, for the right to bring Paul Guilbert as his prom date, and won. Since the 1990s, alternative proms have been organized in some areas for same-sex couples, as well as "couple-free" proms to which all students are welcome. Susan Shadburne's 1998 video, Street Talk and Tuxes, documents a prom organized by and for homeless youth.
For More Information
Best, Amy L. Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture. New York: Routledge, 2000.
Murphy, Sharon. Celebrate Life! A Guide for Planning All Night Alcohol/Drug-Free Celebrations for Teens. Richmond, VA: Operation Prom/Graduation, 1994.
Prom and PromDress Home.http://www.promdress.net (accessed January 28, 2002).
Prom Guide.http://www.promguide.com (accessed January 28, 2002).
Shadburne, Susan. Street Talk and Tuxes (video). Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Susan Shadburne Productions, 1998.
Yourprom.com.http://www.yourprom.com (accessed January 28, 2002).
prom / präm/ • n. inf. 1. a formal dance, esp. one held by a class in high school or college at the end of a year.2. Brit. short for promenade (sense 1). 3. (also Prom) Brit. short for promenade concert: the last night of the Proms.