Explore Prom Origins

High school seniors are getting ready to don their evening attire, climb into stretch limousines and head to gymnasiums across the country, which have been magically transformed into classy reception sites thanks to crepe paper and mood lighting. Today's proms are lavish events, with price tags in the thousands. However, proms were much simpler in the past and not as widespread, nor were they considered the rites of passage they are today.

Historians surmise that proms began in the 1800s. However, proms are more readily mentioned in yearbooks dating to the 1930s and '40s. Prom, a shortened form of the word "promenade," meaning a march of guests into a ballroom to announce the beginning of a formal event or ball, was a chance for the middle class to mimic the elite and well bred who would show off their lineage and social skills at debutante balls and other social events of high society. Early proms were restricted to the senior class and strictly chaperoned.

The first proms were modest and saw students wearing their "Sunday best," rather than fancy, new attire. Participants enjoyed tea, dancing and general socializing. As the economy boomed in the 1950s, proms became more lavish and greater care was spent on finding the perfect dress and perfect date. Some proms even moved out of the high school gym into more elaborate sites. The prom eventually evolved into the pinnacle event for high schoolers. And being nominated to the prom court was one of the best honors a teenager could earn.

Prom practices continue to become more ostentatious. Students may spend thousands of dollars on attire, spa treatments, tanning, transportation, food, and other leisure to celebrate their last night as high schoolers. Some equate the prom as a dress rehearsal for a wedding.

However, traditional standards and practices associated with the prom are falling by the wayside. Dates are not always required to attend prom, and many friends go in groups to make the night less of a date atmosphere and more of a friendship event.

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