The high school prom is the first formal social event for most American teenagers. It has also been a rite of passage for young Americans for nearly a century.
The word “prom” was first used in the 1890s, referring to formal dances in which the guests of a party would display their fashions and dancing skills during the evening’s grand march. In the United States, parents and educators have come to regard the prom as an important lesson in social skills. Therefore, proms have been held every year in high schools for students to learn proper social behavior.
The first high school proms were held in the 1920s in America. 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. Prom-goers were well dressed but not fancily dressed up for the occasion: boys wore jackets and ties and girls their Sunday dresses. Couples danced to music provided by a local amateur band or a record player. After the 1960s, and especially since the 1980s, the high school prom in many areas has become a serious exercise in excessive consumption, with boys renting expensive tuxedos and girls wearing designer gowns. Stretch limousines were hired to drive the prom-goers to expensive restaurants or discos for an all-night extravaganza.
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 dreadful experience for socially awkward teens or for those who do not secure dates. Since the 1990s, alternative proms have been organized in some areas to meet the needs of particular students. For example, proms organized by and for homeless youth were reported. There were also “couple-free” proms to which all students are welcome.