Prom: A History

Justin Oei, Staff Writer

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As many of the juniors and seniors will recall, the annual prom was last Thursday. Probably until this year, I never really saw the point of prom (and, let’s face it, when I sent in all the paperwork I subconsciously probably did so so that I wouldn’t be the only loner at home that night).  

Being Justin the analytical (and sometimes cynical) history buff, to help me understand what I had gotten myself into, last Wednesday I researched the largely unappreciated origins of prom, which are surprisingly intriguing. Not surprisingly, the timeline of prom’s evolution mirrors that of American society. Prom has its roots in the debutante ball, a tradition that prom has largely reshaped into the Sweet Sixteen party. A debutante ball was a high-society tradition where the prim-and-proper young ladies of society would be presented to the eligible Ivy-League graduates of the day. This evolved into a promenade dance, where the sister colleges of all-male schools would invite their soon-to-be graduates to meet, mix, and mingle with their soon-to-be graduates.

As with many other academic traditions, this soon seeped its way down to the high school level, which by the turn of the century began having graduation dances for the senior class requiring formal evening attire (sound familiar?). In a world where a tertiary education was not the norm, with the exception of the extremely wealthy, these dances, with the gentlemen having to find and secure a date, became seen, for all intents and purposes, as the dress rehearsal for a young (wo)man’s wedding.  

These dances became known as promenades (marking the procession of these young couples into high society) and became more and more elaborate affairs, enough that they outgrew the confines of the school gymnasium. This necessitated a move to fancier venues, such as country clubs, wedding venues, and even museums and (yes) Disneyland. It became the defining moment of a high schooler’s life, something that for many the whole year built up to. Even promposals and evening wear have become more elaborate. Two intrepid seniors this year, for example, wore multicolored patterned suits to the prom instead of the traditional black-tie tuxedos.

Prom is undoubtedly part of the quintessential American high school experience. It has become as regular as summer reading and final exams. Looking to the future, though, time can only tell if it will remain part of an American experience, or if it will fall by the wayside.


Credit: Pinterest

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