The History of American Prom

American prom has a rooted history in America, despite only dating as far back as to the late 19th century. However prom’s impact on American media and its importance in a student’s time at high school shows its the great significance of the tradition in American culture. 

Photo Credits: On the Banks of the Red Cedar (Michigan State University)

Prom has been a part of American high school culture since the 1920s, however the promenade ball has earlier roots in the 19th century, beginning as an event for college students similar to debutante balls. It allowed for college age students to intermingle and, taking influences from debutante balls, potentially find their future spouse. However during the 1920s and 30s, balls transitioned into a high school event for the seniors. In the early 20th century, prom consisted of simple tea parties where high school students talked in their best clothes under strict supervision of teachers and parents.


Photo Credits: Elle Magazine

By the 1940s and 50s, prom had become more similar to the party event we know today. High schoolers wore more extravagant clothing, proms were held at hotel ballrooms and country clubs, rather than high school gyms, and the tradition of boys inviting girls as dates began. Prom court was more competitive as well, as students strove to be the best dressed and most popular. Prom queen and king were an important part of this popularity and high school prom became the culmination of a student’s social life.

In the 1960s and 70s, prom had entered a political sphere as the racial segregation of prom began to be challenged by students and parents. Many schools had become integrated after Brown v. Board in 1954, but schools continued to hold segregated proms: one for white students and one for black students. Many schools continued to hold segregated proms, even after the Civil Rights movement, like one school, Wilcox County High School in Abbeville Georgia, finally having their first integrated prom in 2013. 


Photo Credits: The Independent

From the 1980s until today, schools also began to struggle with LGBT inclusion in prom. The extremely heteronormative event of prom was challenged by students who went against the norm. Students were often banned from taking same-sex dates to prom or dressing in a way that went against traditional gender norms. 

Prom today has become an exciting event open to all high school students, and some have even begun removing old traditions such as prom court in an effort to be more inclusive. High school prom is known for being an important event in any high schooler’s life, where students talk, dance, and reminisce before leaving high school.