The History of Prom

The iconic school dance has a history that stretches over 100 years.


photo by Jess Daninhirsch

North Allegheny’s 1957 Prom.

Anna Parsons, Senior Staff Writer

On Saturday nights in the month of May, Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington is crowded with hundreds of high school students dressed in elaborate gowns and strapping suits taking endless pictures before a night full of dancing. This is how most of Pittsburgh’s high school seniors start one of their most anticipated nights of the year: prom.

Across the country, the formal dance is a tradition that many high schools participate in. Prom has an interesting history dating all the way back to the 19th century, and its rich past has led it to become one of the most famous dances to exist. 

First held for the graduating classes of colleges and universities in the late-1800s, prom, short for promenade, was initially a way to teach manners and etiquette to the college senior students. Written by a male student at Amherst College, a journal entry was one of the first recordings of a formal prom in 1894. It talked of being invited to a prom-style dance at Smith College.

Throughout the early and mid 1900s, the dance slowly evolved into the present high school event that it is today. Starting out with being a simple tea dance for high school students, the early proms were initially a reason for high school students to wear their fanciest clothes. That soon turned into a class banquet in the 1920s and 1930s where students would wear fun party clothes and, of course, dance. 

Finally, in the 1950s, proms started to resemble the dances of today. The dance moved from the cafeteria and gyms to hotel ballrooms and country clubs. There was more elaborate transportation, clothing, dates, and the beginning of the competitive aspect of prom, including selections for “prom queen” and “prom king,” in addition to the most extravagant gowns and the best dates.

However, as schools in America started to integrate in the 1960s and 70s, their dances did not. Many school districts refused to allow both Black and white students to participate in the same prom, leaving them to either make two separate dances or completely exclude Black students. Parents would also create their own proms for their children. 

However, in the 1980s, with the rise of teen movies that represented high school norms such as the beloved dance, prom rose back to popularity. New bright colors and styles dominated the dance floor. Big hair, neon clothing, and the brightest eyeshadows and lipsticks took over the traditional black suits and formal dresses. 

After the return in the 1980s, annual proms stood strong across American high schools all throughout the 1990s, changing with the different trends of the decade. Primarily starting in the 90s and early 2000s, a push for LGBTQ inclusion began where students protested rules against same sex couples attending the dance together and clothing regulations that were gender stereotypical in nature. 

Throughout the 2010s, the price of prom skyrocketed. In 2013, the average family was estimated to spend over $1,100 on their child’s dance attire and preparations. But the steep cost has not diminished the desire to participate in the dance. 

Another aspect of the present day’s prom era is the elaborateness of the “promposal”. Colorful posters decked out with creative lines can be seen all over social media and even in the school cafeteria when a student asks during a school lunch. Asking a person to be a date to prom evolved from a simple question to something resembling marriage proposals–But the creativity behind some “promposals” can never be denied. 

Today, prom is still considered a high school bucket list experience that most adults encourage young people to attend. Even though school dances can have their ups and downs, being a part of a high school tradition that is about 90 years old is something that will never be forgotten. 

The one night a year that students dress up in their nicest and most glamorous clothing has a longer and more interesting history than many suspect. From starting in the colleges and universities of America to developing into an iconic high school opportunity, prom has always been an anticipated event guaranteed to grant long-lasting memories.