Prom: A Bit of History

Upperclassmen, it is time. Prepare to ready yourselves for an age-old tradition, an all-American coming of age story unlike any other: prom. Throughout the past one hundred years, prom, short for “promenade,” has taken on certain epic proportions in the minds of burgeoning adults. Whether it deserves such importance is still a matter of debate.

Prom, as an entity, evolved from the high-class functions of the 1800s, pulling itself out from the proverbial debutante muck. Its “promenade” origin comes from the original announcement and marching of guests before any important social function. In effect, the prom was the poor man’s version of the balls and galas of the elite of society. It also created a perfect environment for the little Sallys and Robbies to meet each other in an atmosphere that was safe, and full of good, clean, fun. It’s little wonder that the concept caught fire in suburban America.

The 1930s and 40s would see prom’s rise to power in high schools throughout the country. More than anything, it served as a kind of coming-out for those who could not afford the grand affair in the plaza. This idea that one night served as your entrance into adult society perhaps explains why prom remains a popular subject of teen books, movies, and Facebook posts. It’s any teen’s chance to show that they are adults by dressing up, going out to dinner, and puking their guts out for some inevitable reason at the end of the night. That is the seduction behind that fifty (or seventy-five, or one hundred) dollar prom ticket.

In many ways, prom is just the Americanized version of the ages-old cultural tradition of the coming of age ceremony. African tribes have ritual dance; America has live music and awkward slow-dancing. Every culture needs this kind of ceremony to differentiate between the men and the boys, and it is only natural the American version include a fancy dinner and the inevitable gym transformation perpetrated by prom committees all over the country. This very anthropology-driven origin is what instills prom with its distinct aura and significance. Each attendee is steeping firmly in the roots of their ancestors when they go out and purchase all the prom necessities. This gives the night an almost shamanic sacredness, and adolescents mature without any ritualistic blood-letting.

Movies (and the media in general) are at least partially responsible for much of the glittery mystique surrounding the epic prom night. For every Carrie, there is an inundation of John Hughes dependent rom-coms that show the prom in, well, a romantic light. Though there is nothing wrong with embellishing an experience for the purpose of theatrics, such events can lead to some very false expectations. No matter what Twi-hards may believe, prom will not end with a dashing immortal sweeping them off their feet in a slow dance. No vampire worth his fangs would be caught dead (or alive) at a high school prom.

Of course, a lack of vampires does not mean that prom is completely devoid of romantic opportunities. After all, what better affirmation is there of high school love than accompanying a date to the social event of the season? Get intimate with each other over ear-shattering dance-hall music, and don’t be afraid to copy and post the uncomfortable photos of what you looked like before the big night. The bolder attendees can go without a date, and hope for an intimate connection over the punch bowl. It’s impossible to tell what could happen during “A Night Under the Star” or “An Adventure Under the Sea.”

If only every prom could end as a soul-searching night for those coming of age. It seems impossible unless viewed through the rosy-tinted glasses of nostalgia, which ultimately informs every adult’s perception of that magical night. Perhaps the enduring popularity of prom comes in part from the age-old desire to be new again, to be stupid and ignorant and have your entire future in front of you. Perhaps the obsession with prom in the popular culture comes from a deep-seated psychological need to redo, to make the night completely and absolutely perfect in light of all the other things, terrible and miraculous, that have succeeded that night. Every adult in their heart-of-hearts is dreaming of that Back to the Future scenario, where anyone can change the entire course of history simply by beating up that bully. Perhaps that is why thousands of dollars are dished out on clothes and limousines; perhaps prom is the adults’ attempt to reclaim some of their long-lost youth.

That is not to say that prom is some completely overblown attempt by adults to deal with their own psychological issues. It can just be fun, as much fun as anyone can have dressing up and going out with a group of friends on a spring night. There’s nothing wrong with being excited about corsages, or making sure that shoes perfectly complement the dress. Much fun there is to be had on prom night, just not an earth-shattering paradigm shift that will automatically make any gangly adolescent into an adult. The only thing that can accomplish that is time, experience, and a whole lot of patience.