The Tumultuous History of Prom

By Cady Russell, Staff Writer

Prom is the American high school tradition. Movies like Pretty in Pink showcase the biggest event of the high school year in brilliant extravaganza. People dream about their prom dates and dresses. Prom is a distinctly American event, but how did the high school night of the year even get started?

Prom is short for promenade, a term which was typically used to the parading of young women around debutante balls to eligible suitors. Debutante balls were balls put on by wealthy American families to introduce their children into the adult world. These balls were lavishly decorated, with expensive suits and gowns, the whole Cinderella ball story. These events cost a lot of money, but they taught children how to behave and what the adult world was like.

The average middle class American could not afford to attend or host a debutante ball. So middle class parents created their own form of party, the very first proms in the early 20th century. These proms were far from what we even consider ‘prom.’ Typically they were quiet affairs, with kids dressing up in their Sunday best, having social tea, and dancing.

It is these social gatherings that would evolve to the school run affair. Colleges took these gatherings and made them into a party or banquet for the graduating class. Two different events would happen that would push prom from college to high school. One, a growing teenage culture pushed the prom tradition from the graduating college class to  high school. Secondly, the early 20th century saw increasing numbers of middle class kids going to high school. Upper classes started to worry that the lower classes wouldn’t respect the strict gender roles that differentiated the richer ‘ladies’ from working class women who could speak to men outside of a formal setting. It is here where prom becomes less of an fun event and much more sexist and racist.

Besides the already stated fact that prom was originally to teach teenagers, but mostly women, how to act, it also started becoming more and more restricted in attempts to teach teenagers lessons. As the times changed and causal high school dating became the norm, so did how students thought of prom. The increasing idea that prom was the night to get involved sexually with your partner, came from movies like She’s All That, which showcase the sex of prom. In response, high schools turned to micromanaging prom dress codes, especially women’s outfits. Women were forbidden from wearing anything masculine, or too promiscuous, as deemed by the school.

“Girls’ bodies have always been sites of control. [Prom dress codes that focus exclusively on girl’s attire] is linked to that old double standard that girls are responsible for boys’ sexual behavior… but for girls dressing sexy isn’t necessarily about sex. It can be about transforming the self,” sociology professor Amy Best said.

Times have also changed from how dates are seen. One of the first historical records of a prom was in 1884, written in a diary entry, by a male college student who says he was invited to the “Smith Jr Prom.” Smith College is an all women’s college, meaning women were doing the asking. However, by the 1930s, men were asking the women. In fact, getting asked out by a women or going alone was social suicide at the time. A 1938 dating guide, Gentlemen Aren’t Sissies, advised young men to “spend money like water,” in order to attract young women as dates instead of actually wooing them. This infers the sexist idea that women are attracted to wealth rather than attitude. That same article also advises middle class men to not even attempt to woo elite women for they have ‘nothing to offer’ and would be embarrassed.

Perhaps even more awful than the sexist roots of prom, would be the blatant sexism that has continued into the 21st century. After the ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which prohibited from segregation in schools, many southern high schools still aimed to find loopholes in the ruling, hoping to uphold Jim Crow laws. Prom was the perfect place for that. Southern schools would hold two proms, one for white students and one for colored students. Charleston High School in Mississippi is one of the more famous examples. In 1970, prom became invite only, the same year black students started attending. The school received national attention in 1997 after Morgan Freeman offered to pay for the prom if the school hosted an integrated prom. The school refused. Charleston High School continued to hold segregated proms until 2008.

Unfortunately, cases of discrimination like this were not uncommon. Wilcox County High School in Georgia did not hold an integrated prom until 2013. In 1994, an Alabama principal was sued for threatening to cancel the schools prom if interracial couples attended. Many schools still have anti-LGBT+ laws in effect. In 1979, the first known gay couple attend prom, in a culture that requires women to dress feminine and men masculine, and definitely heterosexual. In 2010, the prom at Itawamba County Agricultural High School was cancelled after a senior lesbian asked to bring her girlfriend and wear a tuxedo.

All of this is not an attempt to bash prom. Prom is the event of the year. But cases of sexism, racism, and homophobia still exist today. Prom should be available to everyone, no matter their race, sexuality, or gender. But allowing the history of prom to be rewritten as the distinctly happy American image is unjust. It is forgetting and allowing such practices to continue. So now, do not turn the other cheek. Take a stand against the disparities at your school and at others. Because allowing these things to continue will only harm our future and continue the past.


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