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Posted by kellybam on May 19th, 2018
The prom has endured as a meaningful teenhood tradition for decades: It’s a hotly anticipated toast to high school, playing a pivotal part of basically any teen flick worth its salt (not to mention how pivotal it can be IRL too).But the true roots of prom — short for “promenade” — are as a rite of passage, debuting at Northeast colleges such as Harvard University and Amherst College in the mid- to late 19th century, as relatively simple farewell dances for graduating classes. The practice skewed younger in the decade that followed, emerging as a teen tradition at high schools by the 1940s. Proms are held at some Canadian high schools, and they have also caught on to a lesser extent — and with a younger demographic — in the past decade or so in the U.K., although it hasn’t expanded much farther globally.
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Proms are just one type of coming-of-age ceremony, along with quincea?eras, bar/bat mitzvahs, Catholic communions and confirmations, debutante balls, and weddings. All these rites of passage, and the carefully chosen clothes that are worn on these special occasions, have stuck around. But the prom dress differs from most rite-of-passage fashion traditions: It’s nonsecular, and not tied to any particular ethnicity, and, thus, it’s more universal.It’s also the rare coming-of-age garment that can, and often does, telegraph a teen girl’s burgeoning sexuality, as sociologist Amy Best explores in her 2000 book, Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture. “The prom dress is critically important to this invention of a sexual self,” Best writes, detailing how she overheard some of the girls she interviewed describing their fathers’ “utter discomfort” upon seeing their risqué getups for the big night, which provide proof “that the girls had succeeded in transforming themselves.”
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