Prom is a rite of passage for most school leavers, and yet here in the UK it is a relatively new concept. So where did prom come from?
The word prom itself is a shortening of promenade – the formal ‘parading’ of guests at a party or ball. The event has its roots in the debutante balls of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in which young ladies would ‘come out’ into society and in doing so declare their eligibility for marriage. Balls and banquets were an important part of social life, and indeed universities held banquets (though they were often quite simple) for their graduating class, and it is here that prom was truly born.
As the years went by, these leaving banquets became more elaborate and were often accompanied by dancing. In addition, high schools in America began to host dances for their school leavers as teenage culture grew. By the 1940s, prom was the most important event of the social calendar for high school seniors, and in the 1950s proms became even more extravagant as they often took place at country clubs or hotels rather than in the school sports hall. Across America, these proms remained quite formal and largely organised by school staff, rather than prom committees.
Proms continued to be popular in America through the rest of the twentieth century, but it was not until the twenty first century that the American import became popular in the UK. The replacement of school discos with prom is partially due to the appeal of red-carpet glamour, particularly when the extent of celebrity culture is considered – prom is a chance to be a celebrity for the day. In addition, the rise of TV shows such as My Super Sweet Sixteen and High School Musical made US prom culture more popular in the UK. Today, over 85% of schools host proms to celebrate the end of GCSEs, and many also host similar celebrations at the end of year 13. These celebrations ensure people remember leaving school, as well as providing a real send-off and prom is certainly here to stay.