The Evolution of the Prom

By Domenica Di Piazza, Editorial Director of Twenty-First Century Books

April, May, and June are the months of prom every year in the United States. The season can be a time of excitement, fun, and dressing up (or down), and inviting a cool person to be your date. At least that’s what it’s meant to be.

Promenade to prom

Originating in nineteenth-century America, prom has its roots in high-society debutante balls where upper-class families introduced their marriageable daughters to society through a large ball. Part of the ball was a promenade, or slow formal walk, in which guests presented themselves in pairs. The word “prom” is likely an abbreviation of that French word.

By the depression era, prom had begun to take off as an event for just about everybody, not just high-society families. It remained a rite of passage into adulthood and marriage, but by the twenty-first century, prom has become mostly a way to have fun with friends.

PROM cover

Inclusivity and safety

Yet proms have a long history of discrimination and exclusion. Did you know, for example, that some high schools didn’t hold integrated proms until 2013? And that some GLBTQ+ teens have had to file lawsuits to bring the date of their choice to their prom?

Prom can also be a ritual in which prom-goers are bullied and sexually harassed online. For example, have you heard about the online prom draft in which boys share their ranking of girls by desirability?

And, prom can be an event where teens experience enormous competition. Who put together or received the most elaborate promposal? Who wore the most expensive dress or suit? Who hired a limo, who didn’t? Additionally, some teens drink too much at prom. The risk of harassment and sexual assault go way up that night too.

So, at prom, how can prom-goers stay safe? How can they make sure to respect their dates, whether male or female, and enjoy prom without breaking the bank? How to make sure you can go to prom with the person you care about–and wear what you choose?

Read more

In Prom: The Big Night Out, Jill S. Zimmerman Rutledge offers a wide range of real-life stories and interviews with teens to answer these questions, offer smart tips, and more.

“Be smart about what you do, where you go, with whom you go pre- and post-prom. Have all plans and details worked out with your prom partner/group you’re going with. Take advantage of your high school’s post-prom offerings. The best way to ensure an evening of memories is by staying safe.”–Emmy, Prom: The Big Night Out p. 68

And you’ll meet people such as:

  • Brooklyn Buenaventura, whose classmates voted her prom queen while she was transitioning to female.
  • Constance McMillen, who won her struggle with her school to bring her girlfriend as her prom date–and wear a tuxedo to prom.
  • Athletes Michael Martin and Logan Westrope who went to their prom as an out gay couple.
  • Sixteen-year-old Diana Leung, who went to her hospital’s prom the year she was diagnosed with brain cancer.

To learn more about inclusivity at the prom, check out this article from USA Today. For more on safety at the prom, read this article from The Hartford Financial.

For more posts by Domenica Di Piazza, click here

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