April 15, 2018

Prom dresses have long been a staple of the final dance and year of high school. Aside from picking the perfect date, the perfect dress holds high up on a pedestal. But, when did the need for such elaborate dress become a consistent trend? In this text, I will throughly examine the history and evolution of the prom dress, from inception to where we are today. This includes style, emphasis and possible ideas if the age-old ideal will ever shift as gender becomes more fluid and women continue to break conformation standards.

            Prom, short for the promenade, originated in the 19th century, as a way college graduating boys and girls to mingle in a banquet-like fashion. It was not until the 1940’s that proms made way to high schools across the country with locations going from fancy ballrooms to gymnasiums and cafeterias. But, to keep with proper etiquette, the girls maintained the banquet feel by dressing as fashionably as one could. Hence, the beginning of the prom dress. (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1987594,00.html)

            In the 1940’s, the dresses were extremely modest because of the times that they were living in. Homemakers and World War 2 were keeping kids and adults, alike glued to whatever technology was available. Extremely structured, long dresses with high shoulders were extremely popular, role models being Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Katharine Hepburn, and Lana Turner. Come the 1950’s, poodle skirts were much more prevalent meaning the dresses had an element of sexuality. They were called “tea-length” and fell just slightly below the knees, no longer a need to cover up the shoulders. (https://www.elle.com/fashion/g26089/evolution-of-prom-dresses/) Those dresses could be considered in-style in 2018 as everything recycles itself when fashion is involved.

Each spring, thousands of American high schoolers participate in a coming-of-age ritual known as prom. The event provides an opportunity for teenagers to express themselves, sometimes for the first time in their lives, as adults in traditional gender roles;  for women, this expression is most clearly exemplified by their choice of prom dress.Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, prom dresses have evolved not only to match the fashion of the era, but also to mirror the changing ideals of young women regarding their sexuality and gender roles.  Since the turn of the 20th century prom and prom dresses have captured the public imagination (Anderson, 2012): from the debutante balls of the roaring 20’s, to the post-war extravagance of the 1950’s, to the modern era where the idea of a perfect prom dress cemented itself firmly into the traditional American adolescence thanks to prom scenes in movies such as Pretty in Pink and 10 Things I Hate About You. This paper presents an anthropological examination of prom dresses and how each decade’s culture was reflected by the changing dress fashions.


Anderson, Ann. “1 - History.”High School Prom: Marketing, Morals and the American Teen,       McFarland, 2012, pp. 10–12.