April 10, 2018

Every high school experience comes with its own milestones. Certain events such as receiving a driver’s license or getting a boyfriend/girlfriend is significant in an average teenager’s life. However, despite these events seeming monumental at the time they occur, years later, they are usually not as memorable as the biggest high school event of them all: prom. The preparation for prom typically commences months ahead of the actual event, as teenage girls begin shopping for their one-of-a-kind prom dresses. In the past, girls would have to search for their prom dresses in a local store or even venture out-of-town to shop for one, hoping that no one else has that same dress. Unlike former generations, teenage girls of the 21st century have instant access to a wider range of options for their dresses through the internet. This enables them the ability to browse online, gaining access to a diverse array of dresses that they would have otherwise never been able to choose from. Through the advancement of digital technology, the evolution of the traditional prom dress has changed rapidly over the span of the last century, now catering to the broad styles and trends of the modern teenage girl.

What is a prom? A prom, which is short for promenade, is defined as “a formal dance given by a high school or college class” (Prom, n.d.). The origins of the lasting traditioncan be

traced back to the simple co-ed banquets that 19th century American universities held for each year's graduating class,” that were soon adopted at the high school level (Suddath, 2010). Due to the societal emphasis of the event and it’s exclusivity to upperclassmen, prom has become ingrained in the teenage mind as a delayed, yet gratifying experience of American culture. For decades, high school girls have devoted their time, energy, and funds into making sure that they have the perfect prom date, the perfect prom hairstyle, and most importantly, the perfect prom dress.


Prom originates from debutante balls and are typically ball gown style, but because the fashion industry is ever-changing, along with the various trends of each season over the years, some prom dresses have veered towards a more provocative and/or casual style of dress. This essay will examine the most popular styles of prom dresses from each decade, starting from the 1940s to present time.

Evolution of Prom Dresses

Prom dresses in the 1940s consisted mostly of long chiffon layered gowns that were usually worn with a matching bolero jacket. Sequins, beads, jewel tones and pastel colors were popular too (Vintage Dancer, 2018, para.2). The “pin-up” look originated in this era and gained more popularity during the 50’s but it was not a common style for a prom dress.

According to Elle Magazine, (2017) full skirted dresses that reached mid-calf were highly fashionable in the 1950s; the Little Bo Peep look was also popular, and this look consisted of ruffles on the dress. Many of these dresses were shoulder baring, thus they were accompanied with a shawl in order to maintain a modest look.

There was not a huge shift in fashion trends during the 1960s, gowns consisted of empire-style waistlines and the continued use of pastel colors (Garis, 2017). However, the 70s was a revolutionary era for the fashion industry. The disco era popularized bright colors, hemlines and “midi skirts” which were anywhere between the knee and the ankle. Dresses were floral patterned, “flowy” and many had dramatic collars. (“1970s Fashion: Styles, Trends, Pictures & History”. (n.d.)).

Although prom was a tradition in American high schools, Sowa (2016) explains that it was not considered to be much of an elaborate occasion until the 80s. Prom had become an event to showcase glamourous pieces that would create a fashion statement. Dresses of all lengths, colors, styles and trends are worn by teenagers all over the country. Mini dresses, high slit dresses and even beaded see-through chiffon dresses have become extremely common over the last five years.


1940s Style Prom Dresses, Formal Dresses, Evening Gowns. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://vintagedancer.com/1940s/1940-prom-dresses/


Garis, M. G. (2017, October 11). Prom Dresses Through the Years: An Evolution. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from http://www.elle.com/fashion/g26089/evolution-of-prom-dresses/


1970s Fashion: Styles, Trends, Pictures & History. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.retrowaste.com/1970s/fashion-in-the-1970s/


Sowa, L. (2016, July 15). The Story Behind the Prom Dress. Retrieved April 10, 2018, from https://www.aol.com/article/lifestyle/2013/04/06/the-story-behind-the-prom-dress/20530781/#

Prom. (n.d.). Retrieved April 9, 2018, fromhttps://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/prom

Suddath, C. (2010, May 17). Brief History: The Prom. Retrieved April 09, 2018, from http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1987594,00.html