While the high school prom is the star of many movies such as the 1980s classic Pretty in Pink and 1990s She’s All That, it dates back to at least the late 19th century. The name prom comes from the word promenade – meaning a leisurely stroll — and linguistically links the prom party to debutante balls. Although its roots were in late 19th and early 20th century American university culture, the prom became a staple of high school life. Initially, proms were genteel socialqa events that allowed young men and women to socialize with each other and helped teach college-aged youth how to behave with decorum. When the idea of prom spread to high schools in the 20th century, they too were designed to be opportunities to learn how to respectably socialize with the opposite sex, with adult supervision. Proms became more elaborate after World War II, as teenagers and their families had more access to disposable income.
Prom’s appeal has waxed and waned over the years. After the postwar boom, prom became less popular in the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars suggest that changing ideas about gender and formality helped make an event where boys asked girls to dance and everyone dressed up less appealing to the nation’s youth. Youth protests against the Vietnam War and the rise of the counterculture also helped create less interest in prom-going in the late 1960s. Plus, as schools in the South integrated, prom became a fraught symbol for people who wanted to maintain racial integration, and so administrators and parents were more leery of prom.
Despite its ups and downs, prom’s popularity bounced back in the materialist 1980s, and it continues to be an important part of the end of the school year in the 21st century. Some scholars suggest that as the age of marriage among young Americans has risen, prom has become a more important marker of teenagers’ growing independence. They suggest that this has led to more elaborate preparations for prom, including the relatively new “promposal” phenomenon, which first made the news in 2001. New developments like the promposal help explain why the costs associated with prom have risen. According to one account, in 2013, prom spending was a staggering “average of $1,139 per family” in the U.S. While this was a peak year, today’s prom goers do generally spend a lot more on the occasion than teens did in the 1980s.
Cape Fear Museum’s collection includes dozens of prom related artifacts. The oldest item is Nancy Faye Craig’s bright yellow prom dress from the early 1960s. Nancy, a New Hanover High School student, wore her dress both in 1961 and 1962. At the time, New Hanover County’s schools were segregated, so Craig attended a whites-only prom. Her senior prom was held on Saturday, May 12, 1962 at Brogden Hall. In the 1960s, African American students who attended Williston Senior High also held proms; 1963’s prom was held in the Williston gymnasium. The collection also includes items from the 1970s and 1990s.
To see more prom related items from the Museum’s collection, click here.
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