High School Prom – a history and a personal experience

High School Prom
Prom princesses

I’ve just had a very odd experience.  My fifteen year old daughter has just attended her year 11 high school prom and I found myself, for a short time, turning into ‘prom Mum’.  It’s astonishing how much time and energy can go into preparing a daughter for this one event, lasting a few hours only.  I’m not sure that I was looking forward to it but in the end it wasn’t as bad as I’d expected.

It wasn’t the first prom in the family.  My son went through the process a couple of years ago but on that occasion my only involvement was to admire him in his suit and make sure the corsage matched his date’s dress.  There was little else for me to do.

It’s different with a daughter, especially one like mine who does not conform to most teenage norms.  I was frankly surprised that she wanted to do prom at all.  Given her ambivalence, we rather left the whole shopping thing to the last minute, so we ended up travelling to buy the dress.  Make up and hair needed to be decided and the location of the pre-prom and after-prom events took some arranging.  But my child is fearsomely independent and apart from buying the dress I had less to do than many parents.

The high school prom is a custom which began in the United States but has been exported in recent years to the United Kingdom and Canada, probably because of the popularity of the prom in films and TV shows over the years.  A rite of passage for high school students it has become an important ritual in the UK and most schools now have a version of it.

Susan Ford, who held her prom at the White House
1950s High School Prom
Prom in the 1950s

In the early days of prom in the United States, the dance was a bit like a debutante ball.  It was considered the first adult social event for many teenagers and the first real occasion to dress up.  Initially nothing more than an end of year dance, it gradually became an iconic episode in high school life and during the 1950s proms became more extravagant and elaborate.  Original proms took place at the school but gradually it became more common to use hotels or country clubs.  One lucky girl, whose father happened to be a President, held her prom at the White House.

The high school prom arrived in the UK during the 2000s.  Before then schools often held a summer ball or end of year disco to celebrate the end of formal schooling but this did not have the significance of the US style prom.  However, the increasing influence of US TV shows and movies changed the nature of these events and most schools now hold a year 11 prom and a year 13 prom to celebrate the end of schooling for these two year groups.

There is something reminiscent of a wedding about preparing for high school prom.  Boys wear suits, girls wear evening gowns and there is a tradition of wearing a buttonhole or corsage of flowers.  Traditionally students have attended in couples although it is increasingly common for groups of friends to attend together.  There are formal photographs, parents often gather for pre-prom events and there is often an ‘after prom’ party which might be organized and supervised but is frequently not, in which case alcohol plays a part.

One of the traditions of prom is the election of a prom queen and king, voted in by the other students.  Not all schools hold to this tradition and there has been some concern that it can lead to jealousy and spite but it has proved popular in many schools.

I was worried about the high school prom for my girl.  I thought she might feel slightly out of place in the glitter and self absorption of the whole event.  That says more about my view of prom than hers; I’ll admit to being a bit of a prom snob.  To me it was an American invention wrapped up with teenage rivalry, too much make up and the prom king and queen being the two kids one would least want to spend an evening with.  Clearly I watched too much American teen TV and movies over the past twenty years.

As so often happens, I was wrong.  Prom queen and king were a couple whom my daughter declares to be totally sweet.  She was nominated herself which she found hilarious.  She had a date; a good friend of hers but most of her friends went as a group and there was no sense of rivalry or teenage angst at the pre-prom gathering.  They were all happy, all enjoying dressing up in glamorous clothes and all delighted to be together.

Astonishingly I felt very emotional.  I’ve known a lot of these kids since they were skinny little eleven year olds and they looked truly beautiful.  According to my daughter, the evening was great, she danced until her feet hurt and so did everybody else.  She got bored with the incessant photographs but was tolerant of them.  She enjoyed herself at a good party where she got to dress up like a princess and be with her friends.

I don’t know if high school prom is always like this, but if it is, I’m a convert.  I’m glad that my daughter had this rite of passage at the end of her compulsory education and I’m happy for her to do it again at the end of sixth form.  It turned out that it wasn’t a popularity contest.

Prom girls
High School prom girls

The thing I really liked is that not once have I heard a single criticism or spiteful remark about anybody else.  Nobody picked at each others hair or dress or make up.  The kids I talked to seemed to have a genuine joy in being together for one last time before they separate to take their different paths.  For my daughter it’s back to school for A levels; some are going to college or into work or apprenticeships.  But on this evening they were all united and having a good time.

We here so much negative stuff about teenagers today.  But this group, on this evening, at this prom, were a bunch of kids I’m delighted to know.  Good luck to them all in whatever they do next.  And just for one evening, I was a very very proud prom Mum…