The History of Prom & Prom Dresses Over the Years

The History of Prom & Prom Dresses Over the Years

November 30, 2022
By Dani Walker

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Over the decades prom has become a right-of-passage night for teenagers around the world. The word “prom” is short for “promenade”, which refers to a formal dance and presentation of its guests. Its origins date all the way back to the mid 1800s when it was popularized by college students. By the 1930s prom formals reached high schools across the country. Since then, the celebration has become more and more extravagant. Today, prom remains a special and celebrated evening for teenagers.

Prom is a long-standing tradition among high school students. It’s one of the last big nights to celebrate the end of high school with your friends before the next phase of your life starts. There’s dancing and dinner and, most importantly, dresses. These traditions have changed a lot over the years and so too has the fashion. Come along with us as we explore some of the most prominent style choices and where they came from.

First, Let’s Talk About Prom, Baby

Prom started from a standing tradition at colleges to practice social etiquette and manners before entering your role in society and adulthood. A shortened version of the word promenade, this tradition was a coming out of sorts for the graduating seniors, a chance to showcase that they were ready for the next obvious step in their lives: jobs, marriage, and families.

Now, prom is a high school ritual. A time for seniors to celebrate their last days before college or careers and a chance for lower classmen to gain social standing for the next year of high school by being the date of someone older.

While the years and ages of those attending prom have changed, so too have the ways in which we celebrate. Case in point:

1. Promposals are the asking of choice for those seeking out a date for the dance. Another great way to celebrate this night is to go with your best friends, those whom you will miss most when you graduate.

2. We rent limos and party buses to take us to and from prom with our friends and those we are closest with.

3. Groups of friends with their dates go to fancy restaurants for dinner to really highlight the formality of the event. Currently, many are opting for more casual dinners at their favorite burger joints; something that still makes sure you’re ready for a night of dancing but has a more youthful tone.

However you celebrate the event, make sure to have fun! Prom is meant to be a night of celebration and happiness, and since it is one of the last big high school events before you go off into the world to find yourself, don’t take it too seriously. Enjoy the moment, so you have great memories no matter where life takes you.

Prom by the Numbers

You can certainly say the prom dress industry is alive and well. It is worth a whopping $4 billion dollars. The average prom dress costs anywhere between $100-600. If you’re looking to spend less, Queenly has amazing deals on second hand prom dresses! The price ranges depending on where you live. The world’s most expensive prom dress, which featured genuine diamonds, was designed by Dress Goddess in Philadelphia. In 2011 it set a world record with Its $14,000 price tag. Soon after its debut, gown designer La Femme released a similar style that retailed for a consumer friendlier price of $398.

Although dresses can be expensive, they aren’t the only item that adds to the price of prom night. Within the last decade tickets to the event, hair appointments, spray tans, nail appointments, and limo rides, raised the average prom expense per household to upwards of $1,000. It’s estimated that parents often pay for fifty-six percent of expenses, while teens cover the remaining forty-four percent.

If you feel unsure about attending prom, know that you’re not alone. Fifty-three percent of Americans didn’t attend their junior or senior prom. Out of those who did attend, fifty-one percent of them take a date.


What is a promposal you ask? Essentially, it is the way you ask your date to a formal dance. In years past it was a nerve-racking experience that could make any teen’s palms sweat. This tradition used to commonly occur in a casual or private setting. But in today’s social media world, over-the-top, public promposals that go viral on the internet, are common to see each prom season. These grand gestures range from creative and heartfelt to elaborate and expensive.

In this proposal, which was retweeted over 56,000 times in 2017, one teen proposed to his date by offering her a $695 pair of So Kate Christian Louboutin heels and a bag full of Sephora makeup. He presented these gifts with a sign that read, “If the shoe fits, makeup your mind.”

Famous Prom Dresses From TV and Film

Want to look like a celeb? We’ve got you covered. These iconic prom dresses set the style standard for memorable looks through the decades.

Sandra Dee "Sandy" Olsson, played by Olivia-Newton John in the 1978 movie "Grease". Here she is wearing an A-line lace gown with a sweetheart neckline and spaghetti dress in the movie's prom scene.

Sam Montgomery, played by Hilary Duff, in the 2004 movie "A Cinderella Story", a live-action version of the classic Cinderella fairy tale. She's wearing a strapless ballgown.

Mercedes Jones, played by Amber Riley in the 2009 TV show "Glee". Mercedes is wearing a jewelled one-shoulder royal purple dress to her school's prom.

Elena Gilbert, played by Nina Dobrev, in the 2009 TV show "The Vampire Diaries". She is wearing a hot pink ball gown, made of organza silk fabric.

Andie Walsh, played by Molly Ringwald, in the 1986 John Hughes film "Pretty In Pink". She is wearing a light pink cold shoulder straight lined dress.

Kat Stratford, played by Julie Stiles, in the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You. She is wearing a purple slip dress with her shawl to her formal dance in the film.

Ariel Moore, played by Lori Singer, in the 1984 film Footloose. She is wearing an off the shoulder light pink prom dress.

Uncommon Prom Traditions

It might surprise you that some schools hold prom traditions that aren’t widely seen across the U.S. Does your school practice any of these?

- Recently, some schools began selling official prom shirts. The proceeds of the shirts go to the budget for the event.

- In Newark, Delaware boys attend prom etiquette classes for an entire day and write a letter to their date, then give it to them on prom night.

- All senior class girls wear white, while boys wear a tux. Underclassmen can wear any other color.

- At a school in New York, students arrive at the prom on a red carpet. The entire town is invited to watch their arrival from bleachers and take photos.

- In order to get everyone in the prom spirit, some schools will host a prom pep rally the week of the dance.

- Some students choose to get together with their friends for a prom photoshoot with a professional photographer.

- There are some schools that host an official prom after party. There’s typically games and lots of food to fill up on after all the dancing.

- In Sterling, Kentucky students try to out-do one another with over the top prom entrances. This includes a hot air balloon arrival, ice cream truck and even a golf cart.

- In an effort to make everyone feel included, some schools assign random dates to students.

- The Junior class is responsible for coordinating the prom. This leaves the senior class totally surprised on prom night.

- One California school sends all their students to Disneyland after prom night, where they can stay in the park until 8am.

- If you can believe it, at some schools girls buy garters to give to their date. The date will often wear the garter on their arm and keep it. Oftentimes the garter matches the girls dress or is personalized with initials or their graduation year.

- Similar to the garter tradition, some boys offer their prom dates dates their tie to wear at the school dance.

- There are some schools that hold prom night on a Friday. So, it’s common for students to skip school to get ready for that evening.

Today’s Proms

While young women choose to wear dresses, most young men wear a tux or a suit to the dance. Girls are given a corsage by their date, and boys pin a boutonnière to their coat lapel. Groups of students attending prom are commonly chauffeured to the event in a limousine or party bus.

When they arrive, a Prom King and Queen, selected by their peers, is crowned. After the dance, many students head to an after party, local amusement park, or late-night dinner. Although the scale ranges widely from simple proms to elaborate events, these long-held traditions usually remain the same, no matter where you attend prom.

Fashion Forward

Ok, now that we understand what prom is and what we do there, let’s talk about the styles that we wear. Many of the current traditional designs we still see and wear started from decades ago. Next, we will highlight some of the bigger, long-standing traditions and where they came from.

1. The Texture

Velvet seems like something that only in recent years has become trendy, but velvet was actually the fabric of choice for prom styles as far back as the 1930s. It was seen as such a luxurious fabric, obviously due to the soft and pleasant texture, that if your prom dress was made of velvet you were elite.

Today, velvet has made a comeback. Crushed velvet is just enough new-age that if you want to rock this classic trend, find a dress in the extra textured fabric that is sure to make you swoon.

2. Puffy Princess

Tulle will never go out of style. Say it with us for the people in the back! Tulle might be seen as a little princess-ish, but this style dates back to the ’80s, a time when if you wore a tulle dress to prom you were a rocker girl with an edgy style.

While tulle has evolved into a softer vibe, it is sure to last among fashion trends. If you really want to take it back to its roots, try a mini tutu dress or one with a few edgy layers, and don’t be afraid to rock some big bangs and heavy eyeliner while you’re at it! Check out some of our tulle dresses:

3. Royal Waistline

Empire waists are a fashion staple. They are great at creating a waistline if you aren’t happy with yours and thanks to the likes of the cast of Bridgerton, they are making their way back into the conversation. These styles of dresses made their way to fame in the ‘60s thanks to models like Iggy.

Her petite frame was given shape in an empire waist and naturally, it caught on. While this style has remained tried and true over the years if you choose a prom dress with this cut you can rest assured knowing that you are wearing something that will always be timeless.

4. Tuxedos Aren’t Just for the Boys

Ok, we know. This is cheating. But men have been wearing tuxedos to prom since day one, and we want in. While it isn’t traditional for a woman to wear a suit and tie, remember that Carrie taught us at Stanford’s wedding that a tux can be feminine and fashion-forward. Cut close to the waist and tailored perfectly to your body, a tux can be a fun new way to break tradition but still participate in everything prom has to offer.

Tuxedo is too much for you? We understand; why not try a romper? It’s still something so new for formal events that you can guarantee individuality but also make a huge fashion statement.

Time To Tango!

Thanks for hanging out with us and exploring all our fashion trends and where they started. Prom is a special time to be free to express your individuality and, above all, dance like nobody’s watching. Have fun!

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