In the United States, the prom (short for promenade) has been a high-school ritual since the beginning of the 20th century, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that proms became more than just an end-of-the-year dance. A combination of postwar prosperity and the increased mobility of teens driving their own cars made the prom a rite of passage, as well as a last chance to leave a favorable impression on one’s classmates before everyone went their separate ways to enter the workforce, sign up for the armed services, or attend college.
For 1950s girls attending high-school proms, white cocktail or party dresses were widely embraced, but so were billowy gowns in a range of colors, from pastel pinks to lipstick reds. Regardless of the color, a woven mesh called tulle, usually made from silk, rayon, or nylon and almost always starched, was the prom-dress fabric of choice.
Many prom dresses from this period through the present day have been strapless, held aloft by fitted bodices, some of which were lined and boned. Sometimes a pastel tulle dress would be trimmed with white lace, other times taffeta in a contrasting or complimentary color would be wrapped around tulle at the waist and below the bust to create a form-fitting bustle.
For those not daring enough to go strapless but who wanted the look, prom dresses with thin spaghetti straps were a good alternative. Underneath the skirts of these dresses, young women would often wear petticoats or crinoline. In some cases, cruffled crinoline would be built into the skirt itself to give the garment dimension and body. When worn with ruffled chiffon, the look was a prom classic.
Just about every department store sold prom dresses; you could even pick one up at Sears. Some of the 1950s and 1960s labels that were best known for excelling at the form included Emma Domb, Christian Dior, Mainbocher, and Will Steinman.
Prom dress styles have not changed radically since their heyday in the ’50s, but the colors of the dresses have gotten brassier and brighter since the 1980s, as the social stakes associated with proms have increased.
One reason, no doubt, for the increased attention on this single evening in the social calendar has been the attention Hollywood has paid to the event. Prom setting or proms as plot points have found their way into everything from horror films (“Carrie,” 1976; “Prom Night,” 1980) to sex comedies (“American Pie,” 1999). Still, despite all the manufactured pressure, a lot of kids still manage to have a terrific time.