The Junior-Senior Prom: Its History, Its Evolution

The Prom

In the United States and the nations and cultures heavily influenced by her, the junior-senior prom has emerged as the coming-of-age social event for a young gentleman.

The word “prom” is the shortened form of the “promenade,” the traditional see-and-be-seen strut up to the grand entrance of some major social event, perhaps best exemplified today in the red-carpet walk-ups at the Cannes Film Festival or the Oscars. But the historical record confirms the word “prom” being used in the 1894 journal entry of an Amherst student to describe his invitation to and attendance at a dance at Smith College. Perhaps an attempt to broaden the reach of the uber-exclusive debutante balls of the day, where girls of society’s uppermost echelon were formally introduced to adult society, college proms, though in the late 19th century held primarily by exclusive schools in America’s northeast region, were more egalitarian. And eventually, by the late 1920s, with the liberalization of America, coupled with the emergence of the automobile, the concept of the prom had spread from the ivy-covered halls of the nation’s top universities and colleges to become a tradition of high schools’ upperclassmen across the nation. By the 1930s, proms were frequently being described in high school yearbooks as a dance given by the junior class as a farewell present to the outgoing senior class. And while some universities still have official, school-sponsored balls and fraternity and sorority “formals,” the word “prom,” an event held usually just before graduation in May, is today the exclusive domain of high schools. In essence, the prom has become the iconic high school event.

Though the early proms were less elaborate than their modern-day counterparts—the earlier ones typically being held in the schools’ gymnasiums or assembly halls—by the 1950s, perhaps as a result of post-World War II wealth, proms had become decidedly more fancy, abandoning gymnasiums for hotel ballrooms and country club banquet halls. The 1970s and ’80s were the “golden era” of the prom: coordinated outfits; prom kings and queens; upscale venues; live bands; five-course dinners; and after-parties and prom-breakfasts lasting until dawn the following day. But there were also chaperones. By the 1990s, however, with heightened awareness of the hazards of drinking and driving, students began securing professional limousine services and renting hotel rooms at the prom venue where they could, theoretically at least, safely recover from the evening’s festivities. And with the tradition of renting rooms came the tradition having sex as a part of the prom experience. There was still adult supervision, but the days of overzealous chaperones, armed with flashlights, ferreting out “missing” couples from behind dark shrubs had faded into the distant past. The 1990s also saw the rise of “going stag”: Boys and girls attending the prom without dates or as a group of non-paired attendants. And by the earliest years of the 21st century, non-traditional couples had begun challenging school boards and administrations for their right to attend the prom as non-traditional (gay, lesbian, and transgender) couples.

But regardless of the evolution of prom over the years, gentlemen must remain gentlemen through it all.

Securing a Date

Whether a young gentleman will attend the prom with a traditional date or a non-traditional one, courtesy dictates that he secure his date between two and three months before the event. Prom is a special event and should be treated as such. In addition, preparing for a prom—besides the oftentimes significant financial commitment—can be a time-consuming process since proper garments must be secured and sometimes coordinated with those to be worn by the date.

The gentleman requesting the date should be prepared to pay for his and his date’s prom tickets, his date’s corsage or boutonnière, hired transportation, special accommodations, and post-prom events such as tickets for the after-party and the prom-breakfast. Generally, if a gentleman has invited a male companion, the invitee will offer and/or insist on paying half the expenses. When the date is female, however, the young gentleman should pay all the expenses outlined above unless she insists on paying a portion of the expenses.

It is the tradition of some schools for the members of the graduating class to be given complimentary prom tickets, usually paid for from the prom budget of the junior class. Even under those circumstances, however, seniors are generally required to secure tickets for their dates if the dates are not members of the school’s graduating class.

Appropriate Garments

Prom is a formal event, and formal garments should be worn. And while some young men will go to all lengths to color-coordinate their tuxedos or tails with their dates’ outfits, a young gentleman should wear the classic, formal-wear garments in the classic formal-wear colors: black with white.

The ultimate in men’s formal wear is tails or “white tie dress.” Black tie, the second-most-formal dress for men, requires a black bow tie, though it is increasingly becoming acceptable for men to wear bow ties and cummerbunds in colors which compliment the outfits of their dates.(But see chapter, “The Essentials of a Gentleman’s Wardrobe”).

Arrival at the Home of the Date

Regardless of whether a gentleman is driving or being chauffeured, upon arriving at the location where he is to meet his date, he must exit the vehicle and formally announce his arrival at the door. Remaining in the vehicle and blowing the horn to summons one’s date is completely unacceptable. If the date is being picked up at home, it is customary for the gentleman to be invited into the home, at which point he greets his date and her or his family members, socializing briefly with them before departing for the prom venue. The young couple’s families should be fully apprised of the evening’s schedule so that they are aware of where the couple will be during the course of the evening’s various events as well as when the couple is scheduled to return home.


By tradition, a gentleman, upon arriving at the home of his date, presents her with a corsage which he either pins onto the left side of her dress, just below her shoulder, or places onto her left wrist (in which case, he should have asked his date for a color swatch of her dress so that the florist could select corsage ribbons that complement the the dress). If a young gentleman is unaware of the style of dress to be worn by his date, it is better for him to request that his florist create a wrist corsage since some gown styles—such as strapless, spaghetti-strap, or dresses styled such that a corsage would detract from the overall lines of the garment—are not designed to accommodate pin-on corsages. In addition, many young men become unnerved when required to pin the corsage since its proper placement is close to a lady’s breast. But even wrist corsages can present stylistic issues since a lady would not wear one with a long-sleeved gown, for example. The most practical solution, then, is for a gentleman to discretely ask his date her corsage-style preference rather than asking her the style of her dress since some young ladies prefer to keep their dress designs a secret—even from their dates—until the night of the event.

Just as a gentleman presents his date with a corsage (or in the case of a male companion, a boutonnière), the date presents the gentleman with a boutonnière. The correct placement of a boutonnière is on the left lapel of a gentleman’s jacket, the precise location for which is marked by a buttonhole. If the buttonhole is functional, the stem of the flower should be pushed through the buttonhole and held in place by the loop that is (but oftentimes is not!) on the backside of the lapel. When the buttonhole is not functional but is only decorative, the boutonniere should be pinned onto the lapel, just over the decorative buttonhole. A gentleman who attends the prom “stag” may purchase and put on his own boutonnière.

Eating and Dancing at the Prom

Because prom is a formal event, the rules of formal dining should be implemented. (See chapter, “Manners at the Table”).

A gentleman’s primary dancing partner at the prom is his date. When accompanying a lady to the dance floor, he must rise from his seat then assist the lady with her chair so that she may rise. Together, arm in arm or hand in hand, they make their way to the dance floor. If the path to the dance floor is too narrow for the couple to walk abreast, the gentleman must lead the way. At the end of the dance, they make their way back to their table, the gentleman again assisting the lady with her chair. When a gentleman is accompanying his male companion to the dance floor, both young men rise and make their way to the dance floor, arm in arm or holding hands—if they so desire. A gentleman does not assist another gentleman with his chair—unless one is physically challenged. When walking abreast to and from the dance floor is not possible, either gentleman may lead the way.

Dancing, occasionally, with someone other than one’s date is permissible at a prom. A gentleman, for example, may have friends who attended the prom “stag.” Some of those friends, during the course of the evening, may wish to dance with the gentleman’s date—especially if they are all friends. Despite the advances towards social parity between men and women, it is still customary, and expected, for a gentleman to be asked if it is agreeable to him for his date to be invited to the dance floor on the arm of another man. “Good evening, Nathaniel, may I have the honor of asking Simonique if she would like to dance the next dance with me?” At which point Nathaniel may respond, for example, “Certainly!” In such instances, the gentleman requesting the dance, not the official escort, is responsible for assisting the lady with her chair. Even so, the official escort is required to stand when his date stands to make her way to the dance floor, and he stands again when she returns to the table, taking his seat only after she has been properly situated in her seat by the dance partner. While escorting the lady to and from the dance floor, the dance partner should offer his right arm to the lady so that they may walk arm in arm to the dance floor. He should not, however, walk hand in hand with the lady, for that more intimate posture is reserved for her official date.

While a gentleman’s date is dancing, he should remain seated at their table—not walking about in pursuit of a dance with another lady. On occasion, however, another couple will invite a gentleman and his date to switch partners for a dance. If the suggestion is met with mutual approval, the gentleman must rise to assist his date with her chair, then the couples will swap partners and head, arm in arm, towards the dance floor. Upon returning to the table where the invitation to switch-dance was extended, the gentleman who danced with the lady of the table assists her with her seat, bids her and her official escort good-bye, then escorts his official date away from the table—unless, of course, the couples are all sharing the same, large table.

When a lady is disinclined to dance, she politely voices her preference directly to the gentleman who extended the invitation. “Thank you so much, Frank, for your invitation to dance, but I’m tired at the moment. James and I have been dancing up a storm this evening. It would, however, be my pleasure to dance with you as the evening progresses. I hope you’ll do me the honor of inviting me again. I’ll be sure to reserve some energy for your dance.”

Transgender Attendees

Transgender students should dress and conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the gender(s) with which they identify, using the information provided herein as a guide.

Post-Prom Expectations

At the end of the prom and all post-prom festivities, a gentleman, no matter how much time and money he spent preparing for the event, is entitled only to a “Thank you for a beautiful evening” from his date—no more, no less. Most young dates, after a fun-filled evening, will offer or gladly accept a kiss on the cheek. But anything beyond that must be approached in mutually agreed-upon increments.

While a young man of 17 or 18 years may be physiologically equipped to engage in sexual intercourse, very rarely is he emotionally and financially mature enough for such an undertaking. (See chapter “Sex in the 21st Century”). Modern-day liberalism and peer pressure, however, can oftentimes lead a young gentleman into believing that sex is the natural epilogue to the epic called prom. But a gentleman would be wise to separate the two. Even a young man who has a sexually active relationship with his date should not assume that the evening of the prom will conclude with sex. Responsible, legal sex requires informed, consensual compliance. And “No, thank you” should be interpreted literally, the operative term being “no.”

Designated Driver

Driving while fatigued is as dangerous as driving while intoxicated. A gentleman who is likely to consume alcoholic beverages and/or celebrate beyond his normal waking hours should engage the services of a professional driver whose responsibility it is to safely transport the gentleman and his date to and from the prom. A young man who cannot afford to pay for chauffeur services should enlist the transportation assistance of a parent or some other responsible, adult relative.

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