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Jonathan Zimmerman

The prom: An American relic

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In 1954, American Girl magazine published a book of beauty tips for young women. It included helpful suggestions about preparing for the ultimate American beauty contest: the high school prom.

“This is the moment to slip into your dress . . . Put your hair in place again, fasten your necklace or bracelet, and step into your pumps,” the book advised. “And wheee! Look now! There really is another you in the mirror. A you that is practically exuding a subtle new fascination, a wonderful femininity.”

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I’ve been thinking about this passage as I watch my own daughter get ready for prom, which seems like a relic from another age. And maybe that’s the whole point of it. In a time of enormous flux and ambiguity in gender relations, this ritual returns us to a time when men were men and, yes, women were women.

The first recorded reference to a prom is from a student at Amherst College, who wrote in 1884 about attending prom at nearby Smith. But as more Americans joined the middle class, prom left the elite precincts of private colleges and filtered into the nation’s burgeoning secondary schools.

As the prom democratized, however, girls faced added pressure to keep up with each other. During the Great Depression, they sent letters to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt asking her to help them in purchasing dresses. But prom reached its competitive peak in the 1950s, when America’s postwar prosperity fueled a booming trade in shoes, wraps, and corsages. Some principals actually canceled proms to avoid “psychologically wounding” those too poor to attend.

But the biggest competition was for boys. Of course you couldn’t ask one to the prom: As an advice book warned, “girls who usurp the right of boys to choose their own dates will ruin a good dating career.” And girls walked a sexual tightrope, too, thanks to the era’s notorious double standard. Refusing to kiss or “pet” might alienate a boy, but going too far would render a girl “damaged goods.”

Proms declined during the anti-authoritarian 1960s and 1970s, when “dating” went out of fashion as well. “We don’t date,” one teen remarked in 1972. “ ‘May I take you to the prom’ is just a big joke.” I went to my own high school prom, in the late 1970s, but in a semi-ironic kind of way. Take my blue cummerbund (please!).

By contrast, today’s prom is serious business. And I do mean business: Visa reports that prom spending will reach an average of $1,139 per family this year, up 5 percent since 2012. Most of that is still done by girls, who post their dresses on Facebook in the hopes that no one else will purchase the same one.

Meanwhile, boys now compete to devise the most elaborate ways to ask girls to prom. Two years ago, a student who serenaded his intended date in class — backed up by cappella singers — ended up on “Good Morning America.” So-called “promposals” have since become ubiquitous on the Internet, generating millions of YouTube hits.

What’s going on here? Part of it reflects the influence of reality TV and other contemporary media, which encourage all of us to live in the public spotlight. Witness the California student who recently invited model Kate Upton to prom with an online video, rendering him a minor celebrity in his own right. (“Ill check my schedule,” Upton tweeted back.)

Yet there’s more. In the revival of traditional prom rituals, you can also detect a longing for a clearer set of rules about courtship itself. Today’s teens don’t “date,” either: they hang out, go out, see each other, and, yes, hook up. And no two people seem to agree on the definitions, or on the differences. Bewildering? You bet.

But at the prom, everything is set in stone. He’s the prince, and she’s the princess. He asks; she assents. As the parent of two teenage daughters, who must make their way across a confusing sexual landscape, I understand the appeal of the old-fashioned model. But I’m glad we bring it back for only one night.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is writing a history of sex education around the world.
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