Why is prom a “big deal” in North America? 

By: Vivian Nguyen 

Published on: February 20 2023

              Photo: Tai’s Captures (Unsplash)  

If you are a high school student in Canada, you may have heard the word “prom” circle the hallways around the final months of the school year (April, May, and June). Or perhaps you watched a show or movie that included the event.  

For many Americans and Canadians, prom signifies a rite of passage, or milestone, for graduating students. But what exactly is prom? Why is it such a big deal in North America? What do you wear to one? This article aims to answer all these questions. 

What is prom? 

Predominantly celebrated today in North America—Canada and the United States (U.S.)—the promenade dance, or “prom,” is a dance celebration for high school students. “Promenade” refers to a slow walk that debutantes do at debutante balls. 

A debutante ball is a formal social gathering in which young women make their debut into high society. By attending these balls, which were most popular in 19th century England, young women demonstrated that they were ‘ready’ for potential suitors—for marriage. Such balls were also extravagant and exclusive, only accessible to higher classes.  

With time, the purpose of debutante balls focused less about marriage and more about social currency. An invitation thus symbolized a family’s wealth and status. 

In Canada, provincial presentations of debutantes occurred until 1965 at Nova Scotia’s St Andrew’s Day Ball. While formal debutante balls hosted by the British royal family ended, the rituals remain in all states in the U.S. and parts of Canada today. 

“Among the wealthy, today’s version of debutante culture seeks to uphold the tenets of its tradition,” writes Vivian Manning-Schaffel for Shondaland. Today’s debutante balls promote past traditions of wearing gowns, learning dances, and “young women of certain status are introduced to society.”  

… Then came the “prom.” 

Prom: “A rite of passage” 

Early proms represented a type of ball for students who couldn’t afford to attend the lavish and expensive debutante parties. Some proms serve dinner while others only include the dance. 

Proms started as tea dances where high school seniors wore their best clothes. A couple decades later, the dances transformed into “annual class banquet[s].” By the 1950s, proms became more elaborate, incorporating competition amongst students who competed for the best dressed, best transportation, and best-looking date. 

Since proms originate from marriage-motivated parties, it comes to no surprise that they are considered a rite of passage to romantic relationships. In the past, proms set the stage for courting—the act, process, or period of seeking the affections of someone (usually with the intent to marry) through social activities. 

           Photo: Christian Bowen (Unsplash)  

The earliest documentation of a school prom dates to 1884, in the diary of a male college student from Amherst College, in Massachusetts, United States. In the diary entry, he mentions an invitation to a prom at Smith College for Women. 

Originally hosted in colleges, proms found their way into high schools in the early 20th century as attendance in high schools increased. Now, proms are typically held at the end of the school year in school gymnasiums, banquet halls, and other event spaces to celebrate senior students.  

Proms also have a reputation of being a night where young people engage in sexual behaviours for the first time. The sexual acts do not usually occur at the dance itself, but at after parties and dates’ homes. Unlike what the movies depict, not everyone goes to prom with the intent of having sex. You should never be pressured to do something you are not ready to do. Communicate with your date beforehand to ensure you have the same intentions for the night. 

It is also not required for you to go with a date to begin with. You can attend prom with a group of friends! 

A tradition of segregation and exclusion 

Racial segregation  

As proms adopted the traditions of debutante balls, they enforced their rules and dress codes, including racial segregation and sexist gender expectations.  

One of the most recent cases of a racially segregated prom transpired in 2014 in Georgia, United States. After the students at Wilcox County High School protested for an integrated formal dance, white students who did not support the integration attended proms in other towns. (Read more about the story here.)  

Gender roles: LGBTQ2S+ 

In the early 20th century, high school attendance increased among lower classes. As a result, prom was introduced to high schools “to communicate a conservative, class-based gender script to a larger population,” says Amy Best to MIC. Best is the author of Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture.  

Another tradition includes the election of prom court: Prom King and Queen (and sometimes, Prom Princesses and Princes). Voting occurs among the graduating class before prom and is usually counted by faculty/staff or members of the student council. Sometimes, nominations for prom King and Queen are paired, including established couples in the school.  

However, these awards do not consider same-sex pairings, dismissing members of the LGBTQ2S+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two-spirited+) community.  

The dress codes at prom also uphold outdated gender expectations. For example, early proms forbid girls to wear “masculine clothing,” confining students into traditional categories of gender. 

As prom culture centres on the desires and interests of cis-heterosexual students, LGBTQ2S+ students may feel unwelcomed in the festivities.  

Recently, the Durham District School Board (DDSB) made changes to Prom, rebranding it the “Grade 12 Social” to move on from the exclusionary history attached to the word “prom.” 

In 2017, then 18-year-old RJ Smith, a transgender teen, expressed his surprise when he was nominated for (and won) prom king at his high school in a small Ontario town. “I didn’t think it was a real possibility for me,” Smith told CTV News


Many schools policed (and continue to control) the amount of skin girls are ‘allowed’ or not allowed to show. To this day, students are expected to wear “tasteful clothing.” They must “refrain from wearing inappropriate attire or sexually suggestive designs.” Such rules imply that young people’s clothing choices signify their sexual availability which not only sexualizes them but blames students—especially female students—for the sexual behaviours of others. 

Dress codes at prom, as Best argues, are “linked to that old double standard that girls are responsible for boys’ sexual behaviour.” 

Dress codes today: What do you wear? 

Now, schools require guests to wear formal attire regardless of their gender identity. In most schools, female students can wear suits if they want to. It is also not required that students wear Western-style clothing. 

It can be easy to get swept up in popular trends. But it is important to stay true to oneself—whether that’s through your gender expression or cultural expression. If you are more comfortable wearing a traditional garment from your culture, wear it! 

    Photo:  Anastasia Shuraeva (Pexels)  

Prom is a “big deal” in North America due to its reputation of being a rite of passage for graduating students. It celebrates getting older and moving onto the next stage in your life. However, if large parties aren’t for you, you can choose not to go. Proms may seem fun, but they are not mandatory. You can celebrate your accomplishments with intimate dinners or in the comfort of your own home! 

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