Prom: the yearly parade of sequined dresses, wrist corsages and stretch limos. Short for promenade, the formal parade of guest before a party, this rite of passage traces its roots to the 1800s, when universities held formal events for graduating classes. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that prom became a high school event, which evolved over the decades to its current state.
Like the event itself, prom dresses throughout the years went through an amazing transformation. The prom fashions wavered between extravagant, flowing gowns and simple, more casual styles. When you break down styles of prom dresses decade by decade, you see that the social mood and even current events of the time period played a role in what girls wore to prom.
Ready for a trip down memory lane? Here are the highlights of from fashion from the 1920s on.
1920s: Post-War, Youthful Designs
Prom was just starting in high schools in the 1920s and 1930s, so it wasn’t the fancy gown type of event it is now. Most people wore what might be considered casual party clothes instead of fancy ball gowns.
At this time in history, World War I had ended. Women now had the right to vote. Everything felt fresh and new in the post-war era, and the fashions reflected that playful, carefree design. The flapper style is most often associated with the 20s and gives you a good idea of what prom dresses looked like. Sequins, feathers, and drop waist styles were popular in this decade.
Highlights of 20s style prom dresses included:
- Youthful, free-spirited designs that contrasted with previous styles for a fresh look.
- Sleeveless dresses.
- Shorter, looser designs than fashions from older generations.
- Bead and feather accents that created an elegant look.
- Waistlines that gradually dropped until going away toward the end of the 20s.
1930s: The Great Depression Goes to Prom
While the idea of prom in high school was starting to rev up in the 30s, so was the Great Depression. Formal attire for events like the prom wasn’t a priority, as families had to cut back on spending. The fashions often reflected that decrease in spending during this decade. Some people got creative, using clothes they already had and added something extra to make it seem new rather than buying a new dress for prom.
Common traits of 30s style prom dresses included:
- Long dresses that reached the floor.
- Sleek designs with slim skirts rather than poofy ball gown style skirts.
- Empire waists.
- Bows and flowers as accents.
1940s: Modesty on a Budget
Like so many decades, the 40s felt the impact of world events in the prom world. Prom in the 40s saw an influence from World War II, particularly when it came to the dresses. Textiles and fabrics were rationed due to the war efforts, which limited the options for prom dresses. Prom goers had to get creative with their own designs using limited materials. They rose to the challenge, creating feminine, modest designs despite the lack of glitz.
Even with the limited supply of fabric, prom dresses in the 40s were modest, often reaching the floor and almost always covering the shoulders. People wisely used the fabric they had available to design dresses that covered the body well.
Here are some key features of 40s style prom dresses:
- Long dresses that reached the floor.
- Covered shoulders for modesty.
- Simple designs and colors without much beading or intricate detailing.
- Padded shoulders with a square shape.
- Fitted necklines.
- Not as much structure in the bodice.
- Separate skirts and blouses instead of a dress.
- Accessories, such as bracelets, hair accessories, handbags, and shawls.
1950s: Business Is Booming
Thanks to an economic boost in the 1950s and the relief from the fabric rationing, the prom dress industry really took off in this decade. Young women made a big deal about finding the right dress, which was often poofy, feminine and elegant. Proms were sophisticated affairs with dresses to match.
Prom dresses changed in colors and patterns, too. Many designs became more playful, with fun prints and pastel colors to brighten up the dance floor. Cinched waists emphasized the full skirts that were popular in this decade, giving prom goers that curvaceous look. Petticoats added poof to the dresses to create the volume that was so in at that time.
Here were some common features of 50s style prom dresses:
- Gowns were reminiscent of those for a debutante ball.
- Styles became more feminine.
- Fitted bodices emphasized the small waist.
- Full skirts in the ball gown style were very popular.
- Tea-length dresses as well as longer, full-length gowns made styles very diverse.
- Ruffles were part of the detailing, such as layers of ruffling on the skirt.
- Tulle skirts gave the puffy look.
- Dresses showed the shoulders, and strapless styles became popular.
- Curled was hair often adorned by a clip or headband.
- Gloves created that glamorous look.
- Accessories such as coordinating handbags, shoes, nail polish and lipstick were popular.
The event locations also got upgrades in many cases. The flourishing economy made it possible for high schools to hold proms off-site. No longer were the teens of the 50s stuck decorating the gym with crepe paper streamers and balloons. Many proms moved to the swanky — at least by high school prom standards — settings of country clubs or hotel ballrooms.
1960s: Feminism Finds Fashion
Along with the 60s came a wave of feminism, with influences throughout fashion, including prom dresses. The 50s style carried over to the early part of the 60s, but prom fashions soon saw a drastic change.
Prom goers of the 60s wanted a style of their own. It was a sort of rebellion represented via fashion. There wasn’t as much distinction between clothes for different occasions. The dress a teenager wore for a casual event might be similar to what she would wear to prom. This led to a more casual prom style overall.
Hallmarks of 60s style prom dresses included:
- Short dresses that came above the knee for the first time, including mini skirt styles.
- Minimalist designs in contrast to the intricate details of prom dresses past.
- Swing-style dresses that weren’t tight.
- Prom dress fabrics with geometric shapes.
- Mod design inspired by looks from Britain.
- New color combinations that distinguished prom dresses from the pretty pastels of the past.
- Waistbands that started to move up to empire style.
- Lower necklines than in the past.
- Skirts that were much narrower than in the 50s.
- Heavy eyeliner as part of the prom makeup routine.
- Big hair — beehive styles highlighted the prom
1970s: Go with the Flow
Social changes continued to be a factor in the 1970s, with the environment, civil rights and women’s rights on the agenda. Rebellion once again showed itself in the fashions of the era. However, instead of showing that rebellion in short, mod style dresses like the 60s, teens in the 70s went to maxi-length dresses that flowed to the floor. Disco also made an impact on the scene in the 70s.
Prom dresses were often more subdued than the ball gowns the parents of 70s teenagers wore. The style of 70s prom dresses is sometimes described as the hippy flower child. Dresses flowed and had a more casual look than in the past.
Here are the features you might have seen on 70s style prom dresses:
- Synthetic fabrics became more popular and were often used in prom dresses.
- Peek-a-boo shoulders made a debut.
- Wrap dresses came into fashion.
- Loose skirts without a lot of puffiness were the norm — the dresses flowed instead.
- Empire waists were common.
- More variety in hemlines and styles gave this decade more variety than some past decades.
- Hair was often left down rather than styled in an up-do, and long, flowing locks were popular.
1980s: Big Dresses, Big Hair, Big Style
Prom saw several big boosts along the way, but none were so influential as the big hair and big styles of the 80s. If you went to the prom in the 80s, you probably still have the memory of your dress and hair burned into your mind. You were likely a vision in taffeta — bright, neon taffeta — with poofy sleeves that could only rival the poof of your bangs. You get bonus points if it had shoulder pads.
Ruffles were another big trend in 80s prom dresses. You had your all-over-the skirt ruffle. You had your shoulder ruffles. Some dresses even had a ruffle band around the waist. Others had the shoulder/waist ruffle combo pack. Prom-goers of the 80s loved their ruffles.
Bows were also big — not just in popularity, but in size as well. Bows on the front, bows on the side, bows on the back — there were so many options when it came to bow placement!
Of course no 80s prom outfit was complete without a pair of dyed shoes to match the exact shade of the dress. Carrying on with the matching theme, the dates typically chose a bow tie and cummerbund in the same shade as the dress.
To recap, highlights of 80s style prom dresses included:
- Bold colors, sometimes with a metallic look.
- Tight fitting tops with looser bottoms.
- Poofy sleeves with shoulder pads.
- Ruffles on the skirt, shoulders or both.
- Large bows with placement options all over the dress.
- Lace detailing and sometimes the use of fish net.
- Sequins for that sparkling, bedazzled look.
- Matching shoes, cummerbund and bow tie.
The economy in the 80s was strong enough to support the over-the-top events that became the norm for high school prom. This included taking limousines to the prom, which became very popular during the 80s.
1990s: Back to the Basics
Prom styles in the 1990s started out similar to the 80s, but as the decade wore on, dresses got a lot less poofy and a lot less shiny. Dresses began to take on a more elegant look, inspired by designer European styles. The dresses had simple designs compared to all the sequins, poof and neon colors of the 80s prom dresses.
Here are some common features of 90s style prom dresses:
- Solid colors without all of the flashy metallic accents that were popular in the 80s.
- Scaled down, simple designs without ruffles.
- Halter styles.
- Slip-style dresses.
- High necklines that covered the chest completely, paired with exposed shoulders as evidenced in the halter style.
- Crushed velvet as a fabric of choice.
- Extravagant up dos with lots of curls piled on top of the head.
2000s: Modern Individuality
Many decades in the past were defined by specific styles that nearly every dress at the ball fit. Many modern style prom dresses, however, throw convention out the door. Instead, prom-goers want to show off their personal styles. Length, design, color, style, formality — it’s all up for grabs. Some girls even feel drawn to the styles of their parents or grandparents, making vintage style prom dresses a popular option.
While the looks vary significantly, here are some features of 2000s style prom dresses:
- Influenced by celebrity styles, such as those seen on the red carpet at awards shows.
- Strapless designs with shoulders exposed.
- Flowing gowns for an elegant look.
- Graceful designs mixed in with very revealing designs, emphasizing that wide range of styles of the 2000s.
- Varying lengths of dresses and a variety of designs, allowing each prom goer to express her personal style.
- Charmeuse and satin materials.
- Design elements from past decades, highlighted either by wearing actual vintage dresses or by choosing a new dress designed to look like a vintage dress.
- Accents showing individual personality, such as sneakers with a dress.
Fashions Through the Years
Looking at prom fashions from decades past, it’s clear to see how much influence society and current events have on what we wear. Some decades forced prom goers to take a practical approach fitting of the economic times. Other decades saw economic prosperity that propelled prom fashions to new heights. You also see times of empowerment expressed in the clothes teens wore to prom.
As is often the case in fashion, you see trends come and go over the years. Hemlines rise and fall. Detailing goes from extravagant to simple and back to extravagant.
Current trends intentionally pull from vintage prom styles, using design elements from almost every decade past. What’s old truly does become new again.
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