The word prom first appeared in 1894 in the journal of an Amherst College student on his way to a dance at Smith College. But it took root as a high school tradition: before the ritual parting of graduation, one last, fleeting night of fun. "I mean, where else do you get to wear a fancy dress and dance for four hours?" says Norah Owings, a senior at Elkton High School in Elkton, Ore.
These days, getting ready for prom plays as big a role as the dance itself, and it plays out to big business. A survey published this spring predicted families would spend an average of $1,078 on prom costs. The girls from New Jersey's Dwight-Englewood School who wore dresses by designers like Alice Temperley and Roberto Cavalli spent much more, while many students from Joplin High School in Joplin, Mo.--the site of a devastating tornado last May--arrived at prom in donated attire.
Proms tell other stories too. In April, Montgomery County High School in Mount Vernon, Ga., held a prom that allowed white and African-American students to convene in the same auditorium for just the third time in the school's history. In Massachusetts, the Boston Alliance of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Youth (BAGLY) hosted its 32nd annual prom--the nation's oldest for LGBT youth--10 days after Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to endorse gay marriage.
"We've known each other forever," says Owings, who is one of a graduating class of 15. "So it's a bit sad that this is the last time we're really getting together." They all went bowling after prom; four hours pass so quickly, and they didn't want the night to end.
SAN LUIS HIGH SCHOOL SAN LUIS, ARIZ.
From left: Miguel Castanos, 18; Eliza Lopez, 18; Flavio Fonseca, 18; Alexandra Mata, 17; Deliala Robles, 17; Arturo Garcia, 20
San Luis High School is located near the U.S.-Mexico border, and several of its students traveled across it to get their hair and makeup done for the prom, including Mata. "It's the one event that brings the whole school together," she says.
BENJAMIN BANNEKER ACADEMY BROOKLYN
Sibongile Toure, 16
Toure, above, left, an American Muslim student, asked Brooklyn designer Nailah Lymus, above, right, to modify her dress in accordance with Islamic law. "I always knew I'd go to prom--it's such a tradition," says Toure, who predicts she'll be the only student to wear a headscarf at her June 13 prom. "You can be proper, dress modestly and still have fun."
JOPLIN HIGH SCHOOL JOPLIN, MO.
Corinne Worley, 15, and Tyler Hankins, 18
On April 21, 11 months after a tornado ripped through their town and killed 161 people, Joplin High School seniors attended their prom. The theme was "Once upon a Time." "Everyone knew a friend who lost someone or something in the tornado last year," says Hankins, far right. "The student body seemed a lot closer this year."
THE BOSTON ALLIANCE OF GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH BOSTON
Daunasia Yancey, 20, and Alyssa Green, 21