How school proms have championed social change

When Xavier Parkins attended his school prom in Derby last month, he carved another inclusive milestone into the history of a tradition which hasn’t always embraced diversity.

The 16-year-old attended the leaver’s event for students of Lees Brook Community School in a powder pink dress and matching heels. But instead of being shunned by his fellow students, the teenager with a passion for drag was embraced by his peers, to the extent that he was crowned prom queen.

But not everyone can claim such positive memories of that momentous night in a young life. Look back into the history of the school prom, especially its US roots, and you’ll find stories of racial segregation and homophobia. Everybody wants to go to the prom - but not everyone was always allowed to.

Although not strictly a prom, the school dance in Grease features many of the event's iconic elements - streamers in the school gym, a live band and everyone in their best outfits.

Keeping the kids apart

Prom, short for promenade, has its roots in the debutante balls intended to introduce young women into society and possibly into the path of some highly eligible bachelors. The emphasis was on the wealthier side of society and, sadly, a wholly white one. Even back in the late 19th century, when these balls became more popular, there was a notion of rejecting the diverse aspects of American life. None of the women invited were allowed to wear masculine clothing and the events were racially segregated.

A high school prom in Maryland, USA, in 1942.

This same model was adopted by American high schools when they became popular for the graduating class around 100 years ago. It took until the 1950s for the prom to be intrinsically stitched into the fabric of high school culture but certain traditions were established early, such as banning female students from asking boys to the dance (it had to be the other way round).

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 which put an end to racial segregation should have been a cause for celebration as any student, regardless of skin colour, could celebrate the end of school life with their classmates at prom. But certain high schools in some southern states of America refused to acknowledge the law and ignored the rulings of the Supreme Court.

Separate dances were set up, one for the black students, the other for the white students. The town of Charleston in Mississippi, only held its first fully integrated prom, with students of all races sharing the same dance floor, in 2008.

In some US states, segregation on prom night existed into the 21st century.

The most fabulous night of the year

In 1979, Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, briefly became the focus of the US press as, for the first time in recorded history, two men attended prom together.

Randy Rohl, 17, and 20-year-old Grady Quinn, were given permission to attend by the school’s principal, Fred Stephens, who told reporters at the time: “My belief is that people need their rights protected. Homosexuals have rights. You have to accept that.”

But others believed the two were simply looking for attention. The Sioux Falls’ local newspaper reported the school’s superintendent, John Harris, said the moment was “pathetic and sad”.

Jamie Campbell attended his school prom in drag. The experience became a BBC Three documentary and eventually a West End musical.

Other than the external noise surrounding the date, the prom passed by without incident. The following year, when Rhode Island student Aaron Fricke was informed he could not bring his boyfriend, the case went to the US District Court, who upheld Aaron’s right to take whoever he wanted as his date. Almost 40 years later and proms are more inclusive to the school's LGBT students.

By the 1990s, the prom was making an impact in the UK, largely due to the influence of imported US dramas such as Beverley Hills 90210, Friends and Dawson's Creek (which included an episode surrounding a gay character’s intention to take his boyfriend to prom night and the support he received from his friends). It’s now estimated that 85% of UK schools mark the end of GCSE exams with a prom. The West End smash Everybody’s Talking About Jamie tells the story of a British teenager who wants to attend his school prom in drag. It was based on a true story about Jamie Campbell, the 16-year-old from Bishop Auckland and his decision to go to prom as his alter ego Fifi La True. Unlike Xavier’s story, school staff asked him not to arrive in drag, he defied them and brought a camera crew along to record the moment which was eventually broadcast as a BBC Three documentary.

Prom-flation

When the Great Depression hit the US in the 1930s, one school principal decided against holding a prom as the effect the collapsed economy would have on the outfits that could be worn and the setting for the celebration would be “psychologically wounding” to his students.

Prom dresses can cost up to £500 and some charities are making it easier for students of all backgrounds to look fabulous on their special night.

Eighty years on and the gap between poor and rich is still making itself felt on prom night, leading to the concept of prom-flation. In the past 10 years, the money spent on a prom dress in the UK has risen dramatically, with one business reporting an average price of between £50 and £100 in 2010 now rising to £500.

An expensive prom experience may not be at the top of every household’s priorities, but in order to ensure everyone has the prom night they’ve dreamed about, charities have been set up which take referrals from schools and social service to offer free dresses, make-up and transport to students who would otherwise have to stay at home due to the expense involved.

The school prom will always be a cause for celebration. In the UK, it marks the end of a period of intense hard work by students for their exams before setting off on the next phase of their lives, whether that is college, school sixth form, or other opportunities outside of education. With everyone working together, then playing together, the greater inclusivity of the school prom in recent years means everyone finally gets to celebrate at the same level.

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