Winters Past

20th Century Fashion from Deco to Disco

Vintage Prom Dresses

I recently read an article about people in other countries having “American” themed parties in which they tailgate and drink beer from red Solo cups. Apparently these cups are hard to come by outside the US but they show up so often in Hollywood movies that they seem exotic.

It lead me to wonder what other commonplace aspects of our culture don’t easily translate in foreign countries. How must monster trucks, Velveeta cheese, high school football, Halloween and the practice of tipping our servers appear to people abroad?

Which brings me to prom. There are so many teen films that feature this uniquely American iteration of a high school dance. So what is prom, anyway?

Apparently the word “prom” comes from the promenade dances common at debutante balls in the 1800’s. By 1900, the big dance became an event for college seniors and by the 1920’s it became an afternoon tea dance common in high schools. Prom as we know it became a very big deal across the US after WW2.

Now let’s have a look at vintage prom fashion by the decade. First, the 1940’s. This was not a swing dance event; ballroom dancing was considered a more proper style for young ladies. Girls wore demure-prim, even- long slim gowns with puffy sleeves and a wrap to cover any scandalously bare shoulders:

vintage prom dresses

It was during the 1950’s-the era when teen culture came into it’s own- that prom fashion really exploded. A high school girl typically wore a full skirted dress with a tight bodice and it was often (gasp!) strapless. Hems were tea length, puffed out to there with layers of crinolines. Girls wore long gloves and tulle and taffeta galore. Behold:

1950s prom dresses

The 1960’s brought a raised empire waist and a slimmer full length skirt, often in pastel tones. The lack of tulle was compensated for by big-and I mean big– bouffant hair:

vintage prom dresses

In the 1970’s, there were two overlapping styles, one a little slinkier in polyester, often with a short bolero jacket. Boogie on, reggae woman!

The other had more of a sweet floaty prairie girl/garden party vibe. Here’s to the Ladies of the Canyon:

vintage prom dresses

Now, on to the 80’s. Oh, 1980’s, you era of decadent excess! Oh decade of both punk and Reaganism, when sweet maximalism ruled, how we reviled you before we embraced you! In retrospect, we love your drama, your strapless wonderment, your oversized puffs, your high-low hems, your huge bows, your ruffles, your sequins, and your metallic iridescent sheen, sometimes all in a single dress!

vintage prom dresses

And, sweet Lord, 1980s, your prom hair! Your gel, your crimps, your perms, your bangs and shags and layers, how they confuse us still!

And can we please take a moment of silence to appreciate the wild creativity of 80s accessories?

Whew! I’m verklempt!

Let’s come back to earth with some photos of prom dresses from the shop.

Stay tuned for a post on prom accessories, coming soon.

Author: Winters Past

I am a vintage clothing shop owner living and working in rural north Florida. I believe in adding a little vinegar and molasses to my greens, having my coffee outside whenever possible, and mixing something vintage into every room and every outfit.

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