Since the early days of the high school prom, the term "prom dress" been associated with the kind of long, finely-detailed gowns evocative of traditional formal wear. However, a recent trend toward short prom dresses opens up new possibilities -- not just for proms, but for everything from homecoming dances, to winter formals, and more.
The high school prom first emerged in the 1930s and '40s, as we can see from yearbooks of the period. It may be rooted in traditions even earlier than that, with some historians suggesting that proms may have started as a college tradition as early as the late 19th century.
Early prom fashions were rooted in the idea of wearing one's "Sunday best," which is to say the kind of clothes you'd wear to church. This explains the beautiful long dresses that persist as a prom staple even to this day.
Formal wear is more rooted in tradition, and thus slower to change, than everyday or casual fashion, but we've still seen a number of changes in prom dresses over the decades.
In the 1940s, the norm was full, long gowns with covered shoulders and long sleeves. This evolved over time, from the more form-fitting dresses of the 1950s and '60s, back to fuller and more flowing gowns in the disco '70s, to a thankfully short-lived fascination with metallic colors in the '80s, to the off-the-shoulder looks of the '90s and trend toward higher necklines of the early 2000s.
More recent years have seen formal wear trends move toward beautiful simplicity and a less-is-more aesthetic, which may explain why shorter dresses are starting to come into vogue.
There are also shifting ideas of what constitutes "formal" in the first place. Years of fashion-forward celebrity fashion at awards shows and movie premiers has expanded the range of acceptable styles for formal occasions. A short dress can have as much fine detail, be made of luxurious fabric, and exude as much glamor as any of its longer, more traditional cousins, and designers and prom-goers alike are starting to recognize this.
The trend toward short prom dresses also reflects a growing trend toward practicality and usability in women's fashion. It's much harder to dance all night at prom or other celebratory occasions in a long, flowing gown. There's also the fact shorter dresses are more at-home in a larger variety of settings than long, elaborate dresses that you may pick up for prom and then never wear again.
Short prom dresses might just be the wave of the future, and there are reasons you might want to wear them over long dresses, but that doesn't mean you have to. You might prefer the style of the traditional long prom dress, and that's perfectly okay! Modern prom-goers have a wider array of dress options than ever before, and you should absolutely go with whatever you're most comfortable with or interested in.
What the evolution of formal dresses really shows is that we've moved from an era where fashion choices were limited by a fairly strict set of rules to one where individual expression and comfort plays a larger role. The idea of the short prom dress, for so long something that would be completely unthinkable, perfectly encapsulates this.