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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

What We Wore: Say Yes to the PROM Dress

May 30, 2024
What We Wore Say Yes to the PROM Dress

The current What We Wore exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation presents a variety of prom dresses dating from 1960 to 2006 — and uncovers the stories they tell about this important rite of passage.

Proms are a much-anticipated milestone for many teenagers. High school students dress up in their most glamorous formal clothing to enjoy the much-anticipated event — an occasion guaranteed to create special memories.

For teen girls, especially, choosing the perfect dress is key to the experience! Weeks before the big event, what to wear becomes the hot topic of conversation at school and with friends. Traditionally, young women wear evening gowns — the hunt may involve a trip to local stores, searching online retailers, or even having a dress custom made. For young men, it’s simpler — they usually rent a tuxedo.

The popularity of the prom — complete with floral corsages, photos, dancing, and a fancy dinner — has ebbed and flowed over the years. More recently, proms have become quite elaborate. Once end-of-the-year semiformal dances held in school gyms, proms are now a billion-dollar industry often embellished with elegant ballroom settings and limousine transportation.

Prom traditions have evolved. Having a date is not required, and clothing need not follow gender stereotypes. Racially segregated proms are a thing of the past, and LGBTQ+ students are welcomed.


With roots in 19th-century debutant balls, and then dances at Ivy League colleges, proms experienced a surge in popularity in American high schools during the 1930s — you didn’t have to be rich to wear a fancy dress, receive a corsage from a date, and enjoy dancing the evening away. Marshfield, Wisconsin, high school prom, 1932. Gift of Jane L. Bradbury. / THF129485


Some promgoers capture their experience in a photo taken by a professional photographer, as this couple did in 1991. / THF716199

Patricia Davis, 1960

thf371038 Patricia Davis made and wore this dress to her Bentley High School, Livonia, Michigan, prom in 1960. Gift of Patricia Jean Davis. / THF371038


thf123841 Patricia Davis in the dress she made to wear to her prom. Gift of Patricia Jean Davis. / THF123841


“…Truthfully, I do not recall the prom night nearly as clearly as I remember my pink brocade 'cooperation' dress. Who was wearing what was the predominant topic of conversation for weeks before the big occasion. Store bought and expensive seemed to be what counted with the 'in' group. …Thank goodness we were juniors who weren't allowed to wear long dresses. Otherwise, more debates would have had been held about whether to wear a hoop or not. Oh horrors, such decisions. I knew in the beginning, imagination and cooperation were going to have to dress me. Mom had little cash but lots of advice. Grandpa provided a few dollars ...

… the Simplicity Pattern Company provided inspiration. Helping with the material was Montgomery Wards. Stitches by the thousand came from the family Singer. A dart here and a tuck there, into the nights I sewed … A fancy petticoat from my late father … white gloves from grandmother and a wrist corsage from my date and I was on my way …”

— Patricia Davis

Charlene LePage Partlow, 1970


Charlene LePage wore this dress to her Allen Park High School, Allen Park, Michigan, prom in 1970. Gift of Charlene LePage Partlow. / THF76105


Charlene LePage poses in her one-of-a-kind prom dress. Gift of Charlene LePage Partlow. / THF129469

“I attended Allen Park High School and went to my Junior Prom in Spring of 1970 with Don Burke. We were just friends. I remember buying my dress in a very tiny boutique way up on one of the upper halls of the Fisher Building on West Grand Blvd. in Detroit with my beloved mother. It was one of a kind, no others were made like it. My shawl and shoes were purchased at Saks Fifth Avenue on 2nd just north of West Grand Blvd in Detroit …”

— Charlene LePage Partlow

Cindee Simms, 1971


Cindee Simms wore this dress to her Warren G. Harding High School, Warren, Ohio, prom in 1971. Cindee’s grandmother, Muriel Weaver, made the matching necklace. Gift of Cindee Mines. / THF371043


Cindee Simms poses with her prom date (and future husband), Mark Mines, 1971. Gift of Cindee Mines. / THF128551

“Mark was drafted and left for the Army in January 1971, about 10 weeks after we started dating. I was a quiet person at that time, not very well known to the popular crowd at school. Mark came home and met me at the office in school in his uniform. The next day, some of the most popular girls in school asked me who that was. My stock rose greatly having an older boyfriend and in the military! He managed to get leave to come home to take me to prom. Of course, we didn't know until less than 2 weeks before prom and I had to go find a dress!

The prom was held at the Avalon Inn in Howland. At the time it was the swankiest place in town."

— Cindee Simms Mines

Jennifer O'Hare, 2006


Jennifer O'Hare wore this dress to her Troy Athens High School, Troy, Michigan, prom in 2006. Designed by Niki Livas for Zum Zum. Made in China. Gift of Jennifer Miller. / THF371049


Ticket to Troy Athens High School Prom, May 13, 2006. Gift of Jennifer Miller. / THF715343


Jennifer O’Hare and friends gather before the prom for a group photo. Gift of Jennifer Miller. / THF715348

“…I decided to go a couple of weeks before the date, which didn’t give me much time to find a dress. My mom and I went shopping at a store two miles from our house … this dress was a compromise between my mom and I, as she thought the one I had chosen, a backless dress, was too revealing. I was very disappointed about not getting the dress I wanted, but as I didn’t have the money to buy the dress myself, there wasn’t much I could do. … Most of my class went to school dances in groups instead of with dates and prom was no exception. …We met at one of the girls’ houses for pictures and one of the dads dropped us off …”

— Jennifer O'Hare Miller

Beyond the Exhibit: More Prom Dresses & Their Stories from the Henry Ford's Collection

Augusta Roddis, 1932

thf163503 Augusta Roddis wore this dress to her McKinley High School, Marshfield, Wisconsin, junior prom in 1932. Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis. / THF163503

thf254845thf129485 Augusta Roddis and her prom date (detail of THF129485); page from Augusta’s dance card, 1932. Gift in Memory of Augusta Denton Roddis. / THF254845


“The evening dress I wore as Prom Queen of the Junior Prom cost $19.95, and I was very happy with it, and if there was anything better in the world, I didn’t know it. The skirt of that evening dress was cut on the bias as many dresses in the thirties were, and it had a cowl neckline, and I felt very up to date in it.”

— Augusta Denton Roddis

Linda Detrick, 1960


Linda Detrick wore this dress to her Redford Union High School, Redford Township, Michigan, prom. Gift of Linda Detrick Nelson. / THF198337

thf715320 Linda Detrick (third from right) and the Redford Union High School prom court, 1960. The prom was held in The Henry Ford’s Lovett Hall Ballroom. Gift of Linda Detrick Nelson. / THF715320


“The evening was as magical as a prom should be. I was one of seven chosen to be on the prom court, which made the night that much more special. It is one of my fondest memories of a Senior Year that was filled with that special feeling a ‘Senior’ in high school never forgets. …

"When my ‘special person’ asked to be my escort to the Senior Prom, the next big event was to find the ‘special dress.’

"I followed the lead of several of my friends and had the dress made by a company in downtown Detroit by a dress maker who specialized in prom dresses. (I don't remember the name of the company, but several of my friends also had their dresses made there.) Our families were all middle-class people with not a lot of extra money to spend on this type of thing. I do recall that the cost of the dress was $60.00. That was a lot of money in 1960 and I am amazed that my parents agreed to pay that amount for a prom dress ... but they did! Bless their hearts.

"I chose this dress because my favorite color was blue and because it made me feel elegant and beautiful. When I wore it, I felt like a princess.”

— Linda Detrick Nelson

Jeanine Head Miller is curator of domestic life.