Sure, there are other big days on the school calendar. Homecoming gets plenty of attention. Graduation, of course, is an important rite of passage.
But the red-letter day is still the prom. It’s a privilege for juniors and seniors. It’s Oscar-night glamour for the otherwise sweat-pants-clad crowd. It’s a reason to curl hair, buy flowers, rent limos, polish nails and stay out all night.
“It’s different from any other dance,” says Erin Graydon, a senior at Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, Va.
Part of what sets the prom apart is its big price tag. Conde Nast, which publishes Teen Prom magazine, estimated that American teens spent $2.7 billion on prom goods in 2003. That includes $416 million on limousine rides and $172 million on flowers.
“The bottom line is, prom is huge,” says Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a Chicago-based marketing and consulting firm. Mr. Wood estimates that the average prom-goer spends $363 for clothes, tickets, shoes, flowers and other prom necessities.
“Prom has basically become Oscar night for teenagers,” he says. “It is their night to pull out all the stops and impress.”
Prom season is also an example of the year-round buying power of today’s teen, Mr. Wood says. The amount teens are spending on music, clothes and other stuff is rising by a few billion each year.
“In general, teens are spending more money than ever,” he says. “They spent $175 billion [overall] in 2003. That is direct spending by teens. It doesn’t even include the amount the parents spend on them.”
Erin, 18, went to Stone Bridge’s junior-senior prom May 8 accompanied by her date, Griffin Spencer, and 20 others. That’s enough teens to clog the cul-de-sac, where sentimental parents snapped pictures and longtime friends complimented each other on French manicures, flowing gowns and snazzy cummerbunds.
The night also included a gigantic Lincoln Navigator limo for all 22 students (at $193 a couple), dinner at Maggiano’s Little Italy at Tysons Galleria and the prom at the Best Western Tysons Westpark Hotel. “I haven’t put all the numbers together,” says Erin’s mother, Kathy. “It’s too scary.”
The Graydons went into prom planning with a rough budget in mind. Erin found a dress — strapless, sparkly and long — at Hecht’s for $170.
That’s below the average of $214, according to an estimate from Hearst Magazines, but still enough to give Mrs. Graydon pause.
“I’ve never spent that much on a dress,” Mrs. Graydon says. “At first, we planned Erin would pay half of it, but she got sick and had to miss a lot of time at her part-time job. I’m hoping they’ll split dinner and the tickets. Erin did her own hair and nails. I also offered to make dinner for the kids, but they wanted to go out.”
‘An important night’
Allie Carr, 18, swears she tried on every gown from the District to Harrisonburg, Va., in her search for the perfect prom dress.
Allie, a senior at James Madison High School in Vienna, says she lost count of the number of gowns that didn’t pass muster when planning for the May 22 event.
She finally found what she was looking for at Hecht’s at Dulles Town Center: a maroon-and-black number with tiny spaghetti straps. The dress was $115, marked down from $185, and less than half of what her friend Rachel Godshaw, 18 and also a senior at James Madison, spent at Neiman-Marcus for her dress.
“I paid for part of it, but my parents paid the rest,” Rachel says.
Says Allie: “I was going to get a dress made. I know a couple of girls who did that, though, and it turned out horrible. I did have a budget. I can’t spend more than $200.”
That’s just on the dress, though.
“There is hair, nails, jewelry and shoes,” Rachel says. “It’s going to add up. We’re going to get a Hummer limo, but there are 26 of us sharing it, so it shouldn’t even end up costing that much.”
With proper planning, there are ways to keep prom costs in line, says Lu Ann Haslam, a high school teacher in San Gabriel, Calif., who has planned 14 proms. Ms. Haslam operates a Web site (Prom-night.com) that offers ideas for prom planners and prom-goers.
Certain costs — such as prom tickets, which usually cost about $50 per person — are non-negotiable, Ms. Haslam says. Tuxedo rentals run from about $60 to $120, although discount coupons and special pricing usually can be found around prom season.
Other costs, such as dresses, dinner and transportation, can vary greatly.
“I find most couples split the costs in some way,” Ms. Haslam says.
“Otherwise, it is just too expensive.”
This is the third year that Jeremiah Erwin, a senior at Stone Bridge, has gone to a prom. His father, Dave, says he has watched the price tag rise each time.
“This year was by far the most expensive,” Mr. Erwin says. “He spent $120 on a tux and paid $90 for his share of the limo. I think his share of everything will be $400. It’s a big deal even for the boys.”
Dressing for less
One of the most flexible expense categories is a dress. Girls can look fabulous and not spend a fortune, says Gloria Baume, fashion market director for Teen Vogue magazine.
“If you are smart and creative, you can do the whole thing for under $150,” Ms. Baume says of not only the dress, but hair, nails and shoes. “Vintage dressing is your best bet. You can find a beautiful dress from the 1940s, ‘50s, even the ‘80s for under $50. One of the best things you can do is to raid mom or grandma’s closet. You can’t be narrow-minded about it.”
Planning ahead also will help, she says.
“A person who has done her homework well will look great,” Ms. Baume says. That means hitting the stores six months in advance of the prom, when last season’s styles will be on major markdown.
Community dress sales and exchanges also are great ways to find an outfit for less. The Reston Community Center, for instance, recently held its third annual dress giveaway. Stores and residents donated more than 200 new and used dresses, along with shoes and accessories.
Jackie Gudgel, a junior at Herndon High, walked away from the Reston event with a new light-blue satin gown.
“I was looking at dresses online and at the Jessica McClintock store,” says Jackie, 16. “They were like $200. I think maybe next year I would be more willing” to spend more money.
Lilli Robbins, 18, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, and her older sister, Marissa, started the Evening Star club at their school three years ago. Bethesda-Chevy Chase students and local stores donate dresses, which other students can borrow or purchase for $5.
“They started it because they got tired of me saying, ‘You can’t need another dress,’” says Lilli’s mother, Peggy Robbins.
‘It’s my prom’
Back in Ashburn, Erin Graydon has strappy shoes but is carrying black flip-flops (borrowed from her mom) so she can dance all night.
One of her friends, wearing opera-length gloves, has roses embroidered on the train of her dress. Another has red-tinted extensions twisted in her hair.
The teens chatter and pose and talk about the after-prom gathering: an all-night camp-out. Most of the parents, witnessing the scene through the lenses of digital cameras, remark that they can’t remember this many accoutre-ments back when they went to their proms.
“It was a big deal when I was growing up in Oklahoma,” Dave Erwin says, “but it wasn’t like this.”
Noemi Romero, a Stone Bridge senior, is among the teens waiting for the limo. She has a blue-tipped manicure to match her eye shadow, dress, earrings and her date’s tie.
“We sort of planned it this way,” she says. “It’s my prom. I would say it’s a big deal. I didn’t have a budget.”
“PROM! THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO A TRULY SPECTACULAR NIGHT,” BY NANCY E. KRULIK, GROSSET AND DUNLAP, 2002. THIS IS A LIGHTHEARTED BOOK FOR GIRLS PLANNING TO ATTEND THE PROM. IT FEATURES DRESS IDEAS, MAKEUP TIPS AND PLACES FOR PICTURES.
MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING, NATIONAL OFFICE, 511 E. JOHN CARPENTER FREEWAY, SUITE 700, IRVING, TX 75062. PHONE: 800/GET-MADD. WEB SITE: WWW.MADD.ORG. MOTHERS AGAINST DRUNK DRIVING, THE NONPROFIT GRASS-ROOTS ORGANIZATION AIMED AT STOPPING TEEN DRINKING AND DRIVING, HAS A PARTICULARLY HIGH PROFILE DURING PROM SEASON. THE GROUP HAS LOCAL CHAPTERS, STATISTICS, LITERATURE, SAFETY TIPS AND SPECIAL PROGRAMS.
ON WWW.PROM-NIGHT.COM, A SITE RUN BY A CALIFORNIA HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER AND PROM ADVISER, THERE ARE PROM PLANNING TIPS, INCLUDING WAYS TO KEEP DOWN COSTS.
ON HTTP://YOURPROM.COM, A SITE SPONSORED BY TEEN MAGAZINE, THERE ARE ARTICLES AND FASHION ADVICE FOR PROM-GOERS