The Last Dance: Prom Night in America

nea's prom nightIt isn’t cheap to attend a high school prom. Emulating Miley Cyrus, Megan Fox, or any celebrity that People magazine naively believes is one of the 50 most beautiful people in the whole wide world, is an avalanche of expenses that could easily exceed the cost of a year’s supply of beer for a college freshman.

Americans spent about $6.6 billion on proms in 2008, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The cost is now closer to $7 billion as teens continue their quest to outspend, outshine, and out-bankrupt their peers.

At the high end of individual costs are the tuxes. It’s $100–$200 for a rented tux and mirror-shine shoes, or $100–$500 for a nice dress. About 98 percent of high school girls who attend their senior prom will buy a new dress, which will almost never be worn again, and then another $100–$400 for shoes, tiaras, earrings, shawls, and miscellaneous clothing attachments.

prom nightIn addition to clothing costs, add $10–$20 for the boys to have a haircut, and another $30–$100 for the girls to have their hair styled. The boys save about $100 by not having to add fake nails ($20–50), and a manicure ($10–$20) and pedicure ($20–$30), a combo now known by the cutesy appellation of a “mani-pedi.” The boys also won’t have to worry about lipstick, mascara, perfume, and new hose.

Generally, the guys won’t get fake tans; their dates will. Grab another $50 for spray tans or several “treatments” in a coin-operated tanning bed. (Charges for medicine and surgery for the developing melanoma are extra.)
For that special splash of color, there’s a $5 carnation boutonniere for the guy and a $20 orchid corsage for the girl.

Some boys will rent new cars; almost half, says Your Prom, will get together with other couples to share costs of a $600–$1,200 a night limousine in vain attempts to impress whoever it is they believe they must impress. The rest apparently wash, wax, and vacuum their own cars, relatively recent pretend high performance red or black models which they park over four intersecting spaces so no one can hit their turtle-wax shine. To support the turtle, they work 20–30 hours a week at a minimum wage dead-end job. When anyone asks why they don’t just quit and spend the time studying, or getting involved with extracurricular activities, they say they need the job to support their car and stereo.

Tickets run $40–$100 per couple, which might include light snacks, and prom pictures for about $20–100, depending upon the package.

Sometime during the evening, in a country which says it doesn’t believe in royalty, a king and queen, anointed by popularity, are announced. Like the monarchy in England, no one seems to know what it is they’re supposed to do.

Complain about the costs of a prom, and teens will wail that we old people (that is, anyone over 25 or who reads a newspaper) are trying to ruin their fun and a night of “earning” the end of the school year. We just don’t understand, they moan, that proms cost money and it’s important that, like the costs of $100 designer jeans and $150 sneaks, they must be just like everyone else, ‘lest they are ostracized for being—and this is no exaggeration—poor and “not with it.”

Less than two generations ago, proms were still the “social highlight” at the end of the year. But they weren’t as costly. High school juniors once decorated the gym for the prom. Now, it’s held at the country club or the “Sweet Magnolia Room” of the high-rise hotel, with hundreds of schools sponsoring after-prom all-nighters to keep the teens from continuing a path into juvenile delinquency. The beer stores don’t mind—they make enough from 21-year-old college students buying beer for frat parties that include recently-graduated high school seniors.

Once, the boy’s extended family worked on a special meal for the prom couple. For some, circumstances allowed a nice dinner at an inexpensive restaurant. Now there’s often only one parent in the house, and dinner is about $20–$40 each.

If boys couldn’t afford suits, they wore a sports jacket or, maybe, a nice summer jacket with their white shirt and tie. Girls wore their Sunday finest dresses, which they could wear again a few weeks later.

walter m. braschThere was no need to hire a limousine and impress anyone; fake tans covering pasty white faces were rare. There were still costs, and teens and their families came up with the money, but the costs were nowhere near the debt limit of a small island nation.

But our children, who are still a part of the extended “Me First Generation,” are spending on a social event that, for some, may be a prelude to a $35,000 wedding in a year or two.

Walter Brasch

All costs were determined by contacting businesses in rural northeastern Pennsylvania and in Philadelphia. Costs may vary in other parts of the country. Walter Brasch’s next book is Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, available at amazon.com.

Published by the LA Progressive on June 6, 2011
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About Walter M. Brasch

Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former multimedia writer-producer, newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and is professor emeritus of mass communications from the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, which looks at the health, environmental, geological, and economic impact of natural gas horizontal fracturing. He also investigates political collusion between the natural gas industry and politicians. Among his 18 books--most of which integrate history, politics, and contemporary social issues--are The Press and the State, Before the First Snow: Stories from the Revolution, Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, The Joy of Sax: A Look at the Bill Clinton Administration, and Social Foundations of the Mass Media.
He is also the author of dozens of magazine articles, several multimedia productions, and has worked in the film industry and as a copy writer and political consultant. He is the author 16 books, most of them focusing upon the fusion of historical and contemporary social issues, including America's Unpatriotic Acts: The Federal Government's Violation of Constitutional and Civil Rights (2005); Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of Geroge W. Bush (2008), Black English and the Mass Media (1981); Forerunners of Revolution: Muckrakers and the American Social Conscience (1991); With Just Cause: The Unionization of the American Journalist (1991); Brer Rabbit, Uncle Remus, and the 'Cornfield Journalist': The Tale of Joel Chandler Harris (2000); The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era (2001); and Sex and the Single Beer Can (3rd ed., 2009). He also is co-author of Social Foundations of the Mass Media (2001) and The Press and the State (1986), awarded Outstanding Academic Book distinction by Choice magazine, published by the American Library Association.