Angela Edwards and her date arrived at the Bonaventure Hotel for their senior prom in a rented convertible BMW. She wore a custom-designed royal blue satin dress, dyed-to-match shoes; her hair, makeup and nails had been done in a salon that day.
For the after-prom party she changed into a black suede miniskirt and black top, then spent the next day with friends on Catalina Island. By the time the weekend was over, Edwards, an 18-year-old Palisades High School senior who says she comes from a middle-income family, had spent more than $500.
Forget any Norman Rockwellian vision you might have of a senior prom, of crepe paper streamers decorating a high school gym, boys picking up their dates in dad's car, and girls teetering in their first high heels.
For years now, prom nights have come and gone with increasingly higher price tags. With each senior class trying to out-do last year's prom, spending appears to have reached an all-time high in 1988--up to $1,500 for the night, according to some estimates. That all-too-possible cash outlay--covering not only the prom, but pre-prom parties, an after-prom party, parties between the prom and the after-prom, breakfast the next morning, and sometimes trips to Palm Springs, Catalina or Santa Barbara to recover from the gaiety--has moved at least one school board member to call for a reconsideration of the runaway expenses.
Today, dinner-dances are held in hotel ballrooms and students arrive in stretch limos dressed in expensive tuxedos and one-of-a-kind dresses.
Cost of the Essentials
Consider the cost of what, for better or worse, are considered the essentials of the modern high school prom:
- Prom bids (ticket): anywhere from $75 to $110 per couple.
- After-prom bid (the after-prom is rarely school-sponsored): $25 to $35 a couple.
- Clothes: tuxedo rental for boys, $30 to $75. Dress for girls: up to $2,000.
- Corsage/boutonniere: $15-$25.
- Limo rental (considered a necessity by some parents so their children don't drink and drive): $40 per hour, usually for a minimum of four hours. Some students also rent fancy cars or luxury buses for a large group.
Extras can include:
- Helicopter charter (snazzier than a limo, guaranteed to turn heads): about $400 an hour.
- Hair, makeup and nails for girls: $50 and up.
- Clothes for the after-prom: $75 and up.
- Breakfast next morning: $15 and up.
- Trips to Catalina, Palm Springs: $50 and up, depending on travel and hotel accommodations.
"I don't think things differ between the inner city and the Valley or the Westside," said Los Angeles School Board member Roberta Weintraub, who has introduced a motion to get students to come up with alternatives to expensive proms. "I think the cost is way out of proportion to the incomes. And the worst part of this is that the junior highs are starting to emulate the high schools."
Weintraub's motion, to be voted on this month, would have each board member choose one high school from his district and choose a student committee to discuss the problem.
"I'm not saying that I'm trying to take away prom night," Weintraub said, "but I'm trying to get it back to some perspective. Now the cost is going up to $1,500. It's gotten out of control, and we need to check all schools in all areas."
One alternative Weintraub suggested is a rock concert--"Something pretty spectacular, like Disneyland for Grad Night, something that's an alternative to the prom so the kids feel like they've been to something special. What I'm hoping is that students will see how deeply in debt some families are, and how it cuts a lot of people out."
Parents are also reeling at the cost of their children's prom, trying to strike compromises between what is asked for and what is affordable.
"I thought the cost (of the prom) was pretty high, but the kids put pressure on each other to out-do one another," said Georgene Smith, president of the 10th District PTSA and mother of 17-year-old Elizabeth, a senior at University High School in West Los Angeles.
"I've taught my daughter to shop carefully, and we were able to keep the cost of the gown and everything down. What drives up the cost is all the other activities: the dinner before, the after-prom."
Smith said she paid for Elizabeth's dress and accessories and the limo (about $400 total) and Elizabeth paid for the prom (held at the Sheraton-Universal) and after-prom bids and dinner before the prom with money saved up from her part-time job. Some students who work save all year for this one evening out.
"I was speaking with some mothers of my daughter's friends, and when one woman said she had spent $1,000 for the prom, nobody flinched. . . . I've thought a lot about what the schools can do. It can offer more in the way of social activities, so the prom is not loaded with every drop of meaning it's supposed to have, but doesn't. The expectations were built to such a high, there was no way any one evening could meet that expectation. But kids are very spoiled these days. They expect the ritz, frankly."