Tuxedo optional as proms scale back

Waterville, Maine High School seniors, from left, Lana Morgan, Julie Bradford and Lizzy Kowalik, shop for dresses Thursday  at Angelique’s in Saugus, Mass., for their upcoming prom in May.

Waterville, Maine High School seniors, from left, Lana Morgan, Julie Bradford and Lizzy Kowalik, shop for dresses Thursday at Angelique’s in Saugus, Mass., for their upcoming prom in May.

April 29, 2009


This year’s prom kings may swap their tuxedos for suits and some queens will accept their tiaras in secondhand cocktail dresses while they slow-dance in a decorated gymnasium.

At high schools across the country, the traditional prom spectacle at ritzy hotels is giving way to crepe paper-covered basketball courts, as the recession eviscerates jobs and roils budgets. That’s causing teenagers, their families and schools to make careful choices about how much to spend and on what.

It’s not always easy, of course. After all, prom remains the ultimate high school party, a rite of passage to adulthood, no matter the cost. That’s why designers of $500 gowns say their sales are unexpectedly steady. And yet, this is also the first prom season in the era of the new frugality; the first since the market collapsed, unemployment soared and the government bailed out the banks and the auto industry.

So, while their parents fret about their 401(k) and whether they’ll survive the next round of layoffs, students are accepting the fact that this year, like it or not, the prom will be different.

That’s why they’re borrowing prom dresses or buying them from consignment stores, scouring the Internet for deals on accessories and hosting potluck dinners instead of reserving tables at posh restaurants before the big event.

“We’re still trying to keep it dressy, but we want them to know they don’t have to go all out,” said Renee Becker, a teacher and prom committee adviser at Bismarck High, a school of about 1,300 students in central North Dakota, where formal attire won’t be required this year.

At Boca Ciega High School in Gulfport, Fla., advisers hope to cut prom costs by as much as 44 percent after last year’s lavish “Phantom of the Opera”-themed bash — complete with dozens of red roses, professional decorations and shrimp cocktail — rang up a $27,000 tab paid for by the senior class.

But in a state with the fourth-highest rate of home foreclosures, administrators thought it was time to scale back, particularly at the school where half of students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“While I was thrilled for students to have such a beautiful prom, I don’t think it was necessary,” said Paula Nelson, principal at the 2,000-student school. “We just have to look at things differently.”

This May’s “Winter Wonderland” dance is expected to cost between $15,000 and $17,000, thanks to do-it-yourself decorations, a scaled-back menu of appetizers and smart shopping at after-Christmas sales where strings of white lights were 75 percent off.

Organizers even managed to haggle with a DJ, who lowered his $1,500 fee to $950.

“Prom used to be a free ticket to spend however you want, but now they’re just being more conscientious about where that money is going,” said Joanna Saltz, executive editor at Seventeen magazine, which ran a lengthy article on budgeting tips in its prom issue.

To cut costs, schools elsewhere are buying cheaper party favors like choosing picture frames that sell for $4.99 instead of the $6.99 versions, said Shep Moyle, chief executive of Stumps Prom & Party, the nation’s largest supplier of prom decorations. They’re also looking for decorations that can be reused in a school play — like the 13-foot-tall illuminated Eiffel Tower that sells for $199 — instead of items that get tossed after the last dance.


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