Big night. Big plans. Big tab. Can the prom be tamed?
SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF. — Damon Robertson, a senior at Notre Dame High School here, will spend $130 for prom tickets and another $300 for tux, dinner, and flowers for his date. But bucking a prom-going trend of a dozen years' standing, he'll spend zip - nothing, nada, $0 - to hire a stretch limo for the evening of May 27.
Instead, he'll meet prom attendees from Notre Dame in the school parking lot, where they'll board three large bus coaches and drive 50 minutes south to this year's venue: the Long Beach Aquarium.
OK, so the ride is a little more downscale (and a lot less intimate) than the chauffeured confines of a luxury auto. But that's a good thing, according to school officials and parents who say The Prom is practically taking over the world - or at least their children's world. Though a distinct minority, these prom-poopers say it's time to restore some sanity to a tradition that has nearly succumbed to cheap values and expensive thrills.
"We are seeing a reining in of some of the excesses of recent years," says Kate Wood, associate editor of PromSpot.com, a website on prom planning, dress, and etiquette. "Because of the backlash in media coverage over out-of-control behavior and spending, more and more schools and parents are cracking down."
Notre Dame's limousine ban, for instance, cuts costs, competition, and cliques, not to mention "unsavory activities that limo companies don't worry about, where[as] we do," says Stevie Connelly, principal of the parochial school in this Los Angeles suburb. The hired buses will also drive promgoers back to the school instead of to the chic destination of recent years: hotels, where all-night parties ensued. The prom, says Ms. Connelly, "shouldn't be an occasion to do things you wouldn't ordinarily do."
In every region of the US, a handful of schools are taking steps akin to Notre Dame's. Some have followed the lead of New York's Kellenberg Memorial High, a Long Island Catholic school that last fall cancelled its prom, citing "the flaunting of affluence," "exaggerated expenses," and "a pursuit of vanity for vanity's sake." Others are outlawing post-prom parties at hotels, holding more school-sanctioned events before and after the dance, and involving parents as party planners and chaperones.
Party attire, too, is getting a modesty makeover. Some schools are ruling out low-cut backs, plunging necklines, leg-revealing slits, and other slinkiness, says PromSpot.com's Ms. Wood. Gowns that are more traditional - bedecked with ruffles, lace, and flowers - are in.
All this doesn't mean the big event is devoid of fun and originality. Prompted by TV shows such as "The O.C." and MTV's "Laguna Beach," teens are inventing a new ritual: imaginative ways to ask someone to the prom. (In a recent episode of "The O.C.," a character used hundreds of rose petals and candles distributed across the back lawn to spell out "Prom?")
Among students' real-life invitations to the dance: Raisins and chocolate drops arranged on a bakery shelf to read, "There's muffin I would rather do than go to prom with you." One guy who'd invited his prospective date over for pizza placed a dozen roses inside the box, according to PromSpot.com. Another ordered special M&M candies that spelled out "Prom?" - and enlisted a restaurant's maitre d' to deliver them on the dessert tray to the girl of his dreams.
"One thing that strikes me about young folks today is their desire for distinction, not necessarily status but ... to set oneself apart and have memories that are set apart," says Amy Best, author of "Prom Night: Youth, Schools, and Popular Culture." "Some schools will be permissive, and others will try to rein things in. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the vast diversity."
Innovative invites do come with a down side - angst, embarrassment, or money down the drain - if things don't go as planned. "My friend sent the girl he wanted to ask a bouquet of flowers ... she said 'no,' " says Damon. "Now he's out $50 and still has no date."
While some applaud pop-the-question creativity, others say it is more evidence that prom spending is still over-the-top. Teens, they say, are trapped by cultural expectations of extravagance - fed by TV shows and fanned by prom marketers, fashion magazines, peer pressure, and their own determination to outshine the proms of and prior high school classes.
"As a parent, I can say that, yes, this is out of proportion, that it is propelled by marketing in grand fashion, and that it is difficult to argue that [it] is not conspicuous consumption," says Daniel Howard, a father of three teenagers and the chairman of the marketing department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "As a marketing professor, I can say the spending is good for ... the American economy - and for the stores that cater to proms, who make a large portion of their entire income at this one time of year."
Your Prom magazine, published by Conde Nast, estimates the average promgoer dishes out $638 - and that total prom-related spending adds up to $4.1 billion a year.
For some who long for less audacious proms, the concern is less about money than about behavior. They worry that students set out to mimic the high-living standards of TV celebrities who doll up to dine, drink, and defy the rules, as if for sport.
"The pressure on teens over prom night has gotten absolutely crazy," says Annie Fox, author of "Too Stressed to Think," who dispenses advice to teens via the Internet. "Many [proms] have become all trappings and no essence. Teens are being asked to go into situations that overwhelm their ability to control impulses.... They are stressed out over it."
The principal at Kellenberg Memorial, Kenneth Hoagland, decided to put his foot down after 46 seniors spent $10,000 to rent a house in the Hamptons for a post-prom party. "Each year it gets worse - becomes more exaggerated, more expensive, more emotionally traumatic," he told local media last fall. "Many students and parents disagreed and said that canceling the prom didn't solve anything."