Prom has always been more about showing off your hot shoes and hot boyfriend than slow dancing with your one true love, so it makes sense that the ultimate American teen rite of passage is becoming more about social status and "personal expression" (read: Facebook photo ops) than ever before. But it's especially so for teenagers from low-income homes.
USA Today reports that families are now spending an average of $1,078 on the event, and we're not even talking about the kinds of families that encourage their kids go on MTV's My Super Sweet 16. Actually, those families spend less than parents in lower income brackets: according to a Visa phone survey, families that make between $20,000 and $29,999 a year will spend more than $2,600, twice the national average, while wealthier families plan to spend between $700 and $1,000 on clothing, accessories, grooming, dinner, and transportation.
It doesn't really take an expert to analyze the disparity, although USA Today asked some, of course: the proliferation of celebrity worship and reality television — combined with lives that are increasingly less glamorous thanks to the poor economy — is turning prom into the ultimate "Cinderella Moment." More girls want to look like Rihanna, but fewer girls will be able to achieve any semblance of her lifestyle as adults; parents want to assuage that realization (and forget their own financial woes) by making prom a magical evening at whatever cost. "It's a rite of passage, and there's a legacy of how you look at your prom," said Linda Korman, advertising director for Seventeen Prom and Teen Prom. "Girls want to dress to impress."
The concept of prom photo as "legacy" is nothing new, but now, thanks to social media, there's even more competition and pressure to stand out. Girls aren't satisfied with simply looking like Rihanna — they want all of their friends to see them looking like Rihanna, too. At the same time, there's also more pressure to be different, in hopes of having your nails featured on a nail art Tumblr, or achieving a "Like" from your favorite fashion blogger. "There's a general sense of people wanting to be differentiated," said retail strategist Alison Jatlow Levy. "Going to a national chain and getting the same dress that 18 other girls have is not a chance for me to differentiate myself or express my individuality, which is such an important part of my social experience today." And at prom, "personal expression" is no longer as simple as making sure you don't wear the same dress as the girl from AP Bio. "The bar is higher for what it takes to get attention, and therefore, (teens) really need to have something exclusive, original, unique to them in order to get attention to from other people," Yarrow says. And that "uniqueness" often comes with a higher price tag.
This study comes on the (glittering) heels of a Wall Street Journal article that claims girls are actually bucking the fancy prom dress trend. The article doesn't say this, of course, but they don't mean all girls — they mean rich girls. According to Teen Vogue's April 2012 prom issue, "menswear-inspired pajama looks" are in, and "the days of shopping in the prom section of a store have become passé, in favor of shopping vintage, going to boutiques and looking to high-end designers for inspiration."
I doubt that many girls will show up to prom in PJs; one of the best parts of prom is convincing your parents to splurge on a fancy dress, and what's the point if you end up with bedazzled boxer shorts? But it's true that more privileged girls often favor low-key prom dresses — not "cheap," mind you, but get-ups that make it clear the event doesn't really mean much in the scope of their lives. The WSJ says "high fashion and the spring runway" are to blame — but I think these fashion choices reflect a class issue as much as anything. The more the hoi polloi spends to look fancy, the more wealthy girls will want to set themselves apart in some way. It's not radical or "high fashion" to wear pajamas or vintage to prom, especially when the pajamas are made by Zac Posen. That's why the teens who can't financially afford to be blasé about glamour are the ones who max out their credit cards for prom. Real princesses don't need Cinderella moments to make them feel special.
Image via Huntstock.com/Shutterstock.