Apodaca: Prom can hit the pocketbook hard

Add this to the list of potential threats to the economy: prom costs.

As I write this column, my 17-year-old son is preparing to attend his high school prom, and I am trying not to think about how much money we're blowing on one night of teenage revelry.

True, proms are a rite of passage for high school kids. They are possibly the most important social event of their young lives, a critical piece of the fabric that binds friendships and provides cherished lifelong memories. How can you quantify that?

Actually, someone did.

(Note to my husband: Honey, if you are reading this, you can stop now. I think I hear the doorbell. The dog needs to go out. What was that noise? Did the washing machine just explode?)

Back to prom costs. Visa, the credit card company, conducted a survey and concluded that a prom will set a typical family back more than $1,000.

Can that be right? Let's see, for us there was the tuxedo rental ($138), tickets for my son and his date ($130), party bus and dinner for two ($190), and corsage ($45). Cha-ching, cha-ching. Those items, along with a few other incidentals, tally up to about $500.

Wow! We got away cheap!

(Honey, if you are still reading, I think you should lie down and take a nap.)

Proms haven't always been such over-the-top affairs. Their origins date back to a simpler time in the 19th century when elite American colleges held co-ed banquets for graduating seniors. The name is derived from the word "promenade," meaning a parade of guests in their best dress. How quaint.

As the 20th century dawned, proms — still rather prosaic occasions — began to filter down to the middle class as a means of exposing young people to the fine ways and etiquette of the upper crust.

In the post-World War II era, prom evolved — or devolved, depending on your perspective — into a formal high school dance, usually held in a gussied-up gym festooned with streamers and balloons.

Today, proms are pull-out-the-stops extravaganzas that seem to grow more lavish every year, economy be dashed.

The mode of transportation alone can be jarring in its excess. These days, kids ride to their proms in limos or luxurious party buses that come fully loaded with dance floors, poles, state-of-the-art sound systems, iPod hookups and video screens.

For most schools, the days of dancing on floors shared with the basketball team are long gone. Now proms are held at far classier digs, including theme parks, hotel ballrooms and country clubs.

What's more, we are apparently convinced that one ritzy party per night isn't enough for our little darlings. So we throw pre-parties and after-parties where the lucky parents who agree to host spend the evening working the booze patrol and worrying about liability issues.

Even the ritual of inviting a date to the prom has become an event in itself. Kids these days don't just ask someone to accompany them; they must make a statement, with cupcakes, balloons, flowers, signs, poems, songs or whatever other creative means their fertile imaginations put forth.

Over the years, proms have also come to reflect — and become vehicles for — social change. Whereas it was once taboo to attend without a date, for instance, it's now perfectly acceptable go stag, or in a group of other friends who have opted to fly solo.

Proms have served as a microcosm of larger civil rights movements: Past generations pushed for the acceptance of mixed-race couples; more recently the issue of same-sex dating has been addressed at proms around the country.

For all the potential controversy, though, the biggest prom-related debate is the one that occurs every year: Is it worth the expense?

I recently came across a newspaper article from 1968 that posed the question in the headline, "Are Memories Worth the Cost?"

Back then, according to the story, prom "gowns" cost $25 to $55, "hair-dos" ran $3.50 to $5, accessories included gloves, and tuxedo rentals were about $10.50. I experienced a little inward shudder when I read the comments from a tux-shop owner who said that colored jackets and turtleneck shirts with French cuffs were hot items for boys.

I'm having a tough time picturing a turtleneck shirt with double cuffs, but the so-called "turtleneck formals" were so popular the shop charged an extra $5 for the rental.

Recently, concerns over costs and the sluggish economy have prompted some schools to reconsider the prom experience. A few have opted to return the dance to their gyms, while others have encouraged students to keep spending in check by, say, recycling old prom dresses, dining on the cheap and forgoing the fancy wheels.

But in many areas — Newport Beach comes to mind — proms remain recession-resistant. Fox News recently reported that prices for prom dresses continue to climb, and when some Los Angeles-area schools required students to take school buses to and from the prom, parents rented limos anyway to drive their kids to the bus pick-up.

Could we be seeing the origins of the next debt crisis? Perhaps, but it's also possible that prom spending is a valuable form of economic stimulus.

If my husband's still there, I hope he considers that when he sees the next credit card bill.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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