Karen Heller: Prom, the pricey gateway

Kate Sullivan, 18, held up a gown last spring to see how it looked in the mirror as friend Lisa Bevilacqua, 18, watched. They both went to Merion Mercy Academy.
Kate Sullivan, 18, held up a gown last spring to see how it looked in the mirror as friend Lisa Bevilacqua, 18, watched. They both went to Merion Mercy Academy. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff)
Posted: May 14, 2012

Did you prom? Back in the day, before prom shed its the like some painful four-inch pump, the dance was an annual rite of passage, an opportunity for embarrassment, mischief, and lousy living-room photography memorializing Farrah hair, powder-blue tuxes, ruffled shirts, and supersized bow ties, now all blessedly extinct.

Proms weren't yet an industry but a middle-class response to the debutante ball of toffs and swells. Now, prom has become the alpha and omega of adolescent consumption, reduced to one word, like Cher.

Prom is one of many gateway experiences to weddings - along with bar mitzvahs and Sweet 16 parties, all packing a sour punch to bank accounts. According to several surveys , families spend an average of $1,000 on the prom, and almost $2,000 in the Northeast. That's not a dance. That's a car.

Like so many American experiences - weddings, applying to college - we've taken another one of life's happy rituals and tried to squeeze every ounce of joy out of the occasion. In a world gone casual, with teens wearing pajamas to school, they've embraced ritual - what other adolescent event involves boutonnieres and nosegays? - while significantly raising the bar on pomp. Then again, just writing the word nosegay makes me happy.

There are post-prom and pre-prom parties, even pre-pre prom parties, which, I believe, have something to do with makeup and hair.

I don't want you to be jealous, but this weekend, half our household was prom-bound, as if living with two teens wasn't enough adventure. Nora Ephron observed: "When your children are teenagers, it's important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you." We forgot to get the dog.

Having teenagers is a bit like living with spies. They share little and enter late on little cat feet while possessing Penn & Teller skills at separating their parents from hard currency.

Our first child is a masculine child, so we were unaware of prom's potential as a massive consumer of time and capital. His to-do list: Ask date (for some boys, this becomes performance art), rent tux, order flowers, comb hair, brush teeth, phone if designated driver can't drive.

Girls tend to obliterate such simplicity, subscribing to the Cartesian variation: I prom, therefore I fret.

The time preparing for prom appears to be infinitely greater than the hours spent attending one.

Entire magazines and stores are devoted to prom, vast swaths of malls relegated to sequins and satin, and Facebook pages given over to letting classmates place dibs on favored dresses to avoid turning their proms into a reenactment of Carrie. To avoid duplication and potential carnage, I know girls who acquired dresses from another continent.

A friend offered to lend me her daughter's prom dress with the caveat "But those were the slutty years."

Our daughter, I'm happy to say, has not let the skankitude celebrated on Bravo or MTV take root. She has understated taste, which frequently translates into expensive, though not in her case.

This is how, last Saturday in the football field that is Nordstrom's shoe department, you might have overheard possibly the most preposterous prom-related contretemps in which the mother, being me, was actually arguing for less sensible footwear than her offspring.

Mother, holding silver shoe with kitten heel: "These go far better with the dress."

Daughter, holding flat, casual sandal: "But I'll never wear them again."

Mother: "Nobody wears anything from the prom again!"

Nordstrom salesman (meekly): "I make a point of never getting in the middle of these matters - however, your mother is right."

Reader, we bought her casual sandals. And also, as a compromise, a sequined pair of flats. Because when it comes to prom, more is never enough. It is all about excess.

I'm happy to report this was our only disagreement. We spent far, far less than the average - the national, not the Northeastern - even with two teens promming and having to buy a boutonniere and a nosegay. But then I'm a sucker for a nosegay.


Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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