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DBC: Pricing out the prom

It’s the climax of any Hollywood high school film. It’s been a drain on parents' wallets for nearly a century. It’s been a constant source of anxiety and excitement for generations of teenagers.

But prom isn’t just for the kids. When the adolescent tradition rolls around every spring, several local businesses see a boost in revenue as high schoolers scramble to put together their “perfect night.”

Planning the prom

Like many widespread customs, prom got its start in the elite upper classes. The term is a shortened form of promenade, a French word referring to the formal introduction of guests at a ball.

Ivy League universities hosted their own proms during the second half of the 19th century in an effort to promote social etiquette. Soon the trend trickled down to high schools and became an almost obligatory rite of passage.

But the extravagance of prom has come a long way over the years. In the 1920s and ’30s, most proms were simpler affairs in the high school gym with crepe paper streamers and a single punch bowl. The post-war economic boom in the 1950s allowed school officials to move the dance out of the gym and into more formal venues like country clubs or hotels.

Ryan High School English teacher and Student Council sponsor Kathleen Bossenbroek said she and the senior class officers typically spend a few thousand dollars each year on a local venue. This year, Ryan’s prom will take place May 6 at the University of North Texas Gateway Center.

The group also spends funds on hors d'oeuvres, a DJ and photography. Bossenbroek said juniors and seniors can sell cookie dough to pay for their $65 ticket and students who don’t have funds for formalwear can borrow dresses she keeps in her classroom.

“We just want to make sure the prom is for everyone and that as many kids as possible can attend,” she said.

The expenses associated with prom have remained relatively stable over time: dresses, tuxedos, shoes, hair, makeup, corsages and boutonnieres, limousines and dinner beforehand. But Bossenbroek said she’s noticed one added cost that’s cropped up for many Ryan students in recent years.

“Most of the kids are doing promposals now,” she said. “They ask their dates in some big, glorious manner.”

The “promposal” trend isn’t limited to Ryan students. A Boston teen asked his date by renting a plane that wrote “PROM?” in the sky. A high schooler in Arizona asked actress Emma Stone to be his date by remaking a scene from her latest movie, La La Land.

Though not all promposals are as extravagant, they can drive up costs. According to a 2015 Visa spending survey, households planned to spend $324 on promposals alone.

Getting the look

Men’s Wearhouse staffers call prom season, spanning mid-February to late April, nearly the busiest time of year. It’s second only to the holiday season in the fourth quarter, when families who have at least one male needing sprucing up rush to the store.

Cameron Krause, a student at the University of North Texas who has worked at the formalwear store for about three months now, said the prom spike is real. A vast majority of students come to rent suits rather than buy them outright.

“I’ve only been working here a short time, but I’m definitely getting my first taste of it,” Krause said. 

A normal day brings older folks who wake up early to peruse the store’s wares, but the three-month prom-a-thon births its own animal.

In total, the Denton store serves students from 21 area high schools, and one week can yield up to 330 high school students looking to sharpen up for their big night.

Lindsey Fithian has worked in the formalwear business for more than 10 years. When she started out, Men’s Wearhouse only offered rental outfits that featured one kind of pleated pants, one tuxedo shirt and a limited variety of coats.

That’s since expanded to 21 coats and seven vests combining for more than 90 different tuxedo combinations. Suit rentals start at $59.99, and the fanciest combinations can reach $200. 

Kids nowadays seem to lean toward brightly colored options for overcoats that include purple, pink and red. For trousers, “high-waters” that hike up and expose socks are the latest craze, and there are some who prefer to toss tuxedo shorts into the mix. Many young men juxtapose tennis shoes with their outfits, Fithian has noticed.

The store’s team says it has predicting fashion trends down to a science. If a particular celebrity rocks some unorthodox threads to the Oscars or Grammys, they can expect to see droves of patrons wanting the same glow-up.

“It’s changed a lot since I first began,” Fithian said. “We used to have such limited options, but so many fashion trends customers are interested in have transformed the game.”

For ladies, more than 500 customizable vintage prom dresses can be found inside Circa 77. Outside of routine weddings, prom season starting in February is the busiest time of year.

Rentals, customs and alterations to dresses have kept Circa 77 open the 12 years owner Janie Shoto’s shop has sat off the Square on West Oak Street. Depending on what a customer wants done to a dress and the amount of work involved, alterations can cost anywhere from $100 to $300. But that pricing scale often slides depending on the value of the dress.

“Everybody is different and nobody wants to be cookie-cutter about their dress,” Shoto said of tastes in prom dresses.

Circa 77 this year purchased 15 third-party, modern and rhinestone-bedazzled dresses to sell in addition to its signature vintage style.

Over the years, Shoto has noticed girls and their moms have veered toward more risque, exposing dresses rather than traditionally conservative gowns. This can often be problematic with strict high school dress codes.

There tends to be a solution in altercations if a student is set on a particular dress, Shoto said. While two-piece dresses exposing more skin than normal have been increasingly popular this prom season, several school principals prohibit that style. Circa 77 has been able to remedy that conflict by sewing openings together to make the dresses acceptable.

Even with a spike in interest toward modern styles, a majority of students end up preferring more unique options when they walk in to try everything on that catches their eye.

“Once they try everything on, the vintage tends to stand out to them over the glamour and gaudiness,” Shoto said.

On the accessory end, Denton Florists on East University Drive notices its own prom spike for gentlemen wanting boutonnieres and ladies wanting wristlets.

The floral shop sees anywhere from 30 to 40 students from Denton high schools each week mixed in with 10 to 20 students from surrounding areas. Standard roses or spray roses are typically the go-tos for visitors, but owner Christine Dear can fashion a corsage from any flower under the sun.

“Some kids are real simple; others will come in from Hobby Lobby with a bunch of feathers and stuff wanting to really customize them,” she said. “They can be pretty labor-intensive.”

While several high schools send students to the longtime shop, Dear has done her best to make sure each student is serviced in a timely manner over the 27 years she’s owned Denton Florists.

A typical boutonniere or wristlet takes 30 minutes of handiwork to complete, but that can vary based on how busy prom season is and how much customization a customer requests.

She shares the same message that other prom outlets have for high school sweethearts wanting to make their prom night something special.

“Place your orders early and try to come in early,” Dear said. “It’s never a good idea to procrastinate.”

Hitting the pocketbook

Businesses may see a welcome spike during prom season, but the cost of going to prom might be going down.

The Visa survey shows that families spent an average of $919 on prom in 2015, down from $978 in 2014 and $1,139 in 2013. Parents said they plan to shell out 73 percent of the cost.

Jay Zagorsky, an economist and professor at Ohio State University, studied the rising cost of proms compared with the rising cost of everyday items.

He developed a “Prom Price Index” that tracks the cost of prom-related items like women’s dresses, car rentals and indoor flowers. He compared the data with the Consumer Price Index, a tool used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that tracks the price of items the average American family purchases.

Zagorsky found that, although costs were still rising in both categories, the price of prom-related items rose at a slower rate than items on the Consumer Price Index. From 1998 to 2015, the price of going to prom rose by 22 percent. In that same period, overall prices rose 45 percent.

“Understanding the changing price of proms is important, not only for the memories invoked years after the event is over but also because it is a quintessential American experience,” Zagorsky wrote on The Conversation, an academic-based website. “Proms will never be cheap, but it is nice to know that over time the inflation-adjusted cost of attending this rite of passage is falling, enabling more teenagers to attend.”

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862. MATT PAYNE can be reached at 940-566-6845.