By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
FOR four years, Lindsay Rescott has been planning for the moment when she gathers with her fellow seniors at Northport Village Park on Long Island to pose for their prom photos in the June twilight. Lindsay, a 17-year-old horse lover who plans to study animal science in the fall, has carefully chosen her beaded and swirled zebra print gown, decided on the side ponytail she will ask her hairdresser to shape for the event and received enthusiastic approval from her grandmother to dip into her jewelry box for earrings and her closet for an evening bag.
“I always knew it was a big thing for Northport,” she said. “It’s the one really big thing we have.”
Meanwhile, her mother, Dina Rescott, has been trying not to let her financial worries cloud her daughter’s endless prom reverie. With her work as a graphic designer slowing, money has been tight. Her husband, a creative director at a pharmaceutical advertising agency, hasn’t received a raise or a bonus this year. While Ms. Rescott understands that Lindsay has looked forward to prom “forever,” she said, she is “constantly worrying about money.”
So the Rescotts are trying to help their daughter pay for the prom while bracing for what lies ahead: more job uncertainty, along with bills for Lindsay’s tuition at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They have helped pay $300 toward a gown and $200 for prom tickets and are sorting out how to pay for smaller expenses like hair styling and after-party spending.
“Yes, it’s the recession,” Ms. Rescott said. “But it’s a one-time thing. Everyone remembers their prom. I wouldn’t want to take that away from her.”
As the recession forces families to redefine their financial priorities, many are still trying to pay for an event they consider a rite of passage. Even parents who are unemployed or facing declining wages are cutting back elsewhere to make sure that their teenagers attend the prom. In fact, interviews with parents, teenagers, dress shop owners and other prom-related vendors show that families are still spending on gowns, party buses and postprom events, no matter the financial hardship.
“Girls are going to prom no matter what,” said Elia Rubinstein, owner of the Magic Moments shop in Port Jefferson, N.Y., where she finds that seniors especially are still spending on nicer gowns. “They’re going to prom, and trust me, a lot of the girls will not compromise. They will have an aunt pay for it, a godmother, a friend.”
The prom gown business is doing so well in the recession that it’s expected to outperform last year. Michael Kasher, owner of the Los Angeles-based gown line La Femme Fashion — whose La Femme gowns cost about $350 and whose Gigi gowns cost about $225 — called the Northeast his “strongest territory,” with sales in New York growing by “double digits” in the last year.
At Cooper’s Dress Shop in Orange, Conn., the owner, Evelyn Cooperstock, said girls have been waiting up to three hours on weekends to try on gowns and have passed up cheaper gowns she ordered for the recession for ones that cost more than $300.
While prom shoppers at Fontana Couture in Scarsdale, N.Y., are buying fewer dresses that cost $800 to $1,000, the owner, Frank Fontana, noted that they are still buying $200 to $500 dresses. Steven Citron, owner of the Perfect Dress in Lawrenceville, said his revenues were up by about 50 percent from last year. On weekends, he has noticed lines for the dressing room, he said, and has hired more salespeople to handle crowds.
“Our business has not been affected,” he said.
Prom-related businesses across the nation are experiencing a similar trend. The prom industry expects its sales to be 6 percent higher this year compared with the year before, said Mike Denton, director of the International Prom Association, a group based in Jefferson City, Tenn., which has 74 member retailers and vendors.
The recent enthusiasm for the prom mirrors how proms were treated during the later years of the Great Depression, according to Stephen Mintz, a Columbia University history professor who studies families. The prom, which originally was created in the late 19th century as a middle-class version of the debutante ball, grew popular during the Depression. Even during the Depression, families would do whatever they could to look as if they could continue to spend, just as parents are continuing to spend on the prom today, Dr. Mintz said.
“They would do anything to maintain appearances,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what it costs.”
Hearst, which has cornered the market on prom-related publications, surveyed 2,811 teenagers nationwide and in a study released on March 30 found that 65 percent said they would not cut back on spending on prom gowns because of the recession.
While much of prom spending starts with the purchase of the dress, other economic indicators are thriving, too. Teenage boys are spending an average of 20 percent more than they did last year, requesting designer brand tuxedo rentals and ordering more accessories like hats, Mr. Denton said. Party bus companies so far have not had to cut their prices. Tommy Radalj, marketing director for the Party Ride, based in Brentwood, N.Y., said that business was on par with 2008 figures. Last year the company provided buses — with room enough for 20 to 44 passengers — that cost $1,200 to $7,500 for 700 groups of teenagers attending proms throughout the metropolitan area.
But there are plenty of signs that spending on these events is causing families financial strain. Florence Catherine Remy, owner of Princess Bridals in Farmingdale, N.Y., has noticed mothers and daughters openly arguing about money in a different way than in the past. “The kids want these dresses so badly,” she said. “Money is a big factor.”
Prom donation programs also are being flooded with requests for gowns. Noel D’Allacco, founder of the Yonkers-based group Operation Prom, which is part of the national program DonateMyDress.org, said she had received five times more requests from school districts in Westchester than she did a year ago. She has already given away 475 dresses, compared with 300 this time last year. Requests are also coming in from parents who live in wealthier suburbs like Somers and New Rochelle, whose teenagers sometimes attend private schools. When Ms. D’Allacco tells parents that their daughters need to be referred by their guidance counselors for gowns, parents say they don’t want school employees to know about their financial problems. She said they tell her, “People will talk if they knew she got a free prom dress.”
But for the most part, parents are cutting their personal spending to pay for the prom. Mindy and Ron Rockower are bracing for three college tuitions ahead. So far, Mr. Rockower’s work as a self-employed accountant and lawyer has held up. They are still making sure that their oldest, Corey, 17, attends his senior prom at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School on Long Island by helping him pay for his tuxedo, his $70 prom ticket, the $135 party bus and possibly postparty activities in the Hamptons. They are cutting out clothes shopping and dinners out, and they are grateful that he is attending a SUNY campus in the fall.
“Let him go, have fun and, most important, be safe,” Ms. Rockower said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Other teenagers are trying to pay part of the bills themselves. Michelle Marchese, an 18-year-old senior at Passaic Valley Regional High School in Little Falls, hopes to use her savings from working in a card shop to pay for her prom expenses. Her father, a construction worker, was laid off a couple of months ago, and her mother works in a bank. So she wants to pay for her gown, hair, nails, tickets for the prom and the limousine taking her there. All told, the price tag is about $700.
“My parents aren’t the type to say, ‘You have to pay for part of this yourself,’ but I want to,” she said. “Since I’m working, and put most of my money away for college next year, I want to help.”
Some teenagers who have to help pay more prom expenses are deciding it’s not worth it. Meghan Sabas, a 17-year-old junior at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, Conn., decided to pass up her junior prom, since she went last year.
She has some savings from her $7-an-hour job as a receptionist at a hair salon, and she could wear her older sister’s $300 gown from last year. When she considered the expenses — $70 fees for tanning “because everyone else is tanned,” her makeup and a party bus — and that she didn’t want to be seen in photos wearing a “used dress,” she decided to pass.
“It would be a lot of work just to go to prom,” she said.
Her mother, JoAnn Sabas, said that she spent about $1,600 last year for Meghan, her twin sister and her older sister to go to the prom. But this year, the family is on a tighter budget because her husband, who works in the kitchen department of a local store, has seen his pay decline. Ms. Sabas, who works at a local bank, is determined not to let her family fall into the financial troubles she sees many others struggling with. She won’t put her daughter’s prom on credit cards.
“If they really want it and they have the money, they’ll do it,” she said.
Then there are teenagers who are still battling their parents over whether they will go. Angelina Ambrosino, a 17-year-old senior at Nelson Mandela High School in Mount Vernon, N.Y., would like to go to her prom. She said she is considering Ms. D’Allaco’s offer to help her pay for an $80 prom ticket and give her a gown from Operation Prom.
But she knows she will need money for her nails, a limo and going out afterward with her friends. She also has to figure out how to pay for graduation expenses like a yearbook and a cap and gown, along with expenses when she attends Mercy College in the fall. She knows that she can’t turn to her parents for extra cash. After her father’s $28-an-hour manufacturing job relocated to the South last year, he took a job that pays $10 an hour.
“Every time I ask my parents, ‘Can I have money for this, this and that?’ they say, ‘Money is hard,’ ” she said. Her mother, Tammy Ambrosino, a custodian at a local school, said she would rather her daughter save money for the future; she will be the first member of their immediate family to attend college.
“I’d rather see her get her education,” she said. “College has got to be No. 1.”
It's prom not your fucking wedding dimwits!