Princess Extravagance, from Preschool to Prom

What do little girls in princess dresses and teenagers at proms have in common? More than you might think!

Last week, a new survey found that nationwide, U.S. teens and their families will spend an average of $1,000 on this year’s prom. In my region, the northeast, the average is double that–a whopping $2,000 per family. With such numbers, the article argues, “Prom is the new wedding.”

Why is lavish spending on proms on the rise? USA Today reports:

Teen girls view prom as their “red-carpet moment” and are “heavily influenced” by celebrities who walk actual red carpets in designer gowns. “It’s a rite of passage, and there’s a legacy of how you look at your prom. Girls want to dress to impress.”

In other words, the intense consumerism of prom may be fueled by a wish to be like a celebrity for a night: the center of attention, all eyes on her, enjoying the spotlight.

But with such pleasures come intense pressure–the pressure of public scrutiny, with a fear of condemnation if the girl fails to achieve an idealized look. External scrutiny may be real or imagined. It may take place on facebook or at an afterparty. But self-scrutiny will most likely take place in the mirror, as a girl turns her critical eye on her own reflection to gauge whether she measures up to the ideal. No sympathy, no compassion–just judgments.

It’s easy for critics to wag their fingers at teen girls and their parents for enabling this behavior. However, prom spending can’t be removed from its cultural context. For one thing, girls face a marketing machine that makes such spending seem necessaryΒ (see any teen magazine during prom season for details). But more importantly, our culture socializes girls to be consumers who treat themselves as commodities–packaged to be gazed upon, admired, and desired.

Consider all the toddler girls who want nothing more than to be miniature Disney Princesses: Some are so insistent on their princess identities that they will wear nothing but princess play clothes, and protest with tearful heartbreak at every well-intended reality check. For the families of discerning young preschool consumers, this can become a costly interest to support: Disney-branded princess dresses start at about $45 at the Disney Store; accessories like matching shoes, tiaras, and purses are sold separately.

A princess makeover at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique

The Disney princess dresses can cost twice that or more if purchased at a Disney theme park during a family vacation, while a full princess makeover at Disney’s popular Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique can set parents back an additional $50-$190 or more (dress not included). But Disney persuades parents that these costs are worthwhile, for the memories will last a lifetime: As the signs at Disney’s parks say, “Let the memories begin.”

And so the toddler girl’s $100-$200 princess dress-up experience sets the stage for the $1,000-$2,000 prom.

A Disney Cinderella wedding gown by designer Alfred Angelo

What the toddlers and teens are buying is a fantasy. Teen girls who aspire to have a “red-carpet moment” at prom–like couples who now spend an average of $27,000 on their dream weddings–are spending their money to display a glamorous image for a single evening. The marketing machine insists that moment will “last a lifetime,” which makes all the spending seem worthwhile. The advertising narrative tells girls, “You’re worth it! Go ahead and be glamorous. Show everyone the real you.”

But this prom experience isn’t so much “real” as aspirational. Just like little girls (and beautiful brides) are not really princesses, girls at prom are playing dress-up, too. Yes, it’s a lot of fun to do so–but as many girls do in fact know, prom can be just as fun on a smaller budget. (As one teen who reported happily finding a gown on consignment said last year, “Being frugal is cool.”) When exorbitant spending seems necessary and inevitable, though, the marketers are winning–aided and abetted by a culture that teaches girls that a primary source of their value is their appearances.

Readers: What’s your take on the rising cost of proms? Have you or your daughters spent this much? Or, do you have any examples of great recent prom experiences that didn’t succumb to the pressures to spend, spend, spend? Any tips on where to shop?

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13 Comments on “Princess Extravagance, from Preschool to Prom

  1. I think this is my favorite post of yours yet. The similarity between the teenager in the blue dress and the little dress up cinderella is eerily uncanny.

  2. In high school, I usually spent around $30 or less on dresses for school dances, because I was fortunate enough to have a mother who could sew amazingly. But we did buy my prom dress, and spent about $70 bucks or so. I had a great time, and actually felt guilty that my mom spent so much money on me! So, it is hard for me to imagine someone spending $2000 on a silly prom. Here are some great websites with some modestly-priced, beautiful prom dresses (and they all have sleeves!). While they are a little more than I personally would spend, it’s a lot cheaper than $2000:

    • These are great links! I know that in my area, in Greater Boston, some amazing gowns can be found on consignment. (I pay attention to such things because I’m a classical singer, and classical singers need to dress up!) For example, there’s a shop called Heart & Soul in Lynn, MA where I’ve seen tons of consignment gowns. I picked up a gorgeous red gown for only $40 a few months ago. A little creativity goes a long way, right? πŸ™‚

  3. The dress isn’t the only cost. Consider: $150 dress, $50-$75 hair, $25-$50 makeup, $150-250 limo, $75-100 dinner, $50-$80 dance admission, corsage $25, pictures $30, if you are allowed a hotel room and another $100-350. Easy to see how this adds up to $1000+. Of course you could do your own hair, makeup, make your own dress or buy it at a thrift store (actually not a bad place to shop for dresses) eat at McDonald’s, skip the limo and have mom or dad drive you etc.

    • Right! The USA Today article I linked above breaks down all the costs by type. They came up with $231 as the average cost of a dress this year, plus an additional average of $126 on accessories like shoes and jewelry. So that’d be an average of $357 on what the girls are wearing alone–not factoring in makeup and the other items you mentioned.

      Girls and their families could certainly make a few different choices to bring the cost of attending prom closer to that of a nice party, rather than the cost of a down-payment on a new car! Indeed, many do; but what interests me is the context in which those choices are made. It’s less about individual decisions than the marketing machine and the socialization that make record levels of spending seem “fun.”

  4. I almost couldn’t go to prom because of the expense. My aunt ended up buying my dress, a simpler number with fewer frills that she said she got on super-sale. I believe I did buy new shoes–however I was sure to get ones I could re-purpose as concert attire for band concerts. Then of course I encountered the other issue with prom–the date. I didn’t ask anyone/didn’t get asked, so I went alone. It accounted for some really awkward moments since prom seems to rest so heavily on the romantic side of things. I was glad I went, but at the time I was painfully bored. But boy did I look good. πŸ™‚

    Great blog. You hit on a really important cultural issue–the princess-like attitude that girls strive to achieve or are almost forced into.

  5. I simply didn’t go. As can be inferred from some of the above comments, the pressure to buy into the message of prom is as strong as the pressure to commodify prom.

    As someone who is raised in a faith community that encourages arranged marriages, that message wasn’t for me, and therefore, the peripheral messages of commodifying yourself in the pursuit of that magical red carpet moment never really stuck.

    Six years later, I am happily married, and am proud to say that I spent less than $6,000 on my wedding, during which I felt exactly like the person I am – a gorgeous, radiant, capable woman with one heck of a marriage to look forward to.

    That being said, I am so grateful to see blogs like yours discussing these issues. I think I may have a similar calling to media literacy, and I want to join the fight in helping society buck these stupid trends.

  6. The little girls were soooooooo cute bless them

  7. Pingback: Disney Princess Prom Gowns and Cradle-to-Grave Marketing | Rebecca Hains

  8. Rebecca, ICUMI, here’s my Shaping Youth post on ‘actual’ prom 2012 costs vs media reported/”perceived” prom costs showing the Visa stats horrifically distorted and sampling very flawed: “Prom Spending Surges: Media Panics, Hype, and Critical Thinking 2012”

    That said, your princess womb to tomb focal point was witnessed firsthand in the dressing rooms (albeit I know of no teen rushing into Disney branded glamorama, it’s more of a ‘visual’ thing)

    Thanks for connecting the dots beginning with the preschool posse though, as it DOES go all the way to ‘wedding gowns/home furnishings’ fanfare which is pretty ‘ew’ on the identity front, even for those diehard mouseketeers…

  9. p.s. Here’s the abbreviated version pointing to Visa’s bogus stats (which notably, did NOT ever receive media coverage/correction or recant/disclaimer. Go figure: This speaks to a much bigger journalism flaw: ‘put it out there’ and it’ll ‘stay valid via Google front page’ by sheer copious quantities of media regurgitation sans fact checking. argh. Don’t get me started…ha.

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