Karlice Williams emerged from behind the dressing room curtain in a sparkling blue gown. Her friends gasped in awe.
“That’s niiiice,” said one.
“So pretty,” added another.
Williams walked carefully to the mirror, looking her reflection up and down as a smile formed on her lips.
“Oh, I like this,” she said quietly.
The 18-year-old Central High student had arrived at the West Oak Lane reception hall on a late April evening with her mind set on finding a dress for senior prom (originally, she had her heart set on a champagne-colored gown, she admitted, but her friends told her not to limit herself). Williams had already shopped in person and online, but struggled to find a gown that fit and didn’t break the bank.
At this event, however, she didn’t have to worry about the price tag. The Lisa Teagle Brown Foundation was holding its second 2023 pop-up Butterfly Boutique, where girls can select from hundreds of donated second-hand prom dresses, free of charge.
Williams’ May 25th prom was already costing her family at least $800 between the sendoff party, dance tickets, and hair and nail appointments, she said. She didn’t want to add the expense of a dress, which can cost more than $500.
Despite inflation tightening many families’ budgets, the 2023 prom season is as extravagant as ever.
Social media has made the prom more than just a rite of passage, Philadelphia-area parents, teens, and industry insiders said; it’s often a daylong event that can include 360-degree cameras, professional photographers, and living room DJs. Even the most frugal parents are likely to spend at least $400 to $500 per dance.
“Prom season is a culture,” said Michael Brown, who started the Lisa Teagle Brown Foundation in honor of his late wife.
Brown said he spent at least $3,000 to send his daughter to her junior and senior proms in 2017 and 2018. He took on a third job driving Uber at night to afford it.
That wasn’t even for the most elaborate prom experience — his daughter took his Chevrolet Suburban to prom instead of a limo.
“Social media has heightened this, where it’s more about the show, about the production, than it is in the actual prom,” Brown said.
Promgoers in the Northeast region of the U.S. spent an average of $700 in 2017, according to Yahoo’s Prom Across America Survey. That’s more than dance attendees elsewhere in the country.
About a dozen current and recent prom attendees and parents in the Philadelphia area said they’ve spent between $300 and $1,000 per person per dance. Double or triple that price tag if someone is attending more than one school’s prom.
DeAndre DePass, owner of the entertainment company Legacy Nation LLC, said some of his clients in West Philly and Delaware County pay $1,500 for a three-to-four hour prom send-off party, complete with a photo booth, DJ, and cold sparks, a fireworks-like display. Founded in 2020, Legacy is seeing an increase in requests for these kind of send-offs, with 15 to 20 booked this prom season, he said.
“These kids, they get top-of-the-line treatment for their events,” said DePass, 23, of Southwest Philadelphia.
“I think it’s also parents giving their kids the life they wanted,” he added.
Jay Zagorsky, an economist who in 2014 created the Prom Price Index, a tool that measures how dance costs have changed over time, said that the extravagant prom spending is a choice — not a symptom of inflation. He found that the average cost of prom-related items increased 2.5% between last March and this March, half of the 5% increase seen in the Consumer Price Index, which measures overall inflation. Similarly, since 2000, the Prom Price Index has increased 40%, he said, while general consumer prices have risen 76%.
“You can spend thousands on fancy dresses. You can hire the best photographer in Philadelphia. You can do all kind of things to blow a budget,” said Zagorsky, an associate professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. But “if you’re looking at the same kind of dress, same kind of photographer, same kind of boutonniere, over the years, the average price, for many of these items, has not gone up dramatically.”
Since 2000, the cost of some key prom items, such as men’s suits, women’s dresses, and men’s and women’s shoes has either gotten cheaper, or only slightly more expensive. Those offset increases in other areas, such as full-service meals and snacks, which have nearly doubled in cost over the same period.
Zagorsky said people can spend much less money on the prom, but “that doesn’t mean that people do it,” he said. “If I come up with an easier diet, it doesn’t mean that people will follow it. People are people. There is impulse control here.”
In Upper Darby, Christine Giudici Boggi said she didn’t set a budget for her daughters, Ava and Isabella, who are attending senior and junior prom, respectively.
“I am an Italian mom from South Philly and I say ‘yes,'” said Boggi, 45, who works as a fraud investigator. “I’m just kind of like, ‘You guys want that, we’ll make it happen.'”
She’s found ways to keep the costs down to about $400 per daughter per dance. Each of her girls bought dresses at Macy’s that were originally about $250 but were on sale for $90 (the $125 alterations for Isabella’s dress cost more than the gown itself, she noted).
And she put her foot down on transportation, refusing to pay hundreds of dollars for a limo. The girls will take an uncle’s 1967 Chevrolet Nova SS.
Vickie Rosone, 50, of Phoenixville, said she, too, was grateful that taking a limo didn’t seem to be a popular choice for classmates of her son, Christian. Particularly after forking over hundreds of dollars on clothing and tickets.
“I was in sticker shock when I went to the tux store. I thought you could rent a tux for $125 to $150,” Rosone said. “Boy, was I wrong.”
The corporate event planner said she spent $525 on two tuxes — one for Christian’s prom and the other to match a friend who invited him to her prom — plus $190 on tickets for him and a date.
Between the two dances, Rosone said she she spent about $750. But she said it was worth it to see her son and his friends enjoying the experience.
“They loved getting dressed up, but [he said] both proms were ‘just OK,'” Rosone said. “He had a better time afterwards just hanging out with his friends.”
At the West Oak Lane ballroom, friends Siani Elliott, 18, of West Philadelphia, and Gabrille Upchurch, 18, of North Philadelphia, found two gowns for their Carver High School senior prom on June 5.
They were relieved to be able to get beautiful dresses for free.
“Senior year is very expensive,” Elliott said, with a senior trip, class dues, and college fees adding up.
Nearby, Tinette Robbins perused the racks of dresses with her 16-year-old daughter Sky. The West Philadelphia pair had looked elsewhere, but could not find a junior prom dress for less than a couple hundred dollars.
Said Tinette Robbins: “It’s like paying for a wedding dress.”