CANBERRA Parents used to save for their children's weddings but now there's another major rite of passage to fund before they even leave home -- the school formal or prom, a booming industry which seems recession-proof.
Parties or balls to celebrate the end of school have become increasingly glitzy affairs in a list of countries from Britain, to Singapore, to India and Australia, emulating U.S.-style proms glamorized in the hit Disney movie "High School Musical" and the TV series "Gossip Girl."
Teenagers are no longer content to celebrate in a school gym decorated with streamers and a parent DJ -- and parents are left with the dilemma of whether or not to join the party and splash out on their teenager's big night.
Figures from Elk and Sons Consolidated Ptd Ltd, which runs event organizer Prom Night Events, show that in Australia the high school formal market grew nine percent in the past year to be worth $170 million ($155 million) in the city of Sydney alone.
With the Australian school year ending in December, thousands of teenagers are forking out for glamorous evening gowns, hair stylists, a spray tan, photos and limousines as they celebrate at five-star venues more used to weddings than school events.
"This has become a huge industry in a niche market and some people even think it will overtake the bridal market," said Elliot Kleiner from Prom Night Events.
"The school formal is the biggest event on their calendar for the year. This is the Academy Awards of their school life and for many of them it's the last time they will see other."
A survey of nearly 2,000 Australian students aged between 15 and 18 found that on average girls were spending $1,330 each on the big night while boys were spending an average of $840.
GLAMOUR DAZZLES OVER EXAMS
The poll found that 77 percent of the students when questioned at the start of their final year at school were more focused on the school formal than on their final exams.
In Britain a survey by supermarket chain ASDA found the average cost of attending the high school prom came in at 258 pounds (US$425). Formal menswear shops are seeing a surge in business from teenagers hiring suits and department store John Lewis has added a prom dress line, British media reported.
Melbourne mother Debbie Ward paid $600 for her daughter Emma's formal dress as well as about $360 on hair, nails and a fake tan, $50 on limousine hire, $100 on shores, $95 for a ticket, $75 for ball dancing lessons and $300 on official ball photos, for a total price tag of $1,580.
"It was important as it brings the year level together and the kids enjoyed doing the ball lessons and also dressing up and presenting themselves to their family," she said.
Amy Best, author of the book "Prom Night: Youth, Schools and Popular Culture," studied the trend of upscaling proms, finding the rising purchasing power of youth culture had made the prom into an industry in its own right.
Kleiner believes the massive change in communication had made teenagers into savvy consumer aware of their buying power.
"The teenagers of today have more expendable cash than previous generations for this kind of thing and far more sophisticated tastes," said Kleiner who is setting up franchises in Britain, the United States, South Africa and Canada.
In Singapore, some beauty salons and make-up artists are offering special prom packages for students, who are also shelling out more to prepare for glitzier school parties -- to the chagrin of some parents.
"I really wonder, why is it so popular for schools in Singapore to hold their prom night at some expensive high-class hotel with an... expensive dinner which can easily reach much more than $100," wrote one irate parent on blog sgforums.com.
"Somemore, the students must wear appropriate clothing, which could easily cost up to $100," the parent added.
"Isn't it better to hold a simple dinner at school which more students can afford?"
(Editing by Miral Fahmy)