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The prom is making a big comeback.
The recession forced parents and teens to cut back on spending for the annual high school dance, but wallets are finally opening again.
"Dresses are more elaborate," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at market research firm NPD Group. "They are now buying two pairs of shoes, one to go to prom and one to dance in."
"This crop of kids cares about prom," says Cohen.
And so do the parents, who see the dance as a rite of passage. The pressure to help give teenagers a memorable night is high. "You don't want your kid to be the only kid who doesn't have what the other kids have," says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and professor at Golden Gate University.
Prom spending is expected to rise this spring to an average $1,139. That's among families who are planning to spend some money to attend the annual affair, according to a survey of 1,025 parents of prom age teens by payment processor Visa (NYSE: V ) and research company Gfk. Not included in the average were 12 percent who said they wouldn't spend anything on the prom. A majority of parents with teenagers surveyed were still unsure how much they'd spend.
Leigh Dow didn't have a budget for her 16-year-old daughter's prom dress. She wanted it to be well-made, have a good fit, and be unique.
Dow paid $500 for a raspberry-colored gown with silver beading and a sweetheart neckline. She expects her daughter, Darby McDaniel, who is a junior in high school, to wear the dress more than once.
Dow will also pay for a hairstylist, a spray tan, and part of the cost of a party bus to drive a group of kids to the dance.
"Prom has become a very big production," says Dow, who owns Dow Media Group, a marketing company.
Mother and daughter bought the dress from a small boutique in Chandler, Ariz., where they live. They chose the boutique because it keeps a registry of the dresses that girls from area schools buy, so that no two girls from the same school show up in identical dresses.
"You don't want to be competing with anyone," says McDaniel, whose prom is open to both juniors and seniors. "You don't want to be outshined."
Other parents set more precise budgets. Anne Klein, who lives in Durango, Colo., gave her 17-year-old daughter a budget of $150 for a prom dress. They picked a $120 peach colored dress from a Macy's (NYSE: M ) store in San Diego while visiting colleges in the area. The remaining $30 will go toward shoes.
David's Bridal, which sells prom dresses, says the average spent on prom dresses this year at its 300 stores is $170. The most popular color is pink blush, thanks to "Hunger Games" actress Jennifer Lawrence, says Brian Beitler, an executive vice president. Lawrence wore a similar color to the Academy Awards.
"Kids are fantasizing about their own stardom in a way," says Yarrow. "This is sort of their red carpet moment."
Boys want to be noticed too. Men's Wearhouse (NYSE: MW ) says boys are spending anywhere from $60 to $200 on tuxedo rentals. A gray tuxedo by Vera Wang is popular this year. It rents for $180.
Baby blue tuxedos are a popular choice on HalloweenCostumes.com. The website says that it had to make more of its $220 tuxedos after they sold out three months ago. The retailer, which also sells its tuxedos in small boutiques, attributes the bump in sales to celebrities who have been wearing colored tuxedos to awards shows. Sales of the website's hunting camouflage tuxedos are up 20 percent from a year ago. They're in demand because the cast of popular duck hunting reality show "Duck Dynasty" wear similar ones, says Mark Bietz, vice president of marketing at HalloweenCostumes.com.
Wendy Kerschner, of Adamstown, Penn., told her 16-year-old son that she wasn't paying for any of his prom expenses. She wanted to teach him a lesson about spending money. "I am in the minority," says Kerschner, who does marketing for in-home senior care company Comfort Keepers.
Her son, Casey Kerschner, paid $129 to rent a gray tuxedo with money he made cleaning stalls at a horse barn. The prom ticket cost the high school junior $50. He spent $20 on two tickets for the after-prom party. He didn't take a limousine earlier this month. Most people in his school didn't. Instead, he paid $10 to get his Volkswagen Jetta cleaned.
"It's fun," says Casey Kerschner about the prom, "but in my opinion, it's not worth $220."
He's not sure whether he will go to the prom again next year. A local tuxedo shop offers high school boys a free rental if they wear a tuxedo all day and hand out fliers and coupons. He might try to do that next year.
"The way I see it," he says, "I worked a little over two weeks shoveling stalls at a horse barn to spend five hours at a dance."