By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Watching the show, I realized that the most striking thing about prom fashion isn't the girls' dresses; it's how flashy the guys have become. Guys can't get away with a plain black tux and bowtie anymore. Once hip-hop stars embraced formal wear to go with their Courvoisier, guys' fashion took off. The girls are in real danger of being upstaged by the lavender tuxedos.
Back at Al's, I've decided to go with a basic Ralph Lauren. Dana doesn't know what color her dress is going to be, so I choose a white vest with a long tie. Long ties are definitely the way to go. The sales guy, Armand, points me to the wide collars and, after measurements, starts to total it up.
"What's the event?" he asks.
"It's for a prom."
"Clear Lake." The company has a database with all the area schools in it. I don't even have to tell him the date. He asks for my driver's license and I hand over the piece of plastic, the one that says I've been able to legally drink for more than two years. He gives me a funny look but doesn't ask any questions.
"$153.05," he says.
After that, I swing by the River Oaks Plant House and order my corsage. I pay the $38 and come back to pick it up the Friday before the dance.
According to one survey, about half of all students receive some money from their parents to cover the costs of prom. The rest use income from a part-time job or they scrimp and save. One couple I went to high school with had dinner at McDonald's, complete with candles and a fancy tablecloth. But for lower-income students, the very idea of spending money on something as extravagant as prom can seem ridiculous.
Enter A Caring Closet. It was spring last year when Jonte Wesley was talking to a teacher friend and heard about some girls who were going to skip their eighth-grade prom (now a common middle school event) because they couldn't afford dresses. She sent out an e-mail to a few friends asking for old formal wear and managed to connect a handful of girls with dresses.
Wesley set her aim higher for 2006's prom season and began collecting dresses from her friends. The 27-year-old Bellaire High graduate has fond memories of her own prom but remembers a few friends who skipped because of financial reasons. "The charities were different then," she says. "Nobody talked about it." Because she was already friends with several teachers, her e-mails spread through the education community. She organized a dress drop-off at The Breakfast Klub and by the time spring rolled around, had collected more than 300 dresses.
The Ensemble Theater also invited her to set up shop in their lobby; on April 15, Prom Store 2006 opened. "I turned it into a boutique, so when you came in you felt like the most special person on earth," says Wesley. Girls were invited to come by and have their pick of the dresses. "Some of them really had a tough exterior when they came into the event because they thought it was charity," says Wesley. But that didn't last long once they saw the quality of the dresses and got to try some on. Each girl was assigned a personal shopper from the group of volunteers and given makeup tips. Some received donated jewelry and salon appointments.
"If somebody expresses a need, then there is a need," says Wesley. The personal shoppers heard plenty of sob stories. One girl's mom was suffering from cancer, and she was living with her grandmother and four other children, making prom impossible. "She was devastated," says Wesley, who set her up with a dress. Another girl's mother was in the process of leaving an abusive relationship when the man set all the family's clothes on fire. There was simply no way to justify spending money on a prom dress. All told, about 125 girls got dresses for their high school proms, with another 25 going to middle school proms.
"I've been very fortunate and very blessed in my career, and I didn't feel like I was doing anything meaningful," says Wesley. Despite a handful of sponsors, she and her husband have spent way more money on the project than planned. Wesley is currently setting up A Caring Closet as an official charity organization and plans to expand fund-raising operations for Prom Store 2007. Since the event, she's heard back from dozens of the girls. "The response from the young ladies alone was worth it," she says.
In the weeks leading up to prom, I had a nearly identical conversation with each one of my friends -- well, my guy friends.
"Let me get this straight. You're going to prom with an 18-year-old girl?"
"Well, she'll be 18."
"What do you mean?"
"Her birthday's the week before prom."
"Dude, you're going to jail. How did you meet her?"
"You're definitely going to jail."
My girl friends all had an entirely different reaction: "That is so sweet!" End of discussion.
This got me wondering. At my own prom, only one couple actually had sex. Because we had two suites and ten people, they had to immediately run in, lock the door, have sex while we banged on the outside, and then clean up for the after-party. It was hardly romantic. When I asked the same guys who thought I was going to jail about their prom nights, about half said they didn't have sex. It was the same with the girls. Prom night and sex may be inextricably linked, but it's clear that prom is no golden ticket.