School formals no place for austerity
Cinderella had it easy. A pumpkin, a couple of mice, a wave of the Fairy Godmother's magic wand. You shall go to the ball!
With school formal season looming ahead, many parents are waving the modern day equivalent of that magic wand - which is stamped with the name Visa or Mastercard.
The ball is a time-honoured tradition, and the closest we have to a coming-of-age ceremony. But at what cost? The days of getting dropped off at the school hall wearing a borrowed dress or dad's baggy suit are long gone.
Instead, it's all about swanky venues, designer frocks and professional styling, leading to a bill that can run over the $1000 mark.
To see just how hot formal fever is running, we caught up with the head students of Riccarton High - Sammy Winward, Maria Throsby, Ben Exton, Beth Alexander and Matt Yates - who are hard at work organising their own ballroom bonanza.
There's less than three weeks until the big night. The theme is Grecian era, but there'll be no austerity measures here.
A modest $70 gets you in the door, but that's just the start. The students quickly rattle off a list of expenses: pre and post ball functions, hair and makeup, nails, accessories, shoes, dress, transport.
Add another $50 or so for a full body spray-tan; apparently the done thing these days, and probably inspired by the glowing orange denizens of hit MTV show Jersey Shore.
Surely the girls are at least getting mum or their mates to doll them up? Some might, they say... but "professional is better".
Make-up artist and hair stylist Lucy Harvey helps transform many budding belles at this time of year, though the season has become more spread out with the lack of available venues in Christchurch.
She charges $65 each for hair or makeup, a fairly standard price, and does cheaper package deals for gaggles of girls who are doing all their preparation together.
Harvey's impression is that the cost of school balls is certainly on the rise.
"They do things we probably wouldn't have bothered with back in my day, so they get spray-tans and nails and everything else as well," she says.
"When I was a teenager, you'd just do that kind of stuff yourself."
As for the frock- it is unforgivable apparently for two girls to wear the same dress. One stylist mentioned one of her young clients had splashed out on a Rachel Gilbert gown for the occasion.
If, like me, that name means nothing to you, suffice to say a quick Google search reveals Gilbert's designs have pricetags upward of $1000.
All of this is for the ball itself - but then there's the afterball function. Christchurch schools tend to discourage them, and have sent letters to parents outlining alcohol policies, but they're probably inevitable. They also add even more to the running bill - a ticket, possibly another set of gladrags, and alcohol money.
Pity the the poor parents who get suckered into indulging every wish of their aspiring Princess (or Prince).
Of course, most will spend up large on one aspect - say, the dress - and save on the rest, right?
"It depends which group of girls you're talking about," says Harvey.
"If the girls are paying for it themselves, they generally don't have lots of disposable income. If it's their parents paying, it's a different story."
At Riccarton High, the amount of cash that can be squeezed out of the olds varies.
One girl's mum paid last year, but this time round she's mostly had to save up herself. Others have had to pay their way for anything above and beyond the core costs.
"My parents the whole time were like, well if you want to go extravagant, then it's your money you're going extravagant with - not ours," says Winward.
And so the parents of surly teenage lads will, for once, be counting their blessings. With only a tux hire and shoes to take care of, blokes pay roughly half as much as their dates.
Yates and Exton sound pretty stoked - but the ladies quickly pipe up: "You might want to get something for the girl, like a corsage." A what now?
Another $35 at Central City Flowers is what. It's an American thing, apparently, adopted from the manic prom scene in the United States.
In the same vein, any aspiring Romeo has to consider the cost of elaborate "prom-posals" for asking one's date.
Seventeen-year-old Nayland College student Mac Clark set the bar impossibly high this year by taking his girlfriend on a helicopter ride over the school - where the question "Ball?" was spelt out in huge letters on the rugby field.
The Riccarton gang have seen some proposals involving flowers and dressing up, but most beaus still sent their invitation via a somewhat less romantic text message.
We should count ourselves lucky that the full extent of American prom-mania has yet to permeate through the television screens and into our youngsters' brains.
Intense competition with designer frocks and makeovers in the US has led to so much one-upmanship that even pre-ball cosmetic surgery is becoming common.
According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, jawline surgery, which costs between US$3500 to US$7000, is particularly popular.
Reassuringly, Auckland plastic surgeon Glenn Bartlett has never treated a teen wanting a nip/tuck ahead of their school ball, and has never even heard of it happening within the industry.
And if our focus group are anything to go by, the American competition and cattiness hasn't yet taken over from self-deprecating Kiwi values. We are assured that instead of being shot down, ballgoers are praised for how stunning they look- it's "the Riccarton way", apparently.
On the whole, New Zealand-style celebrations - no matter how flamboyant - look positively demure by way of comparison.
Of course, that may in part come down to the February 2011 earthquake. Aranui High's ball has been cancelled already. Acting principal Jacky Young told The Press recently that some students were more financially constrained, and it wasn't possible to subsidise tickets this year.
Other balls have been disrupted with a lack of venues in the central city, and the season will probably be spread out again this year.
Christchurch Limousines owner Colin Cowie says that on the night of a popular formal, every stretch limo in the city gets booked out. But balls were spread "all over the place" from May to September, and the earthquakes had taken their toll.
"It's probably dropped down a wee bit, just with everything that's happened," he says.
And yet in the midst of economic recession - with Christchurch hit much harder than most - many teens are sparing no expense on their night out.
People like to indulge in luxuries even during the worst of times - both as a sign of defiance, and a celebration of humanity.
The other explanation is that the rising school ball cost simply represents the influence of the worst aspects of American culture.
Whoever holds the magic wand will have to make that decision.
BALL-PARK BALL BILL
Suit hire: $120
Pre-ball and after-ball: $70
Fake tan: $45
Pre-ball and after-ball: $70
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