For many of the 52,000 teenagers sitting their Leaving Cert, the exam is but a necessary hurdle before engaging in a social season of pre-debs and holidays abroad, leading up to the debs that will have parents saying in October, “thank God for free university education”. The Irish debs – our unique way of celebrating graduation – has become such an important milestone in students’ lives that already limousine companies report being nearly booked out as far ahead as next October, and some girls have been on the hunt for the perfect dress since January. A new magazine, Irish Debs, launched recently, offers girls everything they need to know about preparing for the big night – including a cover story on hair extensions and ads for WeightWatchers.
The debs business is worth an estimated €30 million annually, considering that each graduating teen will easily spend €600 – less for the boys and a lot more for the girls. For some there will also be an overnight stay in a hotel, a stretch Hummer, a reception at home before the debs, and a make-up artist and hairdresser visiting the home. MTV’s over-the-top reality show, My Super Sweet 16, in which spoiled rich girls twist Daddy around their little fingers to buy them thousands of dollars worth of clothes and jewellery, is another inspiration
The average cost of a debs, conservatively speaking, is about €1,000 per girl when the dress, hair, make-up, tan, nails, photographer, limo, tickets, jewellery, shoes and accessories are all paid for, estimates Annmarie Wade of the website Schooldays.ie. She came up with this as a guideline for parents after assessing the expense involved. Having launched the debs section of Schooldays.ie eight weeks ago, she’s been “quite surprised” at the huge amount of debs-related searching, especially in relation to The Dress.
What do girls want? “Everything, God love them.They’re all watching My Super Sweet 16 and they want it all,” says Emma Lawless, owner of Perfection, a dress shop in Crumlin, that specializes in American prom-style ballgowns encrusted in diamante and other confections retailing at €250-750 each. She says that many parents are spending €2,000-3,000 on the debs when they include luxuries such as €500 hair extensions, €250 for hair and make-up, €50 for nails, €50 for tanning, €250 for the limo, and €250 for the corset to wear beneath the dress, even though a debs can be done “on the cheap” for €600.
The mothers can be as demanding as the girls who come into her Dublin shop. “I had a girl in who was a size 12, an ideal, perfectly proportioned healthy figure and her mother was saying “that dress wouldn’t be flattering on you”. I’ve had other girls in whose mothers insist they’re a size zero. The smallest I carry is a European size eight, which is a US size two, but the mother wanted a smaller dress. The mothers are 10 times worse than the girls. It’s unbelievable and they have a lot to answer for,” says Lawless.
The competition to find a show-stopping dress that no one else at the debs will be wearing is frantic. So much so that Lawless has had girls coming in for dresses since last autumn for debs in 2007. One girl arrived in the shop last March with her mother and when there was nothing in the shop she stamped her little foot and moaned, “I told you we were leaving it too late.” Lawless, who had her own debs dress made by a neighbour for ¤90, thinks that some parents have lost perspective: “People think the more they have, the more they are obligated to spend. They have the aunts and the neighbours in to see the girl before she goes out and that’s an event in itself. I think it’s bad to use a 17-year-old child as property; to say ‘look how much money I have’. And it puts an awful lots of pressure on people who don’t have the money.”
Wade, who made her own debs dress with her mother’s help, thinks that parents should be firm about sticking to an agreed budget, then let their daughter decide how to spend it. “She could buy a more expensive dress and do
her own hair and make-up, or pay for hair and make-up and buy a less expensive dress,” she says. The boys have much less expense – €75-120 for tuxedo rental, €100 each for tickets to the Debs (unless it’s a girls’ school debs and the girls are paying), the photographs (about €150), a corsage for the girl (€20) and his own or the couple’s share of the limo, which can cost anything up to €1,200 for a stretch white Hummer that seats eight. That price includes picking up each of the four couples and dropping them off at the ball “fashionably late”, says Jason Hutch of Carry Anybody Limos. But revellers will have to find their own way home.
As for staying out all night – you have to let them, is the consensus of parents on Schooldays.ie, if you don’t want to come across as a fossil. And you thought paying for it was the worst of your worries