Prom Across America: What Teens Spend, What They Wear, and What They Really Care About

Alexandra Mondalek

Nur Aiken, a senior at the Patrick School in Hillside, N. J., wore a white, floor-length dress with a crystal bodice and plunging neckline to her senior prom. The dress, unabashed by drama and grandeur, was custom-made, sketched by a local designer after Aiken was inspired by a wedding dress she saw on Instagram. 

That one-of-a-kind look for a one-of-a-kind night cost Aiken and her parents $1,000, not counting the couple hundred more they spent on accessories and beauty prep. Meanwhile, Aiken’s date, her best friend, wore an all-white ASOS suit with metallic Balenciaga sneakers that retail for roughly $550. 

Aiken and her date drove to the prom together in a white BMW (Aiken spent $360 on the prom tickets for the two of them), but not before hitting the “student prom showcase,” where teens walk a red carpet before heading to the dance itself.

Nur Aiken, a 17-year-old from New Jersey, wore a custom-made dress, costing more than $1,000, to her prom this year. The price tag, though high, reflects how much some students in the Northeast are willing to spend on the perfect prom experience. (Photo: Courtesy of Nur Aiken)

The thousand-dollar-plus price tag attached to Aiken’s prom experience is typical for high schoolers at her private school, the 17-year-old says, and a cut above what parents and teens spend on prom across the Northeast, according to Yahoo Style’s exclusive new Prom Across America survey.

The survey, which sampled more than 1,700 people, asked respondents a whole gamut of questions that reflect the high school prom experience, including those related to expenses, attire and dress code, social pressure, and gender issues. The results were primarily organized by age and region.

Among the key findings: Promgoers in the Northeast consistently spend more on the prom than those in the rest of the United States.

While there were differences between what, say, kids in the Northeast spend versus what their peers in the South do, there were also commonalities between high schoolers that permeated regional boundaries.

For example, most teens in the U.S., regardless of region, subscribe to traditional prom attire. Dresses for teen girls and tuxedos for teen boys dominate. Proms in the South and West seem to be a more formal affair for boys versus the Northeast, in that 49 percent of teenage boys say they will wear a tuxedo or suit compared to 42 percent, respectively.

That’s a shift from teens’ parents’ generation, where Northeastern students dressed more formally for their prom compared to the rest of the country. As for the girls, they’re less interested in floor-length prom dresses than their parents were.

Another commonality: Across regions, the majority of students say they think dress codes at prom are a good idea. That feeling is highest for teens in the Midwest, where 71 percent of students agreed with enforcing a prom dress code.

Below, Yahoo Style breaks out the defining survey results by region, identifying what makes prom special for students across the country.

THE NORTHEAST

The Northeast was the most distinct region in the country according to the survey responses because teens and adults say it cost them more to prepare and attend prom, and teen girls are particular about the kinds of dresses they say they’ll wear to prom.

Overall spending for prom in the Northeast averaged almost $700 for teens, nearly 14 percent more than for teens in the Midwest, who spent the least on prom. Northeastern prom tickets alone are roughly three times as expensive as they are in the Midwest, and double the cost of prom tickets in the South.

Paul Canlas, senior research manager at Yahoo who helped conduct the survey, says the findings are interesting because while Northeastern teens defer to their parents more frequently for opinions, they’re also having them pay more.

Teens in the Northeast are most likely to say they “will give themselves reasonable spending limits, but not be extremely frugal” (78 percent versus 62 percent in the West), a rich finding once you consider those teens’ parents overwhelmingly pay for a greater share of transportation and after-party costs compared with parents in other parts of the country.

For all the money thrown at prom in the Northeast, teens there are thrifty in at least one way: Even though they’re spending the second most by region for prom dresses, teens in the Northeast are most likely to keep their dress and wear it again for another occasion (50 percent in the Northeast versus 35 percent in the Midwest.)

When it comes to attire, the Northeast is the region least likely to have a prom dress code (33 percent of teens say their school doesn’t have a prom dress code versus 15 percent in the Midwest.) And even with more freedom, teenage girls in the Northeast had the most uniformity when it comes to the dress they wore to prom, ranking “column dresses” as the most popular choice, a deviation from the rest of the country.

Devin VanderMaas, director of marketing for the popular prom dress retailer Faviana, says they, too, saw teens in the Northeast gravitate toward off-shoulder dresses with column bodies and skirts this year.

“The East Coast is usually more trend-focused,” VanderMaas told Yahoo Style. “They are looking for something edgy and sophisticated.” And, as it turns out, they’re willing to pay for it, too.

THE SOUTH

Prom attendance is highest in the South, albeit marginally, as more than 76 percent of teens say they attended prom this year compared to 70 percent in the midwest.

Teens in the South spend less than their peers in the Northeast, averaging a prom bill of $617. But don’t discount Southern pageantry: These teens spend the most on their hair and makeup than any other region in the country.

The most popular dress style in the South is the “princess dress,” and parents in the South are more willing than anywhere else in the country to pay for their teen’s prom dress or tuxedo.

THE WEST

Teens in the West are most willing to spend a lot of money on the parts of prom they care most about, but that doesn’t mean they’re shelling out big bucks on a dress or tuxedo.

On average, it cost teens in the West $625 to go to prom this year, a price tag bolstered by the highest spending on accessories and transportation compared with any other region in the country. Western teens did manage to save more on perhaps the most central part of prom, the dress, spending less than any other region ($202 on dresses versus $242 in the Midwest.)

Not tethered to any recent runway trend, the “mullet dress” (as the name implies, the dress is shorter in the front and longer in the back) is nearly three times more popular in the West than anywhere else.

Even though they may not spend as much on their dresses as teens in the Midwest, where dress spending is highest, teens in the West say they feel pressured by their friends more than anything else when it comes to prom. They, like their peers across the country, also feel pressure from social media to meet expectations on prom night.

Dr. Renee Engeln, a Northwestern University psychology professor and author of Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Womensays that teens are especially vulnerable to pressure created by “social comparison,” in which people compare their own lives to the “carefully curated, filtered images” of others’ lives on platforms like Instagram.

“It’s hard not to compare yourself to the seemingly perfect lives of your peers. When that happens, teens feel like they’re falling short and feel pressure to spend more time and money on their appearance in order to keep up,” Engeln told Yahoo Style in an email. “If what you see on Instagram suggests that all of your peers are heading toward perfect-looking, highly expensive prom experiences, it’s natural that you’ll feel pressure to meet that same standard.”

THE MIDWEST

Midwestern teens might be the most conservative in the country, both in what they spend on prom and how they dress.

Teens in the Midwest spend the least on prom expenses, only $610 compared to nearly $700 in the Northeast, though they shell out the most on dresses, an average of $242.94. And you’re most likely to see “princess” and floor-length dresses in the Midwest. But the emphasis on dresses in the Midwest isn’t sentimental, at least not for long after prom: Teens in the Midwest are least likely to keep their prom dress and wear it again (then again, how many occasions do you have to wear “princess” dresses.) 

Faviana’s VanderMaas says the Yahoo Style survey results for popular dress styles in the Midwest mirror their own sales. Princess-style dresses are Faviana’s No. 1 seller in the Midwest, with a customer base that “really appreciates traditional prom detailing and silhouettes.” VanderMaas also says stricter dress codes may be a factor influencing what Midwest teens choose to wear to prom. 

The dress codes don’t bother these teens, though. In fact, 71 percent of teens in the Midwest say they think a prom dress code is a good idea, more than any other region in the country.

Another conservative finding: Midwest teens are least likely to support the election of a transgender or non-binary student as prom king or queen than anywhere else.

Read more from our Prom Across America Survey:

Read more recent prom coverage from Yahoo Style + Beauty:

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for nonstop inspiration delivered fresh to your feed, every day. For Twitter updates, follow @YahooStyle and @YahooBeauty.

Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek


By using Yahoo you agree that Yahoo and partners may use Cookies for personalisation and other purposes