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Posh Proms in Detroit

Why these big budget affairs are big in the Black community

Takara Johnson has been looking forward to her big day for years, planning a stunning, sparkling fuchsia-colored dress, a special hairstyle, professional makeup and nails—imagining how pretty and poised she'll be.

Takara, an 18-year-old Renaissance High senior, had her couture dress designed by B. Gayle of Detroit. The fabric is hand painted. After all, nothing in stores could match Takara's vision of fabulousness.

When she steps out for prom on June 6, her mom, Tanisha Johnson, estimates she will have spent more than $1,000 to help Takara achieve the glamorous look she desires—more than $700 on the dress alone.

"It's her big special day, and she's a good kid," says her mother, a divorcee who works as a bank teller. "She's been accepted to a lot of different colleges. She told me, 'Mom, I just want to be happy this day,' and I'm trying to make that happen for her."

Mom halted, however, at the $800 pair of shoes her daughter wanted to match her fuchsia-colored and sparkling jeweled gown. "I had to stop there," she says.

But it seems for some people, there are no spending limits for prom. While many parents stay within budgets, some bust their wallets wide open for this one-night social celebration of their children's graduation.

Proms have come to include major send-off parties, overnight and weekend stays in hotel suites for the seniors and lavish modes of transportation.

Today's proms rival spending on weddings, some say. Parents expect to spend $1,078 this year, up from $807 last year for prom expenses, according to the results of a nationwide survey Visa released earlier this year.

"Proms have definitely become more elaborate," says Tom Schoenith, owner of the Roostertail, which hosts more than a third of metro Detroit's proms.

"The cars have gotten bigger, the dresses—some of them cost as much as wedding dresses. Even the decorations are more elaborate. Gone are the days of crepe paper and balloons."

Not only have cars gotten bigger, they've gotten considerably more exclusive.

Luxury vehicles—Range Rovers, BMWs, Chargers and Porsches—are in high demand to rent for prom, says Camary Crawford, manager of Exotic Motor City Cars, Inc. in Sterling Heights. But it doesn't stop there. Last year, prom-goers rented Bentleys— $1,138 for three hours. This year, they can also rent a Rolls-Royce Phantom for $1,774 for three hours. Both the Rolls-Royce and Bentley come with chauffeurs.

And it doesn't stop even there. Schoenith has seen couples arrive for prom by helicopter and horse and buggy.

William Venson, an 18-year-old senior at Martin Luther King Jr. High School, explored taking a helicopter or boat to King's prom, scheduled for May 24 at the Roostertail.

"I wanted to do something different and at the same time go out with a bang," says William, who plans to wear a black tux with tails to the prom.

He has opted instead to go in with about 17 other friends to rent a luxury party bus or limo and, if possible, have a police escort.

He rejected the boat and helicopter ideas because they would have required getting city permits he didn't have time to obtain, and he wouldn't have been able to arrive right at the Roostertail. He would have had to land or dock nearby, then walk to the Roostertail—denying him the opportunity to make a grand entrance.

 

Ryan Barnes, 17, a senior at Walled Lake Western, plans to drive to the prom in a classy BMW that his dad will rent for him and his date. His mother, Jennifer Barnes, estimates that they'll spend about $2,000 on prom expenses, including the costs of food and beverages at a big multi-generational send-off bash she's planning at her Novi home.

The expense is especially worth it to her because her father has survived several recent health scares. "It's not just the whole excitement of senior year; it's the fact that my dad is here to see it," she says.

Ryan, who plans to attend Hampton University in the fall, says it's the family-and-friends send-off he finds most exciting about his April 27 prom night.

"I'm looking forward to seeing what the whole experience will be like, but the send-off is what the family looks forward to, and that's what I'm probably looking forward to, too," says Ryan, who'll wear a white tux with a pink vest to match his date's pink gown.

Steven and Karla Banks estimate they spent more than $1,500 to send their son, Brandon French, off to prom last year. It included renting his tux, a luxury Dodge Charger, $450 Gucci shoes, a hotel room for the night, and a big send-off party in their northwest Detroit home that was attended by about 100 friends and family—plus a professional photographer to capture it all.

"$1,500 is a lot, but we know people who have spent twice, three, four times that amount," says his father, Steven Banks, a popular stylist at Hair N' Things Salon in Oak Park.

"He earned it," he says of their son, who's completing his freshman year at Howard University in Washington, D.C. "He got good grades throughout his K-12 experience. He accomplished a lot on and off the field, and he had gotten accepted to Howard.

"It was a lot, but it was worth it. We partied at our house after they left."

Television, movies and the Internet are driving the demand for the top-of-the-line everything, Schoenith and other observers say.

"They're trying to emulate what they're seeing on shows like '(My Super) Sweet 16' and other parties they're seeing on TV and in the movies," says Cheryl Perkins, a Detroit mother whose daughter, Stephanie, a Cass Tech senior, will attend prom this year.

"There's this peer pressure to do it big," she says. "You think everybody is supposed to have a limo."

Her daughter, Stephanie, is shopping online for a black or silver dress that, as she describes it, will be "red-carpet worthy."

While bigger and bolder seems to be the norm for all proms, it appears to be even more so among African-American students.

While no definitive studies could be found, there are plenty of anecdotal stories.

African-Americans and other ethnic minorities, such as Arab-Americans, appear to dress more elegantly for fancy affairs, such as proms, than their Caucasian counterparts, says Schoenith of the Roostertail, a popular spot since it opened in 1958.

"I think it's more important of an evening for some African-Americans. It's just a real special occasion that they work to make happen," Schoenith says.

University of Michigan associate professor of American culture, Lori Brooks, says African-Americans have a long history of being criticized for overspending on clothing and self-presentation.

The desire to dress well, she says, can be traced to the Great Migration, when rural Blacks sought to give themselves a sense of worthiness by dressing in ways that suggested accomplishment. Doing so helped to shed an identity associated with backwardness and poverty, she says.

While some of that may have carried over even today, she suspects that another factor plays an even bigger role in some African-Americans' prom spending: The prom may be the biggest, fanciest affair in their lives.

"The fact that they've made it to a senior prom, for some African-Americans, is a cause worth celebrating, in and of itself—and, I think, beyond what it is for White Americans," Brooks says, noting, for example, the high homicide rate for young Black men.

"Also, marriage statistics suggest there is very little prospect that your child will get married, so a lot of the emphasis goes on prom instead of a wedding," she says.

Some seniors and parents say, however, prom matters simply because it's their first major adult-like bash. And not everyone spends excessively.

Asia Dunbar, 18, a senior at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, found her $350 crème-colored dress in a shop at The Somerset Collection—and got $100 off during a sale.

She and her friends will also save money by splitting the costs of a party bus to take eight couples to the Roostertail on May 16.

"I'm just looking forward to having fun with everybody before going off to college," Asia says.

Takara Johnson, who plans to attend Eastern Michigan in the fall, agrees. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You want it to be special."

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