Eleanora Carthens will be the first to tell you that spending a fortune on prom night is downright ridiculous.
She ought to know.
As Carthens elaborated on exactly how ridiculous it is, her baby-blue ball gown ($219) reflected nicely on the buffed white finish of her stretch limousine ($396). Her hair was done ($65), her nails polished ($35) and her crystal accessories ($80) glittering in the soft light outside a ballroom in Greenbelt. She was among about a hundred seniors from Spingarn High School in Northeast Washington who were formally feting the end of their high school days last weekend at the senior prom ($70 a couple).
Purse, shoes and pictures for Carthens would come to another $90 -- not to mention the $264 her date, Thomas Ford, spent on dinner, a hotel room for an after-prom party, his tux and her flowers.
And all this came the day after they attended Ford's Largo High School prom -- and no, Carthens didn't wear the same dress.
"We're dishing out the cash all over," Ford said, his face lit up with the self-confident grin that comes with being a big spender.
Grand total for one weekend, two proms: $1,330.
And the two 18-year-olds were not alone in their extravagant adventure. Spending hundreds of dollars in one night on one prom is not a rarity for high school students across the Washington region. It is the norm, another manifestation of the area's growing prosperity and the trickle-down effect it is having on teenagers who have money -- their parents' and their own -- to burn.
Mega-spending on prom night is part of what experts tracking the youth consumer culture call part of the age of "resplurgence," the zeitgeist of the late '90s.
"Spending this much on one night is ridiculous. It's not worth it," said Carthens, whose Cinderella-inspired attire was topped by a sparkling tiara on her head. "But I say your prom is only once, so go all out!"
That's the reasoning from many promgoers: It's nuts to spend this much money, but we're doing it anyway. And they're doing it whether in Virginia or the District or Maryland. It cuts across racial and geographic lines and affects boys as well as girls.
Grunge is gone. It went out with the stale economy of the early part of this decade, giving way to "a pent-up demand for nice things," said Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group, a New York-based trend consulting firm that specializes in the under-30 market. "We had this bad time, and all of a sudden it was so much fun to splurge again. There's a sense that money is in the air . . . kids are really high rollers."
When it comes to prom night, she said, "they want to have fabulous outfits and super limousines."
"There's no limit, within reason, to what our parents will pay," said Krista D'Albenzio, 16, who graced the Fauquier High School junior-senior prom in a champagne-colored, floor-length gown of tulle and lace (in the "$200 price range"). "My mother said to me when she saw my dress, `Now we have to top it next year.' "
Another example: Oxon Hill High School prom-goers Anthony Dunston II, 17, and Danielle James, 16. They spent at least $1,386 for prom night because "I just wanted the best," Dunston said.
Dunston, who lives in Fort Washington, stepped out in a rented replica of a 1940s-style zoot suit, complete with black fedora and cane. He and James arrived at the prom at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt last weekend in a chauffeured black Lincoln Town Car after dinner at Phillips Flagship restaurant on the riverfront.
James did not have to pay for her regalia. "My parents paid for this," referring to her silver satin dress ($475) and strappy shoes ($95). "I just told my father what I wanted and he got it."
Dunston, who has been saving for four years, split the cost with his father. He wore a suit like one he had seen in a Jim Carrey movie.
His brother Jontae, also at the Oxon Hill prom, wore a black, western-style suit with a cowboy hat and snakeskin boots like the outfit rapper-actor Will Smith sports in his latest flick.
"I started budgeting my money in ninth grade," said Anthony Dunston, who saved hundreds of dollars from his job as a cashier at Kmart. He also had help from his dad.
Anthony Dunston Sr., who helped finance both his sons' prom night adventures, said he was happy to do it.
"I didn't go to my prom. I lived that through my sons," the 41-year-old computer specialist said. "And the good [economic] times helped. It enabled them to have good part-time jobs. I was able to supplement whatever they didn't have."
Carthens's mother had a similar view.
"I said, `It's okay because that's my baby and she'll only come this way once,' " said Robin Carthens, 38, a counselor for the mentally retarded.
Couldn't the money have been better spent on college classes? A new car? A savings plan, or anything with returns that go beyond a single evening?
"It's kinda getting a little extreme," said Rita Lowman, a homemaker from Anne Arundel County who saw four daughters through high school proms.
Lowman, vice president of membership at the Maryland State PTA, knows how expenses can add up -- even without all the extras like limos and fancy dinners.
Today, it would be hard to find a ticket and tux combination for less than $100.
Lowman said the Anne Arundel County Council PTA is in its third year of offering grants to certain high schools that apply for help to defray the cost of prom tickets.
"It's become a major affair, and I think it can be done nicely and less expensively," she said. "What ever happened to a nice little hall and some food after?"
Those days are gone. A high school with its prom in a gym?
"Na-ah! That's cheesy. I would be quite offended," said Joi Brooks, a senior at Suitland who spent yesterday getting her nails done before heading out tonight to her prom at the Grand Hyatt Washington.
No one can say exactly when proms came to rival weddings in planning or expense, but it surely wasn't the case in 1968, when Spingarn chaperon Harry Brockenberry, the dean of students, went to his prom, which was held in a gym. The whole night set him back about $14, he recalled.
But "these kids do it with gusto," he said. For Carthens, the money just flowed. On top of the two paychecks she gets from her after-school jobs at McDonald's and Blockbuster Video, her mom kicked in "a small fortune," she said.
Was it worth breaking the bank?
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing . . . and I'll make do," Robin Carthens said. "It won't hurt too much."
Brooks, whose Suitland High School prom was Saturday night, had a different opinion.
"This blows!" she said. "Prom put a major dent in my budget. I'll be working all summer to get my funds back up."
"Prom destroys you. It takes all your money," said Fauquier High School prom-goer Regina Dongoski, clad in a $300 dress. "I love it."
CAPTION: Tera Walker, left, and Koresha Greene dance at Fauquier High School prom in Warrenton.
CAPTION: Fauquier High School students Katie Whistler, left, and Sarah LaFantasie dance in the Circuit Court building. A storm interrupted their prom outside.
CAPTION: Students celebrate the end of the year at Fauquier High School's junior-senior prom. Regina Dongoski, at left in a $300 dress, said the prom "takes all your money."