Tuesday 25 October 2016

Our kids shall go to the ball, and we might too, regardless of the cost

The debs is not just a big night out, it’s a major life event, says Sarah Caden, with mum and dad along for the ride

Sarah Caden

Published 18/10/2015 | 02:30

BIG NIGHT: Debutants’ ball
BIG NIGHT: Debutants’ ball

'With people not getting married now so much, or getting married much later, the debs is kind of the big event," one south Dublin mother told me last week, settling back into normality after her 18-year-old daughter's attendance of no less than four balls.

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"For girls, anyway," she said, "it's the time when they wear the dress, get the hair done, have all the fuss. It's a ritual to mark the end of an era, and, the way things are now, they'll be waiting a long time for the next big milestone."

That might well be one reason for the huge production that is the modern-day debs. It has, perhaps, replaced the wedding in the life of the young Irish woman. But you could offer up a slew of other reasons, too, for the fact that a recent online survey discovered that the average Irish girl - or her parents - pay on average €1,115 for that single, significant night out.

It could be that Irish teenagers' sense of entitlement is out of control. It could be that there is intense pressure on them to keep up with the Joneses, or, more accurately, the Kardashians. And it could just be that our kids are overindulged; but that neither we nor they can even see that any more. Say that, though, and you're showing your age.

There's no denying that the spend on a single debs is insane, though, even if you consider the kids to be worth it. The recent online survey, run by the Irish website SHEmazing, stated that the cost of a limo - €134 - was about the same price as the debs tickets, which come in, on average, at about €132 for a pair. The dress was the next greatest expense, at €209, with shoes costing, on average, €77, and accessories, €81.

A mother told me that the expense you don't anticipate is what you might call a repeat fee. Have yourself a half popular child and they could be going to three or four debs. "And you can't wear the same dress to them all," she laughed. "How would it look on Facebook? And then the shoes from the first dress don't suit the second one and neither does the bag. It's endless. I suggested to my daughter and her friends that they should pool the dresses together and rent them out."

Yes, she concedes, they looked at her askance.

This particular mother, has offspring ranging from early 30s down to late teens, so she's seen the gamut of debs trends from before, through and post-boom. She's seen the innocence, the excess and now, the kind of quiet expectation of a degree of pampering that is a long way from her day, when all the girls wore white and she even made her own dress. "It was awful," she exclaims, by way of a reminder that the good old days weren't exactly perfect.

In my own day, more than a decade after hers, photographic evidence proves that none of us had made acquaintance with an at-home hair-straightener, never mind a make-up artist or a manicurist. These days, it's not just that the girls are in a different league of grooming; it's that it's unheard of for anyone to do that grooming themselves. Salon appointments, one mother tells me, are impossible to get in her area come autumn and the competition is fierce.

Interestingly, or hilariously, in the SHEmazing survey, while the average hair and make-up debs spend came in at €156, "beauty" was a category unto itself. This is the tan, the nails and the various other efforts made by professionals to make teenagers look good. Or, you might say, not so much good as over made-up, older than their years and better suited to a red carpet with a high TOWIE presence than a party with their peers.

A mother with a daughter in one of south Dublin's fee-paying schools told me that she and her girl went dress shopping together before the debs. They eschewed the standard shops in favour of the city's rental boutiques, where the mother, "in my innocence", thought they'd get better value. "They were giving out numbered tickets at one of them," she exclaims. "The queue was that bad. It was extraordinary."

She doesn't feel that the kids expect too much, and pointed out that her child and her friends all have part-time jobs and understand the value of money, but she admits that this can vary from school to school. And, she says, at some of the more exclusive schools, the pressure can be more intense. Not just on the kids, but on parents, too.

In most schools now, there is a level of parental involvement in the modern debs. Not just the paying kind, the hanging-around kind. The kind you'd imagine young people would hate, but maybe they don't get much of a say in it.

For a long time now, there has been a phenomenon of parents visiting the school with their dressed-up offspring for a drink among the teachers and the other parents, with whom they have also been associated for five or six years. Then, in recent decades, the kids would go off on a coach to a hotel in town or wherever, and the parents would toddle off contemplating their unexpected middle age.

These days, it's not uncommon for a set of sixth- year parents to hold a parents-and-students drinks party at their house before the event. One mother I know made her child's pre-debs party a Pimm's event, in order to prevent the girls from starting on the vodka too early. The parents call it good sense, the kids call it the "pre-lash". The parental involvement often goes further than this; they go to the school after the "pre-lash" and sometimes groups of parents go out together in a group for dinner.

Increasingly, however, and this seems to be more of a thing in the more exclusive schools, the parents attend the dinner part of the ball. At one private school I know of, last year's sixth years were asked how much they wanted the parents involved. As in, did they just want them having a glass of plonk at the school and then disappearing, or did they want them around for half the night. They went for the former.

In one small and exclusive private south Dublin girls' school, parent tickets to the debs dinner cost more than €300. The debs is the place to be, obviously, and you can't help but wonder is it the place where you keep your kids and your family in with the right kind of people, networking with the right kind of people, going out with the right kind of people. It's a small pool of wealth, and people like to keep it that way.

And if you're working with the notion of the debs as the last big event before the wedding, then maybe the bit of networking is no harm. Maybe even worth every cent.

Sunday Independent

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