Life

Baby belles of the ball

Increasingly, Grade 6 graduation is taking on the pomp, circumstance and attire of high school proms

LIANNE GEORGE May 2 2005
Life

Baby belles of the ball

Increasingly, Grade 6 graduation is taking on the pomp, circumstance and attire of high school proms

LIANNE GEORGE May 2 2005

Baby belles of the ball

Life

LIANNE GEORGE

Increasingly, Grade 6 graduation is taking on the pomp, circumstance and attire of high school proms

ADRIENNE ARCHIBALD still hasn’t decided who, if anyone, she’ll accompany to her graduation prom in June. She’s already been asked by two boys—both cute—but for now she’s leaving her options open. A few weekends ago, in her quest to find the perfect dress, Adrienne tried on more than 20 candycoloured numbers at Fashion Crimes & Misdemeanours, a trendy boutique on Toronto’s Queen Street West, before settling on a $300 royal blue cocktail dress with spaghetti straps, silver detailing and a delicate lace-up bodice. She’s still hunting for the right heels and accessories, and on the day of the dance, she and her friends plan to get their nails professionally done. But no, they won’t be taking a limo to the event, she says, giggling. “We’re actually taking a school bus so we can all ride at the same time.” After all, most of them—Adrienne included—are only 11.

Increasingly, Grade 6 graduation—which once consisted of flimsy photocopied diplomas and an early-evening spread of cookies and orange “drink”—is morphing into the social event of the elementary school year, particularly in affluent communities. Often organized by parents and funded by bake sales and raffles, these dinner-and-dance parties—whether in the school gym or a rented hall—generally mark a tween girl’s first run-

in with high heels, up-dos and slow dancing. Retailers say some parents are spending anywhere between $200 and $2,000 to outfit their girls for the big night.

“It’s a special night,” says Adrienne’s mother, retired lawyer Liz Palatics, who’s heading up the grad party committee at her daughter’s public school in well-to-do Moore Park. For a lot of these kids, she says, leaving elementary school means being separated from classmates they’ve known since kindergarten. “It’s a really big deal with my friends,” says Adrienne. “It’s just really exciting and it’s going to be sad because it’s our last big celebration together.”

Not that it’s surprising tweens should want their milestone commemorated with the same pomp and sartorial glitz once reserved for high school seniors. As consumers, this generation of nineto 14-year-olds has come of age earlier than any other in history. Opinionated and media savvy, they influence more than $20 billion in Canadian household purchases a year—including clothing, magazines, electronics and hygiene products custom-designed for them. “This is a generation of power,” says Karyn Gordon, a Toronto parent/teen coach. “They have a lot of money and make a lot of demands.” They also have parents who are more

likely to comply with—and delight in—their precocious consumer desires. “A lot of parents now have more money, so they really like to lavish it on their kids,” says Gordon. “They’re having fewer kids and they have dual incomes.” Naturally, retailers aren’t complaining. “Each year our clientele is getting younger,” says Boris Chenkis, owner of Vancouver’s After Five Fashions, a popular boutique for prom dresses. He estimates Grade 6 grads now make up 20 per cent of his business during prom season. “That would’ve been zero five years ago.”

Formal tween fashion—much like casual tween fashion—tends to mirror styles popular among teens and celebrities. Currently, this includes satin, spaghetti straps and one-shoulder dresses—scaled down and adjusted for age-appropriateness. Still, says Chenkis, sometimes these styles leave kids a little more bare than their parents would like. “So we’ll try to sell them a little organza shawl,” he says. To discourage over-the-top dress, some elementary schools now hand out guidelines for appropriate attire, says James McMorran, principal of Roslyn School in Montreal. “But I think a majority of people use common sense.” For some child health experts, the whole idea of a Grade 6 graduation dance seems

like too much pressure at a time when girls are particularly vulnerable to low selfesteem. “I think it’s ridiculous,” says Dr. Arlette Lefebvre, a child psychiatrist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Not only do these events create pressure among girls to wear the right clothes and force them to contend with body-image issues prematurely, she says, but there’s also the pressure to date and experiment with sexuality before many of them are emotionally ready. (At Adrienne’s school, says Palatics, “everybody goes together. You don’t need a date to go to this prom.”)

These events can put pressure on parents, too. “If one mother agrees to buy her daughter a $250 dress,” says Lee-Anne Goodman, a Toronto-based journalist whose daughter graduated from Grade 6 a few years ago, “then you feel like a bad parent if you’re not going out and buying a really nice dress. Like a lemming, I went along with it.”

It is expensive, Palatics concedes. “But you just don’t think about it; you do it because it means a lot to her.” It’s not unlike the Cinderella tale, except the coach is mom’s Volvo, and it leaves well before midnight. fil