No corsage, no date, no problem: School formals thrive despite changing times

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Barbara Alexiou has been looking forward to her year 12 formal since her first day of high school five years ago.

She’s now 17 and about to graduate from Sydney’s Dulwich High School of Visual Arts and Design, preparing to enter a world that is recovering from COVID-19 lockdowns and battling a cost-of-living crisis. Yet, Alexiou still fully intends to live out the fantasy of her final school formal.

Barbara Alexiou won’t let COVID-19 or the cost of living crisis put a dampener on her year 12 formal.Credit: Brook Mitchell

“It’s still such a big thing,” she says. “From year 7, everyone is already so excited. The majority of people went to the year 11 formal, but I know even more people are going this year.”

The pandemic and skyrocketing cost of living has altered many rituals, but the school formal appears to have escaped this one-two punch. Craig Petersen, president of the NSW Secondary Principals’ Council, says formals bounced back rather quickly after the COVID-19 lockdowns, with many schools still willing to pay the increasing cost of venues and decorations.

“I’m not aware of any schools not hosting a year 12 formal this year,” he says. “They’re here to stay for the foreseeable future.”

However, most formals these days have a noticeable Gen Z twist. Instead of worrying about dates or the cost of a dress, Alexiou says her cohort are more concerned with enjoying quality time with friends and honouring the symbolic significance of such an event – likely the last before they graduate into adulthood.

Hannah O’Shea, a 17-year-old Balcombe Grammar student in Mount Martha, says no one bothered buying corsages, and they were happy being dropped off by their parents rather than hiring a limo. She had her dress made while on holiday in Vietnam, which cost about half the price of a new dress in Melbourne.

Alexiou only spent about $160 on her dress, shoes, hair and make-up for her year 11 formal, which took place on a boat that sailed Sydney Harbour.

“Renting a dress is really big now, too, which is what I’m planning to do for my year 12 formal,” she says. “It’s much easier cost-wise and space-wise because you don’t have to keep a dress you’re probably never going to wear again.”

Manager of the Sunbury St Vincent de Paul Society store, Kyama Fraseis, says buying second-hand formal outfits has also become common practice, noting that Vinnies stores across Australia have observed an influx of Gen Z patronage in the past year.

“I’ve never sold as much formal wear as I have lately,” Fraseis says. “It’s not only just to save money, it’s also because young people are more environmentally conscious now.”

They’re also changing expectations around dates. O’Shea chose to just go with friends, which she says is now common as formals become more casual and inclusive. “No one really asks someone to be their date, you’d just sort of end up there together. It eliminates that pressure, and most people just want to go and have fun with their friends.”

Formal “dates”, which tend to have romantic connotations, have instead become “plus ones”. Teacher at Kandeer School in North Albury, Steven Kitos, says current high school students aren’t afraid to break these traditions to ensure everyone feels equal.

Hannah O’Shea (centre) chose a more relaxed approach to her year 11 formal, opting to just go with friends.Credit: Michaela George

“It might be a nice opportunity for them to ask someone they have their eye on, but there isn’t an expectation. It’s a lot more fluid nowadays.”

However, Micah Scott, chief executive of the Minus18 foundation – which hosts queer formals around Australia – says though some schools are attempting to improve inclusivity for LGBTQ youth at formals, there’s still a way to go.

“We’re working with schools who want to ensure students know they can bring a partner of the same gender and that dress codes are gender-neutral,” Scott says. “But there are still schools that don’t make this effort, and we hear countless stories from students who don’t feel safe at school, and don’t attend their formal as a result.”

Though Gen Z’s approach to formals has evolved, the event itself still generally contains the same ingredients, including photo booths, DJs and sit-down dinners. However, some have erred further onto the side of tradition, such as O’Shea’s school, which opted for a classic debutante ball last year – replete with choreographed dances and the requirement that every student be accompanied by a guardian.

Ticket prices also remain high. O’Shea says tickets to her last formal cost $100, noting each student’s guardian also had to buy a ticket. Alexiou’s ticket cost about $85.

“People don’t really bat an eye at the price because of how important formal is,” Alexiou says. “Everyone sees it as something worth saving up for.”

Kitos agrees, saying formals are a significant rite of passage for year 12s – one they, like Barbara, have been imagining for years – and are therefore something to fight for during trying times.

“They only have one year 12 formal. It’s a celebration with friends of getting through the workload, anxiety and pressure of high school,” he says. “They’ve worked really hard to get to that point, so they deserve it.”

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