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The unceasing rain hasn't dampened the excitement as teenagers flood in to inspect the formally laid tables, helium balloons and glittery fairy lights. Friends who normally wear shapeless uniforms and dirty trainers are transformed into exotic peacocks in huge-skirted ballgowns, teetering heels and heavy make-up. The secondary school in Rainham was founded 60 years ago, and has been reborn variously as a technical school, secondary modern, comprehensive, specialist technology college and, since last year, an academy.

The school reflects the changing demographics of the area with the predominantly white East End families who moved here in the 1950s and 60s, attracted by the boom in car production at the Ford factory in Dagenham, now joined by an increasing number of ethnic minorities. There isn't a sixth form; all the students here leave after taking their GCSEs.

Reiss had a crack at the market last year with its first 'prom dressing' event in its Nottingham store, where hairdressers, make-up artists and nail beauticians were on hand to help customers coordinate a prom look.

He says he takes booking for proms months in advance. 'Everyone goes in a limo so some of us wanted to go in anything but,' Lucy says (she was in fact outvoted, and did end up arriving in a limousine).

On average boys in Essex spend less than girls: £300, compared with £525, according to a recent survey.

'The boys are more concerned with how they arrive,' Monique Wyatt says – dramatic entrances in limousines are par for the course. In Essex, where nearly every school hosts a prom or graduation ceremony, and where the glamour of the occasion is played for all its worth, the prom business for local spray-tan salons, nail bars and florists (for corsages) is estimated to be worth £5 million.

Prom dresses in lovely sculptural shapes that combine sleek fabrics in jersey or chiffon with slashes, beads and sequins, cost £200 to £1,000 (12 of the most expensive were sold in Britain this year). The prom has also helped to transform the fortunes of Moss Bros.

'We've had parents phone up in tears saying we can't spend that type of money but my daughter loves it. Two years ago the company had losses of £2.8 million.

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