DESIGNER dresses. Exclusive venues. Three-course dinners.
Every weekend there are twenty-first parties so extravagant that a modest wedding would pale in comparison.
The 21st birthday, a traditional Western milestone, has become an event so special that some parents are spending up to $20,000 for their child's coming-of-age bash.
Upmarket venues typically hired for weddings, such as the Shangri-la Hotel, Luna Park's Crystal Ballroom and the Hilton's Marble Bar, are attracting bookings, often with a generous bar tab and a hired DJ.
It took three months for university student Liz Mudie to organise her 21st party at the Pavilion restaurant in the Botanic Gardens last month. A sparkling orange designer cocktail dress was purchased to celebrate the occasion, which also involved hiring plush white furniture, a DJ, a lolly bar, flower bouquets for tables and a designer cake inspired by Van Gogh's Starry Night from patissier-to-the-stars Planet Cake in Balmain. She estimates the party cost about $16,000.
"A 21st nowadays is the last big thing and you're in the best time of your life," she said.
Ms Mudie said she felt pressure to hold a successful event, not to compete for the best party.
The Pavilion agrees that there has been a steady trend of more extravagant 21st parties.
"We've definitely seen an increase in average spend on 21st parties in the past couple of years," the venue's manager, Jacqui Owen, said. "It's as though they're becoming the new 'sweet 16' or wedding."
Luna Park has also been home to extravagant 21sts. Its event manager, Stephanie Humphreys, said it had hosted 21st parties costing up to $30,000 in the Crystal Ballroom. "The sky's the limit for how much parents want to pay," she said.
Kat Wilkins, a university student, celebrated her 21st with a three-course dinner at Killara Golf Club. She spent five months planning her party and wore a Carla Zampatti dress. "Turning 21 for me represented a landmark," she said. "It provided a great opportunity to have all the people who are important to me in one place at one time."
Marking a 21st year with an extravagant party is not restricted to young women. University student Alex Morris, organised a joint 21st at the Sydney Aquarium late last year. He wanted to host a party in a more unusual setting, he said. "Nowadays, everyone is
hiring out venues and going nuts," Mr Morris said, who estimates his party cost $16,000.
The event organiser at Sydney Aquarium, Ashley Hayes, said there were five times the number of 21st parties being booked than three years ago, though this was coming off a small base.
But the event does not end when the night does. Within days, extensive catalogues of photographs, many snapped by professional photographers, emerge on Facebook to be pored over by guests.
It took less than 24 hours for Ms Mudie's party to appear online.
"By Sunday night the photos were up ... and people were already commenting," she said.