Puzzler on Prom Dresses and Textbooks

Why can buying a prom dress be legally similar to buying a textbook?

We’ll send some Freakonomics schwag to the best comment post in the next 24 hours.


Will be used for a very short period of time and then never again. Also at least perceptually very expensive.


Because you spend money and will use it only once. Only once for the textbook if you don't fall.


Both are marketed and sold seasonally and overpriced at time of purchase. Both also have well defined terms of resale.
Both are bought with the buyer having the intent to use it for a limited time and hopefully resell. Buyer always disappointed in price of resale, but excited their parents money for the initial purchase became their money after the sale.
Oftentimes consumption of alcohol leads to less use of the product than the buyer initially intended.

Anthony P

Both prom dresses and text books can be extremely costly to cash strapped students. Also, upon completion of their respective uses (i.e. Prom or class), the students have the immediate urge to "shed" both and feel an overwhelming sense of gratification once they have successfully satisfied said urge.

I realize this digresses from the original issue at hand, but I feel the joke had to be made.


Both are used as a crutch to a higher social status? Or either will work as a pillow in a pinch?


Each is intended for your own personal use and it is illegal to reproduce copies for others. Self explanatory for textbooks but I suppose the design of the dress is the intellectual property of the fashion designer.


When schools have prom dress codes and only allow you to purchase from certain stores.

Andy O.

A prom dress and a textbook have time-sensitive value to the purchaser -- worth a lot for a fixed time period, and almost nothing afterwards. Although most courses last longer than a prom, the fact that it is an annual event makes it "cycle" similar. Also, the assets are not very shareable, especially in the case of a prom dress. I guess two girls at different schools with different semester schedules and different prom dates (the calendar and not the guy) could share very well, but that is not the norm.

Depreciation of the asset is based on wear and tear and obsolescence (fashion and curriculum changes). However, for the most part, there is little depreciation, making the value of the asset to a new purchaser close to the initial value.

All in all, very similar assets.

(I remember reading about a haute couture rental startup in NYC that was very worried about fashion changes.)

Eileen M. Wyatt

If the prom dress is bought from a wedding boutique, in many U.S. states, the boutique is legally required to provide brand and style number info so that the buyer can comparison shop elsewhere (thus usually getting it cheaper online). This is similar to the new textbook disclosure laws.

Tony Zosel

Buying a prom dress is a parent's dubious symbol of "letting go" physically of their child as is buying a textbook is a symbol of "letting go" emotionally.

I know this is wrong...because of the "legal" part of the question, but it's all I got.


Both are goods that are desired by the consumer for a fixed period of time (for a textbook, the duration of the course, for a dress, through prom night), after which their values sharply decline. The individual consumer's demand curve will shift sharply once these time periods have elapsed.

This would be no different than a typical durable good, except that both prom dresses and textbooks are largely reusable. That is, other consumers will still value it highly (assuming the textbook is still being used, and the dress is still "in style"), their demands curves have not shifted, so there is an opportunity for resale. If these goods are resold at a discount, both the first and the new consumer gain, while the original supplier loses.

They are legally similar because in both cases it is ambiguous as to what ownership of a good really means. On the one hand, once the consumer purchases the good, it is their right to do with it what they wish. On the other hand, the inherent value of the good was engendered by the supplier, and re-selling it effectively transfers any profit from that value-added from the supplier to the consumer.

Ultimately, a legal intervention whether to prohibit or allow resale of both products would determine where profits are allocated between supplier, first consumer, and subsequent consumers.



It's legal to buy an international textbook (textbooks are frequently sold at a discount outside of the US) for personal use, however it is infringement to sell that book outside of the country for which it was intended. Similarly, it is legal to take an image of a prom dress to a seamstress and have a copy made for personal use, but it is illegal to sell that dress.


A girl in a prom dress is just like a textbook -- the outside might be attractive but what really matters is internal content. Something can also be said about the strength of the spine...


Because short ones are quicker to get through.

Yes, I know that sounds creppy, but I want the swag


For both, because affordability would easily follow from sensible second-hand purchases, and because the efficiency of such second-hand networks is so easily enabled by the internet, the textbook and promdress industries are currently working overtime to bring out ever-newer editions/styles that would keep the price-tags exhorbitantly high, by ensuring that one use is all that is aimed for.


When cracked open they each have the power to effect the economic outcome of your life.


Before they are used they are looked at as required. After they are used people often wish they had spent less money and bought a used one. Both are also often kept after and never used again.


They are both durable goods that are built to last but in reality are seldom used for most of their physical lifespan.

Legally they can both be resold but social forces prevent them from being optimally resold. In the case of the dress the fashion industry reduces its value by releasing new models. In the case of the textbook the learning industry reduces its value by releasing new models and requiring specific editions for classes.


they can be legally compared because the contents of a prom dress are just as difficult and complex as a textbook.

Karin Lippert

Both can make you appear to be the best and the brightest for a limited amount of time. SInce cost is a factor - perhaps less $$ is more is the prudent rule to follow for bling and textbooks.