I have been to many debutante parties in my life. I grew up in Connecticut and went to boarding school; one side of my family is Southern and therefore has a long tradition of presenting daughters at debutante parties. Perhaps it was inevitable that when I turned 18, a woman called my mother to ask if I wanted to be a debutante. I said no—it was the mid-’90s and I was grunged out in flannel; I had no interest in doing a performance wherein I formally and ritualistically stated I was rich and pretty. How did this woman even know who I was? I had no idea, but I did know that I couldn’t imagine dancing in front of adults I had known for my whole life and performing a ritual that seemed to have nothing to do with anything I was actually engaged with (at that time, going to college). My parents didn’t care about “society,” and so they did not object to my skipping my “debut,” as it’s called. Most of my friends were skipping it, too. But some of my friends did become debutantes, and though I watched them go through the process, I only began to research the ritual’s history seriously in the past few years, when I started writing a book on the subject.
Debutante parties have been around for centuries. Traditionally, they were a means for aristocratic families to announce that their daughters were eligible for marriage. Like a quinceañera or a sweet sixteen, the ritual marks a transition from childhood to adulthood, but not everyone can be a debutante—these parties are run by elite committees, and you must be invited. If you are, it means your family has either some money or some status (probably both).
The debutante balls I attended as a teenager felt much like regular formal dances, but with more-intricate dance steps and less rowdiness. Girls wore long white dresses that looked like wedding dresses (in most cases they are actually wedding dresses) and are meant to convey purity and innocence. The thing I remember most about these parties was an overwhelming atmosphere of awkwardness. It was hard to move through the crowd in a gigantic meringue of a dress that was totally different from, say, your field hockey uniform or the Docs you wore every day. The dances at these events felt very different from how we danced at regular parties, and more like a ceremonial exhibition. I had been taught these dances since I was in the fifth grade, and clearly this event was meant to be some sort of culmination of that training. But I still didn’t understand why we were there, or what this ritual was about. It was no longer about getting married—we were all in college and planning on working or going to grad school afterwards. So what was the purpose of all of this?
To answer that question, first we have to look at what debutante parties are like today. There are basically two kinds now: the old kind and the new kind. The old kind is like what I described above—a formal dance that is mostly about affirming your social background and making a statement about who your family is. These parties are usually private—no press allowed (exceptions are sometimes made for the sort of society magazine that will give only glowing coverage and not ask any searching questions about why these things are still happening). Most of these parties have been around for a while, and some have been around since the 1700s. The newer type of party is what you’ll think of if you’ve seen photos of a debutante party in Teen Vogue or Vanity Fair, or if you saw that one Gossip Girl where Serena rewrote her introduction to announce to a bunch of rich old people that she planned to bang every eligible bachelor on the Upper East Side. This latter type is more like a movie premiere, with big-budget glamour, lots of press, and recognizable names. There are only a few such parties, and one of them, the International Debutante Ball, happens every other December at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Last month, the (long) press list included me and Rookie photographer Sandy Honig, covering the festivities for this site.
The International Debutante Ball was founded in 1954 as a charity benefitting the armed forces by a New York socialite. Whereas most people wouldn’t recognize the names at any of the older debutante parties, the International is unabashedly high profile—daughters and granddaughters of U.S. presidents and of owners of sports franchises (this year, the Dallas Cowboys) are introduced there. The International also differs from other debutante parties in that the organizers actively seek out press. The committee is not run by a group of mothers who have cobbled things together (old parties). This ball is professionally run and attracts girls who want to be photographed and written about, or parents who want their daughters to be.
The debutantes at this year’s ball ranged in age from 18 to 21. They came from 14 U.S. states and four other countries—the UK, France, the Netherlands, and China. Part of the idea of the ball is to foster international friendship and networking among the girls. The largest contingent comes from Texas, a state where there are as many as 147 debutante balls each year. They have a special curtsy, called the Texas Dip, that they practice for six months before the party. All of the girls, whom I met in the ball’s long receiving line, were sweet and polite. They smiled broadly and laughed through their nerves and chatted about their painful shoes as they introduced themselves to each of the 700 guests. They were well coached in what to say to reporters, giving the sort of friendly, meaningless answers that actresses give on the red carpet. Why are they debutantes? “Because it’s tradition.” “I thought it would be fun.” “My mother did it.” They are in their late teens and already expert at public relations. (This, by the way, totally freaked out Sandy, who’s the same age as these girls: “They looked like dolls and acted like dolls,” she said later.)
That first reason—tradition—was by far the most popular the debutantes cited for participating in the ball. But was does that mean? What is the tradition, really? Well, in brief: In medieval Europe, rich people lived in fortified castles and had their own standing armies to guard them. The world was dangerous. There were few powerful centralized governments to protect citizens, and regional factions fought constantly for political power. Because of these conditions, people developed a kind of siege mentality—they expected war at any time, and this ever-present fear informed their every thought and action. Families made alliances with other families for their own safety. The main way these alliances were forged was through arranging the marriages of their children—and those arranged marriages were cemented with payment. The parents of a daughter provided her with something called a dowry, which was an amount of money she came with, which increased her value. The man might also bring money to a marriage, but mostly he was responsible for bringing status and protection. By taking a daughter from a family, the new husband and his family would agree to protect her. So the more money you used to buy your daughter a good marriage, the more likely it was that you would be safe and not die because her new husband’s family would have an army, too, and they could come and protect you.
If a family had more than one daughter and couldn’t afford multiple dowries, they would choose their most “marriageable” daughter or daughters and focus their efforts and money on them. The chosen daughter was usually the one regarded as the more attractive girl, or the most charming, or just the least sickly or pockmarked. Any girls who remained would be sent to a convent, where they would live out the rest of their days studying, gardening, and spinning, but never marrying. (These girls could often be considered the lucky ones—in the 18th century, early English feminists would call for a return of the convent system, such a relief it was not to have to marry.) The other advantage of the convent was that it gave a girl little to no opportunity to run off and get pregnant, or to marry someone who might bring shame or debt to the family.
Marriage in Europe worked like this roughly until the Protestant Reformation, the religious and cultural upheaval that divided Europe into Catholic and Protestant countries in the 16th century. The Reformation created a new problem for Protestant families with “extra daughters”—because Protestants didn’t have convents, there was nowhere to send these “unmarriageable” girls. If you have read Pride and Prejudice, you might remember Mr. Bennett, who was not a rich man, agonizing over having to find a suitable husband for each of his daughters. Jane Austen wrote this book 300 years after the Reformation, but English parents were still wrestling with this extra-daughter problem.