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The Last Debutantes

All conflict and resolution, in one elegant package.

Girls at the International Debutante Ball on December 29, 2012. All photos by Sandy.

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.

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43 Comments

  • zombiesockmonkey January 31st, 2013 4:25 PM

    I’ve always been curious about debutantes and a bit skeptical because of my feminist views but reading this made me realize how cool the traditional aspect is! (and those dresses? I’m jealous)
    -Megan A.K.A The Zombie Sock-Monkey
    http://zombiesockmonkey.blogspot.com/

  • Blythe January 31st, 2013 4:40 PM

    Oh my gosh I want to befriend the cosplaying girl and we can trade wig styling tips and where to find the cheapest Kona cotton, and how to find the best shoes and aldkhgldkgcvlkcnljg;;

  • jenaimarley January 31st, 2013 4:52 PM

    Super informative article!
    It reminds me of Whip It!

  • casper January 31st, 2013 5:13 PM

    Okay, I’m so glad you wrote a piece about this. I’ve been asked a few times to start cotillion and then make my debut and I asked my friends and they were all just kind surprised but they weren’t very helpful.
    Ladies of rookie, what do you think? Should I be a debutante?

    • Abby January 31st, 2013 5:38 PM

      I think it depends on how your “debutante community” is…. and how they make you feel. Personally, I think the idea of it is kind of fun and princess-y, because I’m into that, but if the people who are doing it aren’t nice, then you probably don’t want to do it. Follow your heart!

    • zombiesockmonkey February 1st, 2013 2:55 PM

      I think if it sounds fun, you should :) But maybe find a partner in crime to debutante it up with.

  • Nobby January 31st, 2013 5:13 PM

    I was a deb… big white wedding dress and all! My sister did it twice (same dress in case you were wondering) and the two experiences could not have been more different. The first one was through our church diocese and everybody invited their whole families (including our little cousins who tore up the dance floor) while the second was a hoity toity society affair where other people had to ‘sponsor’ you to attend. My mom joked that she never learned the first names of any of the women who ran the second one because the invite only identified them as “Mrs. Earl Rothington IV” and “Mrs. Mark Smith XII” or whatever. I was too young to attend the second one so I just chilled in the hotel room upstairs and watched tv. My deb ball was fun and there were very colorful characters involved including the old ladies who were just there to tell us to wear more blush. Great article!

  • Maryse89 January 31st, 2013 5:17 PM

    this article is illuminating and makes me want to read more!

    I grew up in the South but my parents were from the North, so I couldn’t have participated in a deb ball even if I wanted to…I looked on them the way I looked on a lot of the trappings of rich “southern” girlhood that I was surrounded by…with a mixture of disdain and jealousy because I could never be one of those “perfect southern girls” who were so popular at my high school.

    In college I thought I could make up for that feeling of always being on the outside looking in by going to fraternity formals with the kinds of boys who wore pastel bow ties and had names ending in “the Third”, but I realized that I just didn’t like being in that world at all. In my opinion, especially in the South, at least, a lot of high society is based around nostalgia for a racist and sexist past.

    But yeah, that’s just my opinion!

    • carogenous January 31st, 2013 7:22 PM

      I totally understand that vibe since I’m a northern transplant in the south too. My dad has retained his Staten Island accent has gotten my family called “damn yankees” in a completely serious “I’m trying to insult you” way more than a few times, and we’ve been living here for ten years! Old money antics, I swear. Luckily most people my own age are inclusive and polite

      • Maryse89 January 31st, 2013 11:07 PM

        oh wow I feel you girl! when we studied the civil war in AP US history, everyone started calling me a ‘carpetbagger’! I was like, “y’all I’ve lived here since I was FIVE!” Ridiculous…

        but yeah i love that every time I go back to the south it seems to have gotten more inclusive and open minded and cool…it give me hope!

  • Abby January 31st, 2013 5:35 PM

    Guys whenever there’s debutantes in anything it makes me think of She’s the Man…. and when they have the catfight in the bathroom. It’s amazing haha. But ANYWAY… This was a really interesting article. I knew a bit about debutantes, but I didn’t know a lot about the history. Really cool!

  • Emmie January 31st, 2013 5:42 PM

    I found this piece extremely interesting. However, there are certain things I object to (and I am the last person who is enthusiastic about the debutante concept). Although I completely understand that you were simply stating something factually accurate regarding “football” and “Mitt Romney”, but you mentioned it for a reason — you were also implicitly drawing a connection that I find stereotypical and problematic. I guess this is a larger thing that I wish Rookie would consider as a whole. I know that for many this is difficult to understand, but there are plenty of incredibly intelligent, well-educated women and girls who identify as feminists who also identify as conservative. Not all women who are conservative are the “doll” type who are focused on being debutantes and, by extension, vapid trophy wives of some sort. I love Rookie, but I wish you guys would realize that when things veer into the political realm, the site becomes somewhat alienating and even close-minded, which is ironic, because I know you guys strive to be the exact opposite.

    • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 6:33 PM

      You’re right, we are often myopic about political stuff like that. We’ll make a real effort to be more aware of it in the future – comments like this help remind us to do so, so thank you.

    • Cerise January 31st, 2013 6:49 PM

      Being fairly conservative myself, I agree with Emmie, but I would also like to say how much I appreciate the fact that Rookie publishes comments like this, instead of pretending they never happened. That’s one of the things I love about you guys: you’re open to publishing critiques on your own work, and you’ll actually respond to people’s posts! Rookie’s comment section is probably my favorite ever. <3

      As far as potential posts about politics, it might be interesting to do a sort of discussion/conversation post with people from different political points of view (sort of like your discussions on atheism and cultural appropriation).

      • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 10:16 PM

        I agree, this is a good idea; we’d just want to figure out a way for it not to devolve into a really polarized (and polarizing) argument.

        • Emmie January 31st, 2013 10:45 PM

          I was just thinking about that issue (about how you get into discussing the big issues without well…more issues). I don’t even think it has to be that big of a leap yet, because the divisive issues could, as Anaheed eluded, potentially sacrifice a lot of what makes Rookie great, which is, among other things, an awesome sense of unity.

          I just think that the key is not associating a certain school of thought with “stupidity” or being “anti-women”. Being conservative means a lot of different things and negative associations like that discourage the healthy dialogue we should be trying to promote. It’s kind of along the lines of not calling out other feminists on what it means to be feminist. Let people do their thing. It may seem clear to you that you are inherently right, but someone else may have opposing views and feel just as passionately about them. I also feel strongly, as I am sure many of you would agree, that the best way to be able to defend your views is to understand the opposing argument or philosophy. It’s not intellectually a good thing if one worldview is constantly promoted as the only worldview.

          So, I am basically just saying, let’s try to incorporate more of everything politically, or at least less of a one-sided and alienating conversation.

    • Katherine January 31st, 2013 10:54 PM

      My thoughts exactly.

      • Emmie January 31st, 2013 11:26 PM

        And by eluded I mean alluded. My b. Anyway, I really enjoyed this discussion, glad it’s happening.

  • i-like-autumn January 31st, 2013 5:44 PM

    What an interesting thing! I didn’t realize debutante balls still existed. It’s definitely something I would never see in my community, although it’s probably something I would end up doing for fun. (I love to ‘dress up’ like a princess!)

    Keep us posted on when the book comes out, it sounds really interesting!

    Autumn
    http://www.i-like-autumn.tumblr.com

  • Jen L. January 31st, 2013 6:30 PM

    I’ll happily support my friends who are doing this but, holy crap, I’m glad I don’t have to.

    Rookie, you never fail to put the nebulous thoughts I have about things like this into such succinct and interesting articles and it’s the best.

    xo

  • I.ila January 31st, 2013 6:34 PM

    Okay, my mom wants me to be a debutante, but I don’t know about it… it seems rather heteronormative to me and bothersome and what’s the point anyway? but all of the stuff takes place across the street… anyway, I have another year to decide.

  • Lubby January 31st, 2013 6:38 PM

    I was a debutante, but my school just did it (i think we’re one of the few in Australia who still do…) and it wasn’t super traditional – there were one or two formal dances and the rest was just free. Although of course the underlying premise of treating women as “property” is problematic, my experience was a really fun one of me, my boyfriend and my friends dressing up (let’s not forget most teenage boys have never worn a tux before!) and dancing. In a modern context I guess it just is whatever you want it to be.

  • carabear January 31st, 2013 6:55 PM

    My mom really wants me to do this because she attended a college where a lot of her friends had “coming-out” parties, and moved to Texas from the northeast, so the idea is really cool and glamorous to her I’m kind of conflicted, though, because I don’t love the girls in my group, I’m slightly uncomfortable with the females wearing white dresses/pure/have to make an entrance into society, etc., and I’d have to learn the Texas dip (agh!)
    Also, I know this is really nit-picky, but I felt the line in the last paragraph about Mitt Romney and football was a tad condescending/out-of-place. Just because a young woman chooses to go to a fancy party and wear a ballgown doesn’t automatically mean she’s conservative. I will probably end up going to a debutante ball, and I’m a very feminist, pro-choice, Obama-supporting liberal.

    • Katherine January 31st, 2013 11:07 PM

      What’s wrong with being conservative? I disagree with Obama, but I don’t think that automatically makes me anti-feminist or a future trophy wife.

  • Caden January 31st, 2013 8:09 PM

    Wonderful article and beautiful pictures :) reminds me of Rory Gilmore!!

    • KatGirl February 2nd, 2013 2:15 PM

      Me too! I love the Gilmore Girls :)

  • AmyL January 31st, 2013 8:11 PM

    I never even thought about being a debutante (it’s not a tradition in my family or anything) and it sounds absolutely exhausting.

    That cosplayer girl is super rad, though.

    intergalactic-dragons.blogspot.com

  • flapperhatgirl January 31st, 2013 8:16 PM

    Ooh, this makes me want to be a debutante, but I doubt I’ll get a chance.
    http://thepseudo-intellectual.blogspot.com/?m=1

  • Chloe Elizabeth January 31st, 2013 10:51 PM

    I have never even HEARD of these outside of the world of like, Jane Austen and such! Must not be common up here in the Pacific Northwest?

  • Cactus Woman February 1st, 2013 3:06 AM

    I have been watching Season 2 of Gilmore Girls on DVD and I just saw the episode where Rory “comes out” at a Debutante Ball! I thought the episode included some good commentary from both sides of the argument; in the end, it ended up being a slightly weird but okay experience for Rory.

  • Bumblecake February 1st, 2013 5:15 AM

    This is so strange! I didn’t even know things like this still existed. I have to say I’m not a supporter of them :P I would love to read the book though!

    http://www.frankiesimone.blogspot.com

  • soretudaaa February 1st, 2013 8:07 AM

    THIS IS SO WEIRD I DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT THIS TRADITION. Well, in my country we do quinceañeras but after attending a gazillion (EXTREMELY BORING) ones, I decided against having one on my own. It just seems so fake-pretty and self-absorved to me: the having a whole party to myself and wearing a princess dress and having people tell me constantly how pretty and awesome I am (all the quinceañeras I went to did this) because I conform to their expectations of how a pretty and awesome fifteen-year-old should be. I’d rather have people celebrate my accomplishments, instead of the fact that now it is acceptable to want to bang me.

  • Alltomorrowsparties February 1st, 2013 10:13 AM

    Oh man I was a deb. I fought feminist-queer tooth and nail against it and eventually caved and did it for my sick grandmother. It was tough, because she wanting nothing more than to see me in a gown like she was and I wanted to give her something to make her happy, but I would still be participating in this oppressive, classist, sexist, racist system.

    I’m from the South, so we had parties every weekend leading up to the ball for a good month–playing bunko in shoe boutiques, making out own pearl jewelry, lots of club lunches with old money. Granted, everyone was polite–southern ladies after all–but the money put into it, and the fact that we 18-year-olds were required an escort of at least 25 was so creepy! I didnt have any dude friends in college 7 years older than me–let alone any I was comfortable asking to participate with me–so my cousin took me. Trappings and history aside, we had fun dancing with my family and cutting up. In a way, I’m glad I did it, because it made my grandmother so happy and I got to witness it all first-hand…I’m just not proud of it, and if I have a daughter ever, will definitely have a DISCUSSION and not make her do it for the sake of the word “tradition.”

  • wallflower152 February 1st, 2013 11:06 AM

    I never knew any debutantes but almost all my friends and cousins had quincineras, which is sort of similar to the debut concept but kind of like a wedding too. A girl has a fancy party in which she wears a big dress and a court of 14 of her friends stand with boys. I never saw the point of having one because they are really expensive, wedding expensive. I always thought I’d rather my parents spend money on a car for me or college than a birthday party. But maybe I was just really shy and didn’t want the spotlight. And even then, way before my feminist days I found the concept a little weird because it basically used to (decades and maybe centuries ago) mean the girl was a woman and therefore ready for marriage. Definitely not judging girls who have quinces or debuts though, just was not for me. But would love to see an article on quincineras. It would be very interesting, girls in my school started planning their quinces when they were in 6th grade, it would be neat to get a look into that world. : )

  • candypixie February 1st, 2013 11:27 AM

    I’m turning 18 this year and having a debutante ball where I’m from (the Philippines) is a big thing. It marks the time when a girl becomes a woman. Unfortunately for me, I’m not having a debutante ball, instead I’ll just wait for my 21st! Lol. Besides, I’m not ready to be an adult yet! Lol

  • Kallieish February 1st, 2013 1:58 PM

    How can I find out when your book is published? I am fascinated by this for reasons I cannot comprehend.

  • MaryFairy February 1st, 2013 2:47 PM

    In Ireland, we have ‘the Debs’ which is equivalent to prom.

    Ugh. Debs. Like a wedding except you’re supposed to be having FUN. GAH.

  • KristenR. February 3rd, 2013 8:35 AM

    I wanted to thank everyone for all your thoughtful and interesting comments on my piece. For those of you who asked for more info on the book, I will put up a publication date (when we have one) at my site kristenrichardson.com. Please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about the book or piece. Thank you again for such thoughtful responses!

  • Annie at Cher Ami February 3rd, 2013 12:22 PM

    This was such a great article!We don’t really have anything this traditional in Britain anymore so it was really interesting to read about the debs and all the comments too!

    http://www.cheramiblogger.blogspot.co.uk

  • cadymonster February 4th, 2013 11:19 AM

    How do we find her book??

    • Anaheed March 28th, 2013 7:47 AM

      It’s not out yet, but I’ll make a note to let you guys know when it is.

  • 3LL3NH February 4th, 2013 9:04 PM

    Very interesting article! Such a different world from my own, it’s hardly imaginable… it really is like it’s another time.

    Anyway, I wanted to mention that this caught my eye because of “She’s the Man”, which was at one time my favourite movie.

  • Shlingyy February 22nd, 2013 4:08 PM

    It’s weird, because in Ireland, we have debutantes- ‘debs’, but they’re just a far less hyped-up version of a prom!