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The Last Debutantes

All conflict and resolution, in one elegant package.

The father-daughter dance.

But by the early 18th century, rich English parents had figured out that if they took their daughters to London during the season of social events (balls, concerts, teas, riding in the park) that happened when the aristocracy was there for Parliament’s session, they could find husbands for them. Each girl was first presented to the king or the queen, and then the season of parties began in earnest. By restricting their teenage daughters’ social lives to this one season of parties, parents effectively limited their pool of possible husbands to a selected group of aristocratic or rich men. Girls would be introduced to valuable suitors at exclusive parties, and prevented from attending “inappropriate” events where they might be swept off their feet by the 18th century equivalent of a guy with a motorcycle—prevented from ever even seeing him.

And from this contingency plan, an entire social scene evolved. The more luxurious the parties were, the more likely the girls were to fall in line. Exclusivity became deeply desirable. The debutante season was both beautiful and glamorous, and beauty and glamour did much to cover its ugly commercial core.

Money and status were to some extent interchangeable: the more status a girl had (the “better” her family), the lower her dowry needed to be. The lower the status of a man seeking a wife, the more money he had to have. An impoverished aristocrat might marry a massively wealthy heiress—he brought her status and she brought him money. (This storyline might be familiar to those of you watching Downton Abbey: the American heiress Cora got the title of Countess of Grantham, and Lord Grantham got her money to fix and maintain his house and property.)

Teenage girls were keenly aware of their predicament. They worked tirelessly, almost from birth, to learn the complex dance steps and precise etiquette required for their debuts. They recorded their conflicted feelings about the debutante ritual into countless diaries and letters, which I’ve found and read in the process of researching my book. Especially in the antebellum South, where parents liked to marry their daughters to much older men, the sort of men with power and social status, the girls recorded complaints about “frisky widowers” and expressed shock that a man so old would “go call on a girl not yet 18.” One “frisky widower,” according to the diary of a Virginia teenager, stood “very high in the community as a most estimable, excellent man with plenty of money, but none of the girls like him.” Parents might have liked older men for their daughters, but the daughters did not. Some participated enthusiastically, but resented newcomers and competition. One Arkansas teenager made a list of her admirers: “All of these are my boys by right and if any body DARE DISPUTE the fact let them come forward and do it to my face that I may give them what they deserve.” Don’t mess.

Some women felt as Edith Wharton did, who wrote in her autobiography that her season was a “long, cold agony of shyness.” Eleanor Roosevelt hated her debut, but her cousin Alice Roosevelt (daughter of Theodore) loved hers. “Princess Alice” was a wild child who was frequently in the tabloids, smoked on the roof of the White House, carried a snake in her purse, and bet on any horse race she could—exactly none of those things made you a lady in 1903, but exactly all of them make you awesome for all time. Her debutante ball was a national sensation, not just in the tabloids, but in every major newspaper as well. Some women enjoyed the process and were happy to have their names peppered throughout gossip columns and in fashion magazines. Brenda Frazier, the Paris Hilton of the 1930s, was so famous that her face sold soap and cars. She claimed, in a 1963 Life magazine article, that her mother had forced her into the debutante limelight at 17 and said, “I was a fad that year, the way midget golf was once a fad, or flagpole sitting” (the planking of its day).

In many ways, for the debutante, the season was strangely freeing: it was, back then, the one chance she would have to experience even the barest hint of control over her own body and mind. The short time she spent between her parents’ house and her future husband’s was the only time in her life when she made some of her own decisions, where she had power. At a party, this might mean noting the texture of champagne sliding down her throat or the pleasing restraint of a corset, understanding that all eyes were on her. The debutante is a character in transit, someone whose life circumstances were about to change radically, and there is something irresistible about that, and also very sad—so it’s no coincidence that many of the first English novels feature a debutante character. She’s all conflict and resolution, in one elegant package.

So, to return to my original question. In 2013, women can advance our lives without marriage, but many girls still choose to participate in the debutante ritual—some enthusiastically. Why? I happened to ask one debutante at last month’s party how she came to be there, and she told me that when she was 16 her parents took her on a trip to New York. They stayed at the Waldorf at the same time the ball was happening. The family sneaked onto the balcony and watched as each girl was presented. The girl said to her mother, “Mom, I want to do this.” Four years later, she made her debut, a princess fantasy fulfilled. It was clear that this girl found the whole thing incredibly glamorous—and the possibility that it might not be within her reach (she told me this was new for her family) probably only made it more seductive. There are few coming-of-age rituals left for most teenage girls, yet being a teenager is distinctly different from being a child, or an adult. The debutante party is one way to mark that.

The most interesting-looking girl at the party was a Russian-American girl from Pennsylvania. She had matte bleached-blond hair, good nail art, and a courageous face, not pretty like a doll, but beautiful. When I first saw her, I thought, Hmmm, this does not look right (but it does look awesome). She looked nothing like the other girls, who were smooth, preppy, clean, shiny, bright. This was the only girl who was not smiling from ear to ear for the entire party. This girl would be beautiful throughout her life, and had the sort of fierce, interesting face that doesn’t wither with the meandering disappointments of country-club life. While the others looked excited about the proceedings, this girl looked like she was in another place, in character, counting the minutes until her presentation was finished. We locked eyes a few times, but I was never able to talk to her. Later, I googled her name to see if I could get in touch for the interview I wasn’t able to have with her on the night of the party.

Unlike the other girls, she was traceable to something other than a Facebook page with “likes” such as “Mitt Romney” and “football.” In her non-debutante time, she is a cosplayer. Images of her in various manga costumes and excellent wigs are all over the internet. I found myself hoping fervently that she would do debutante cosplay, taking that strong subversive face to Japan, where she would pantomime debutante presentations and send the whole thing up. ♦

Kristen Richardson was born in London and raised in Connecticut, and now lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their son. Her book about the debutante ritual will be published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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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!