ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

What is a debutante?

Updated on March 26, 2013

Why I Made My Debut

People have laughed at me. They have raised their eyebrows and asked why I would want to participate in such an outdated, sexist ceremony. People have hastily and incorrectly branded me as a snob and walked away. The truth is, being a debutante today means something quite different from what it meant two hundred years ago. This lens explores the meaning of it, both past and present, and explains why I chose to do it. The season of parties was, in itself, a fun reason. But there are loftier, more important reasons to be a debutante. The photo to the left is from the Silver Ball (I am the one in the white dress), where I was presented at age nineteen.

At my private party . . . I'm the one in the white dress.
At my private party . . . I'm the one in the white dress.

What is a Debutante?

One Debutante's Experience

FIRST THINGS FIRST . . . WHAT IS A DEBUTANTE BALL?

A cotillion, or debutante ball, is a formal dance held for the purpose of introducing young ladies to society. Depending on geographic customs, the young ladies may be anywhere from sixteen years old to twenty-one. The ball will normally be held by a club with private membership. Members are either invited to join the club by other members, or voted in at the very least. The debutantes are generally the family members or invitees of said membership. The custom dates back hundreds of years, at least, to the United States' British roots. It was adopted here by colonists, and still continues today.

At the ball, the debutantes wear long, white ball gowns. Nowadays, most debutantes will either buy wedding gowns that they can wear as balls gowns, or have a dress made by a seamstress. The gowns are floor length, and the debs also wear long, white gloves that extend over the elbow. Kid leather gloves with buttons on the inside of the wrist are best, but satin or any other type of fabric is normally acceptable as well.

Each debutante is presented on the arm of her father (usually), and has two escorts in attendance. If the debutante has a boyfriend, it is acceptable for him to be one of her two escorts. But a brother or cousin of proper age is always a good choice. When one looks back at the pictures over the course of life, it is much better to see dear friends or relatives than someone who the debutante dated casually for a few months and never saw again.

Originally, the primary purpose of the cotillion ball was to introduce the debutantes to eligible bachelors who were of an acceptable social standing. Debutantes were then seen as being old enough to receive suitors. As times progressed, this archaic notion may have waned, but the balls lived on in popularity. By mid-twentieth century or so, young ladies were being presented to society as less of a spectacle for men and as more of an individual. Debutantes became primarily seen as old enough to be invited to events and parties. The season was more like an official debut into adult society.

In some places today, the debutante season also serves as an opportunity for the clubs or societies to educate the young ladies in advanced matters of etiquette. With all the parties going on, the young ladies (and young gentlemen alike, who are also being invited to attend) will garner plenty of practice in properly responding to formal invitations, proper order of introductions, good party manners, etc.

COTILLION BALL VS. INDIVIDUAL PARTY

Some centuries ago, many cotillion societies were formed by families who wished to pool their financial resources for a ball. Especially in the post-Civil War South, people wanted to maintain their status and traditions, but needed to band together in order to do so. The ball was still a grand affair, but a group of debutantes was presented instead of just one or two girls. Modern cotillions and clubs, as mentioned above, have a relatively exclusive membership. One must be invited to join or voted in. Such exclusivity has bred disdain, in some circles, for the family who "goes it alone" and presents their daughter at a party unconnected to a club.

Most clubs have a rule, however, that in addition to all the debutantes being presented at the ball, each debutante must have her own private party. Most of the time, this can be any type of party. Aside from the ball and private parties given by each deb's family, friends of the debs' parents will sometimes host even more parties during the season.

MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

My ball gown was really a Mike Benet wedding dress. I went shopping with my mother and grandmother in Aiken, South Carolina and found it in a shop called Charlotte's. I was totally in love with the dress. My sweet grandmother gasped when she saw the price tag. But she said she would buy it for me if I promised to get married in it as well. Fourteen years later, I kept my promise with a few alterations to the dress. We added a train to it, and let out a seam or two . . . since there was a slight difference in my waistline between the ages of nineteen and thirty-three!

When I was a debutante, I elected to take advantage of the cotillion opportunity in two towns - Summerville and Charleston. The two towns were only twenty miles apart, so there was not much juggling necessary. Most of the parties were in Charleston anyway. Between the two groups of debs having party after party, though, I spent the whole season (which usually runs from May through Christmas) doing a lot of partying. It was a blast.

The party which my parents and grandparents threw for me was a semi-formal dance with a band, lots of wonderful food and drinks, and plenty of my closest friends. There were, I believe, about eight of us debuting in Summerville. But in Charleston, there were about forty of us. This made for lots of practice repsonding to formal invitations, Emily Post-style. In my sleep, I can take a plain folded notecard and write on the front, "Miss Perrin Langham Cothran accepts with pleasure the kind invitation of Mrs. Smith for Saturday, November ninth at four o'clock." I also learned about filling up a dance card, although that information has not proven useful in life since.

Some girls had barbeques or oyster roasts. Some girls had formal teas where only the ladies were invited. Since we live on the coast, two of the girls had a harbor cruise with a band and dinner. We were allowed to be just about as creative as we liked where the individual parties were concerned. In addition to the semi-formal dance my family had for me, there was also a barbeque, a tea and a picnic given by friends in my honor. I attended more parties during that year than I ever have during the entire rest of my life. It was so much fun. But the fun wasn't all there was to it . . .

Photo mine.  The home where we began the season with a ladies' tea.
Photo mine. The home where we began the season with a ladies' tea.

The greatest value of the experience, in my opinion

Sometime during my freshman year of college, my mother told me she would have to commit to the Summerville Cotillion on whether I was going to join the other debs. I deliberated for a short while, but not for too long. I remember telling my dad that on one hand, I loved any excuse to dress up and have a party. But the actual Silver Ball (the name of the ball in my hometown), with the presentation of the debs, was something I considered silly and pointless. There would be a spotlight shining on me, and I would have to curtsey in front of hundreds of people. I believe the words I used were "dog and pony show." My dad agreed with me wholeheartedly, but put it to me like this: "What if, as a young adult, you decide to come back to Charleston one day and go into business? This is a group of people who will have met you and will know who you are already." Ah - the business advantage. It is one thing when you are applying for a job to say, "I am John Smith's daughter," assuming the person interviewing you knows John Smith. But it's a stepped-up advantage if they have already met you personally.

In the end, can I say that it actually behooved me in any career-related sense to make my debut? I had a few interviews over the years (particularly after law school) with friends of my parents who had attended my private party or the ball. Sometimes they just wanted to offer me a "Co-Cola," as they call it in their generation, and tell me funny stories about my father. No real job being offered. But when I needed a professional favor or advice, I was able to call them.

Yes. Yes, I can say that it gave me an advantage in the professional world. And I would recommend it to other young women for the same reason.

(The lovely home in the photo belongs to some acquaintences of my parents. When we began the debutante season in Summerville, a beautiful ladies' tea was hosted here in honor of those of us making our debut that year.)

International Debutante Ball

I never had any involvement with this particular one, but it receives a lot of press. Held once every two years at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, New York, this ball introduces debs from all over the world.

Richards Homewares 440W Clear Vinyl Gown Bag
Richards Homewares 440W Clear Vinyl Gown Bag

Don't forget your garment bag. Very important for protecting your dress (storage or travel).

 

Read more about being a debutante. - And have a laugh while you're at it.

There are plenty of novels out there about debutantes. I haven't read any of them, so I can't say how socially accurate they are. However, these are books I have actually read and can recommend as being interesting or funny. Enjoy!

The Debutante's Guide to Life
The Debutante's Guide to Life

Now, Miss Guest gives some good, nuts-and-bolts advice (like the proper way to curtsey, what not to wear, etc) in this book. But there are also some more lighthearted sections that will bring a laugh or two. They did for me, at least.

 
From Debutante to Doublewide
From Debutante to Doublewide

This is a funny book written by one of Lewis Grizzard's ex-wives. I don't recall that it actually features much of the debutante season or experience. It was more about her life after . . . It's been many years since I read it, but it's one of those that I can't seem to give to Goodwill! I'm sure I will read it again.

 

Please check out my collection of short stories

I am a Southern author, and this is my collection of short stories. It is available on Kindle or in paperback.

Have you attended a debutante ball?

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    • profile image

      susan369 3 years ago

      I never would have thought this still existed. Straight out of Downton Abbey!

    • profile image

      lionmom100 4 years ago

      Thank you for writing about your experience. I have never heard until now of someone having this kind of experience. Very interesting.

    • CamelliaPenny profile image
      Author

      Perrin 4 years ago from South Carolina

      @anonymous: Thank you, Tipi! I'm so glad you enjoyed reading my lens. Breaking into more modules is on my "clean-up to-to list!" This was the very first lens I ever built. :) Great idea about the picture of the dress being worn as my wedding dress. Need to get out those wedding photos for another new lens anyway. :) Thanks so much for the comments!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      I've only attended a debutante ball or cotillion in my dreams, would see them in movies and was drawn to the wonder of them. I sure caught your 19 year old enthusiasm here and it just had to be irresistible to your Grandma. Sure would like to see a wedding picture and I wonder if you've thought of maybe breaking your story into more text modules with titles as you tell of your experience, traditions and and especially that professional advantage you have experience as part of being involved in the "dog and pony" show. Aren't you glad you took your parents advice....for an experience that lasts a lifetime! :)

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 4 years ago from USA

      No. I didn't know they even had them any more.

    • mjoonline profile image

      mjoonline 4 years ago

      No. I've also never met anyone who had until now. Very interesting read; I learned something new today so thank you.

    • ryokomayuka profile image

      ryokomayuka 4 years ago from USA

      No, before this I really didn't know much about it or really heard much more than the name.

    • ryokomayuka profile image

      ryokomayuka 4 years ago from USA

      No, before this I really didn't know much about it or really heard much more than the name.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      I know of them, but we don't have them where I live.

    • Melissa Miotke profile image

      Melissa Miotke 4 years ago from Arizona

      I think it's a nice tradition but we don't have debutante balls in my area.

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 4 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Yes, I have attended a debutante ball but not the big one in Charleston. It was in the upstate. Great description.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      What a great description and explanation of this old tradition. If I were trying to make a decision in this area, I would be thankful for this information.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Quite an interesting read - I didn't know very much about debutante balls until now. Blessed by a SquidAngel!

    • CamelliaPenny profile image
      Author

      Perrin 5 years ago from South Carolina

      @tvyps: Thanks for the blessing! I bet there have been some debs named Deb over the years. haha I haven't known any, though!

    • tvyps profile image

      Teri Villars 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      No, but if your name was Deb, it would've made it more interesting! I have heard that these could be one form of a Rite of Passage. Squid Angel blessed.