What is a debutante?
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 They have raised their eyebrows and asked why I would want to participate in such an outdated, sexist ceremony.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.
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 . . .
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.
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!
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.
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.
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