I was a Deb. When I did it, I didn’t know much about the whole thing except that it entailed buying a pretty dress, was important to my mother (who was also a Deb), and would require asking 2-3 boys to be my “escorts”. I will never forget my first step into the debutante experience. I had flown home from Dartmouth for Thanksgiving and headed straight from the airport to the house of one of my best friends whom I grew up with in New York City. She and her mom were hosting a “Tea” for some of the Debs in the Junior Assemblies and The Infirmary Ball. My plan was to drop my bags and quickly change into a dress once I got there. Her doormen knew me so I wasn’t “buzzed up”, but when I rang the bell to her apartment- wearing jeans, Timberlands, and an old Patagonia- I didn’t recognize the one of a dozen or so “Deb moms” who answered the door. Before I could take one step inside, the unfamiliar Deb mom looked me up and down, and in the most sachharinely sweet voice, proceeded to tell me that the “servant’s entrance” was “just around the corner.” Before I could say a word, the mother hosting the party spotted me and exclaimed, “Elizabeth! Oh my gosh! Come in and quickly change so you can tell me all about college!”… Frankly, having often been singled out as the “city girl” throughout boarding school and college, I wore that “non-debutante” badge proudly.
A debutante or deb (from French: débutante, “female beginner”) is formally defined as “a young woman making her formal entrance into society”. Queen Elizabeth I began the tradition of inviting women of noble birth to be presented to the royal court. Then in the 18th century, fundraising balls hosted by King George III and Queen Charlotte strengthened the practice. In the 19th and 20th centuries, eligible American women spent months attending balls both at home and abroad—their time oversees often “well spent,” with new money bolstering the old English aristocracy.
In Britain the debutante tradition came to an abrupt halt in 1958. Public disproval of the ritual, along with deteriorating standards (Princess Margaret infamously remarked that “every tart in London was getting in”) and fear of “paying to play”, led Queen Elizabeth II to put an end to the practice. Nevertheless, “coming out” has recently been reinstituted outside of the royal court in the form of Queen Charlotte’s Ball. Founded in 1780 by George III as a birthday celebration in honor of his wife (for whom the ball was named), Queen Charlotte’s Ball folded in 1976 but has been revived in the 21st century.
Any seasoned anthropologist could write a book (many of which already exist) about the storied rituals and traditions of “coming out” that reside stateside. The Christmas Cotillion in Savannah is said to be the oldest, beginning in 1817. Emily Post published a book on etiquette in 1922 solidifying the debutante ball as the glamorous rite of passage that it is today. In it, Post describes these balls as the “cornerstone of society.” From the roaring 20s and well into the Great Depression, the media paid close attention to debutantes.
Today’s newest talk of the town is Le Bal des Débutantes in Paris, known simply as “le Bal” (or the “Crillon Ball”, as it was originally held at Hôtel de Crillon). Many consider this event the epitome of Old World glamour, when in fact it was instituted by a savvy PR woman named Ophélie Renouard in 1992 as a ploy to garner media exposure for Paris couturiers. Renouard dressed European aristocrats and their famous American equivalents in eye-catching couture and decadent “haute joaillerie,” and added the universally attractive component of “raising money for charity”. In recent years attendees have included a Stallone, an Eastwood, a Willis (as in Demi and Bruce), and a Phillippe (as in Reese and Ryan).
In the U.S., deb balls are less mediacentric occasions, although most require an interview or nomination from a committee member. The South is steeped in debutante traditions. For example, Dallas has hosted the Idlewild Club’s debutante ball for over 130 years, and St. Louis has been home to the peculiar Veiled Prophet Ball, overseen by the unknown “’Veiled Prophet,” since 1978.
Then there’s New Orleans, where coming out is nearly an art form. Every young woman in the debutante coterie, from every ethnic and racial background, is announced in the Times-Picayune. Private parties, which happen between summer and carnival season (various krewes and social clubs present the women separately during Mardi Gras), can get quite extravagant—just ask event planner extraordinaire Bronson van Wyck, who once recreated the royal hunting lodge at Versailles for a certain deb’s father.
In New York, meanwhile, a subtle hierarchy of exclusivity still prevails. The first Friday of November marks The Mayflower Ball at The University Club, said to be reserved exclusively for debs who are direct descendants of The Mayflower. In some circles, The Junior Assemblies, held at The Plaza in December, is considered the most exclusive ball, as only family members and escorts are allowed to attend. The Infirmary Ball—formally the Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball, but dubbed the “Infirmary Ball” because the event raises money for New York Downtown Hospital—is held at The Waldorf and is notorious for its requisite curtsies and dances with garlands. “I did talk the old dowagers in charge into cutting out some of that silly stuff,” remarked Jamee Gregory, whose daughter, Samantha, was a reluctant debutante in the 1990s. “I was delighted she agreed to come out because I couldn’t in Chicago in the 60s when everyone was protesting.” Of the three most well-known coming-out parties in New York, the International Debutante Ball is the youngest as it was founded in 1954. Once covered on national television, the International Debutante Ball has a reputation for being the most democratic and media-friendly. At the ball, each debutante is escorted by two men: one a United States Military Academy cadet and the other a young man of the Deb’s choice.
Try posting anything cheerful about debutantes on social media these days and chances are you’ll be met with heavy cynical commentary about privilege and pretention—not to mention feminism, classism, fetishism, and a whole host of “isms”. On the other hand, I’ll never forget the thrill of shopping for that pretty dress with my Mom, or dancing with my Dad at The Waldorf (and again at The Plaza). I well understand the criticisms but I’m not going to lie—I had fun.