A brief history of the debutante

Jan. 20, 2017, 8:52 a.m.

Have you ever seen that episode in “The O.C.” where Marissa dances with Ryan in that gorgeous white ballgown at her debutante ball, an event that culminates with her father’s business partner punching him in the face? Well, over winter break, I too “debbed” (though, thankfully, no one was decked at mine).

It’s a very surreal experience. To start, you have to find a dress. And not any dress, but a floor-length, pure white ballgown. So where do you go shopping for one? A bridal store! I can’t describe how odd it was to walk into a New York City bridal store at age 17 and announce, “Hi, I’m looking for a dress.” A long silence followed, after which my mom hastily added, “It’s for her graduation and her debutante. She isn’t getting married!” The sales lady looked rather relieved.

I had to get measured for kid gloves (exactly 3 inches above the elbow), take my portrait at the Colony Club and practice my curtsy. I had to find shoes, attend countless dress fittings and attend multiple rehearsals. I had to find an escort, remember how to waltz and brush up on walking in heels. You know the world has become a strange place when your biggest worry isn’t stressing about classes but your ability to walk in heels.

Finally, it was the big night. The Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball (Infirmary Ball for short) is held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City in its elegant old ballroom. The biggest challenge comes first: the receiving line. I stood in those pinching high-heeled shoes for an hour while people dressed in black tie moved through the line of girls, introducing themselves to each of us. HimynameisCarolinenicetomeetyou became my new favorite word about 30 minutes in. I’m also pretty sure that I hugged at least one person that I totally didn’t know, but we still both cooed, oh, it’s so amazing to see you!

Then the main event: the presentation. Clutching my bouquet tightly, I had to walk across the stage (slowly, slowly! the dance instructor kept reminding me), execute a four-second curtsy (hold it, hold it) and make my way down the stairs to the front of the ballroom (do not trip!). Miss Caroline Wallace Dunn, the announcer read, and everyone clapped. After a hilarious “presentation dance” and waltz, I returned to my seat, where all my friends congratulated me.

Now, if you’re wondering at this point, what is all this clapping and congratulations for? — then I’m right there with you. Because yes, the debutante ball was incredibly fun, and yes, it’s for a great cause (all the money is donated to New York Infirmary-Beekman Downtown Hospital), but seriously? Why exactly are 30 girls walking across a stage at the Waldorf in wedding dresses?

Well, tradition. Back before this age of casual hookups, people used to actually date … and if you go way, way back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even dating was considered scandalous (unchaperoned with a boy?! The horror!). Instead, young girls of a certain status would be “courted” by eligible young bachelors, with the intention of finding a suitable husband within a season or two. However, no well-to-do girl was eligible for marriage until she was presented to society. Traditionally, if planning to attend parties in multiple cities (say, London, Paris and New York) then the girl would have to be presented at all of these locales. Traveling abroad was especially tempting, because every eligible American girl’s dream was to snare a title (see “The American Heiress,” Downton Abbey” and Winston Churchill’s mother). New York City soon became the center of the deb world (along with the famous Paris Crillon Ball and a few other international versions). The Infirmary Ball is one of the oldest, as you can see from this photo of debutantes dancing the night away in New York City in 1949.

In the late 1960s, with the rise of the women’s liberation movement and a general dislike for tradition, debutante balls became distinctly “uncool.” Girls expressed no interest in parading in wedding gowns across a stage at a time when rock ‘n roll and free love were much more trendy. That all changed again in the 1980s, when economic improvements and a muting of the liberalism of the previous decade led to debutante balls becoming popular again. Now, there are other balls on the scene, most notably the International Debutante Ball, which has gained fame in recent years for allowing press to attend.

It’s more than a little strange participating in a tradition that essentially says: “Hello, society has approved you! Now you’re eligible to get married!” in the 21st century. Yes, it’s a little elitist, not particularly feminist, and antiquated. But it also is the 21st century, and these debutante balls are less about meeting future spouses and more about having a good time and raising money for an important cause.


Contact Caroline Dunn at cwdunn98 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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