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It’s Easy to Dismiss Debutante Balls, But Their History Can Help Us Understand Women’s Lives

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The debutante ritual flourished roughly from 1780 to 1914—beginning with the first debutante ball in London and ending with the outbreak of World War I. During these years, Great Britain became the dominant power in the West, and its culture spread outward from the fashionable capital of London to provincial cities in Britain and eventually to its far-flung colonies. His Majesty’s British subjects, and later Americans, too, waited on coral atolls and in bustling port cities for ships that brought newspapers filled with word of fashionable music, dance and conversation. Daughters had their seamstresses copy dresses they saw, adapting them to climates with Spanish moss and pink sand or icy winters and salty air. Even the daughters of an innkeeper at a ferry on the Shenandoah walked for seven miles three times a week to attend the lessons with a French dancing master who taught them to trace the same quadrilles danced by aristocrats in distant, foreign courts.

These young women who were presented to monarchs, who were betrothed to waning aristocrats, or whose fathers scrounged for money so they could walk across a stage and curtsy to a small-town mayor or rodeo clown, were united by an irresolvable dilemma—the only respectable career for women was marriage, and the best marriages were made by debutantes.

The debutantes we think of today, bowing deeply in frosty dresses, originated and evolved in England and America quite simply because they were needed to solve a problem. The Protestant Reformation in 16th century England and northern Europe ended the extremely convenient practice of cloistering unmarriageable girls in convents. While Catholic aristocracy in Europe continued this practice, the English aristocracy now had a daughter problem. Protestants, you see, don’t have convents. When an exasperated Mr. Bennett says of his five daughters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “What’s to be done with all these girls?” he was speaking to a marriage problem that had existed, unresolved, for several hundred years already. The Reformation left wealthy or titled Englishmen with a glut of daughters, whose marriages had to be considered most delicately since, by law, they could not inherit their fathers’ estates. The type of marriage the debutante ritual would provide was safe—the girls were presented to vetted company—and prevented a bad marriage from dragging down the status of an entire family, like Lydia’s threatened to do in Austen’s novel.

To understand how and why the ritual developed specifically in England and its colonies requires considering to what extent the marriage market was indeed a market, born, not coincidentally, during England’s long, slow industrialization. England experienced commercialization earlier than did other countries due in large part to the social upheaval that followed the Reformation. Free market experimentation was destabilizing and changed the way people thought and behaved, replacing guaranteed income from inherited land with the boundless possibility of new speculative ventures.

Greater economic mobility and freedom created a social insecurity that played particular havoc with society’s most pleasing commodity, young women, who etched their conflicted feelings about their debutante experiences into countless diaries and letters. Some participated, but resented newcomers and competition. Some crouched in corners and hid from the throngs. Sometimes a young woman bloomed and performed well under inspection, convincing herself, perhaps, that she had some choice in a process that might fashion her salvation or downfall, all of which begs the question, if we are indeed trapped, should we try to enjoy it?

What does it feel like to be a debutante? Numerous journals and letters suggest conclusions far less varied than I anticipated, perhaps because the disenchanted are more enthusiastic about writing their recollections. In the early years of debutante presentation, there was less dissent. But as options for women grew, women became more conflicted about what a debutante presentation meant, and more aware of their status as objects or pawns within a larger schematic process.

Some women felt as Edith Wharton did, describing her season as a “long, cold agony of shyness.” Eleanor Roosevelt hated her debut, which she made at the White House alongside her more glamorous cousin, Alice, daughter of then-president Theodore Roosevelt. Those who enjoyed the process were happy to have their names peppered throughout gossip columns and in fashion magazines. Some kept journals listing their conquests. Brenda Frazier, the most famous debutante of the 20th century, whose face sold cars and perfumes, claimed in a 1963 LIFE magazine article that her mother had forced her into the limelight at 17 and said, “I was a fad that year, the way midget golf was once a fad, or flagpole sitting.” And there are, too, innumerable nameless girls who went through this process, whose only legacy is their debutante scrapbook, a record of press clippings and photos of fellow debutantes. These scrapbooks are generally found at the tail end of family archives, where one first must riffle through the recorded deeds of great and accomplished tycoons, politicians, and landowners. Even though these daughters played a vital role in the transmission of their fathers’ power, their lives remain obscure.

It is ironic then that the season was the only chance a debutante would have to experience even the barest hint of control over her own body and mind. The transitional space between her parents’ house and her husband’s was the freest she would likely ever be. At a party, this might mean noting the texture of champagne sliding down her throat or the restraint of a corset, or the pain from her beautiful shoes. She would hear the din of an orchestra, the buzz of the lights, whispers in corners, murmurs of assent, reluctant demurrals. She would smell the heavy scent of flower arrangements, the deep, humid smoke of cigars and the dryness of cigarettes. The terror of everyone focusing on her, the tightness of her hair, the immobility of her smile, the boredom of civic responsibility.

Since it became institutionalized in the late 18th century, the debutante ritual has been unkillable. Though there is a moment at every debutante party when an elderly relative sounds a dirge for the passing of the age of debutantes, it is not a ritual in mellow decline but one that is completely bulletproof. Its very outmodedness is part of its value—its built-in nostalgia is fundamentally necessary to its continuation.

But my research revealed that the debutante ritual is far more complex and interesting than I could have anticipated. It took time for the barter of daughters to acquire an agreeable sheen, for the debutante ritual to become so beautiful and exclusive that girls themselves began to crave participation. The debutante ritual was so effective a social-climbing tool that parents jockeyed over presentation venues; it was so costly that it created new industries for its supporting staff. The debutante ritual created a soft economy wherein people with knowledge and family history, but no money, could earn a living as guardians of ancient social rules.

Today’s social life still follows the rhythm of the debutante season and its focus remains money—fathers didn’t only advance through their daughters, they figured out how to make them beg for the right to curtsy. Because of its primal link to coming of age rituals and its success at advancing the social status of its participants, the debutante ritual has been adopted by numerous and varied cultures, who have alternately democratized it or ruined it, depending on whom you ask.

The ritual was a main driver of upper-class marriage in Britain and the United States for several hundred years, but it has never been taken seriously by scholars. When I began to look into the ritual’s origins, I was surprised they were so difficult to pinpoint. Historians have been content to describe when it began, but have been uninterested in dealing with why. Elitist rituals are easy to dismiss, and when they shape young women’s lives it’s easier still. But if we do so, we miss a key part of women’s history, and of the history of marriage as well.

WW Norton & Co

Adapted from The Season: A Social History of the Debutante by Kristen Richardson, available now from W.W. Norton & Company.

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