The tradition of debutante balls continues in modern U.S.
One summer day in Austin, Texas, Emily Bowman received a letter in the mail. It arrived in a notably large envelope decorated with finely-crafted calligraphy, inviting her to take part in a longtime American tradition: a debutante ball.
Accepting her invitation to the Crystal Ball Gala would mean agreeing to intensive etiquette training culminating in a grand ball several months down the road. As an out-of-state student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she would have to return home to Texas mid-semester to attend the big event. Initially, Bowman was hesitant to accept.
“At first I thought that I wouldn’t want to accept it. I was going to be in school; there would be a lot of work around it and I wasn’t sure how much I cared,” Bowman, now a senior at UC Boulder, said. “I thought that I would be crazy to be flying back to be ‘presented to society’ in a big white pouffy dress.”
But the more she thought about it, her sentiment began to shift. As she reminisced of her previous ball experiences, she decided she could not pass up the opportunity.
“Remembering how I looked up to the debutantes from previous years when I had been a Junior Deb or just in attendance at the event, I started to want to be in it more,” Bowman said. “I took it as sort of an honor to be invited to be a debutante and thought of it as rude to decline their invitation.”
The debutante ball, also known as a cotillion, is an age-old tradition foreign to many northeastern and west coast city-dwellers, but long-embraced by a core group of wealthy Americans, especially in the South. Debutantes were a coming of age ceremony that began in Victorian Era England to present eligible young women into high society for the first time.
The ball is an exclusive function with invitations granted to college-aged females typically based on grades, moral character and extracurricular activities, with family ties playing a significant role in the selection process. The majority of debutantes, or ‘debs’ for short, are following in the footsteps of their mothers and grandmothers.
The Chattanooga, Tenn., Cotton Ball is one of the oldest debutante balls in the country and has a history of legacies. For instance, presiding queen of the Cotton Ball, Miss Conley Lupton Crimmins, had a tough pair of heels to fill. Her great aunt, both grandfathers, cousin and mother were all King or Queen of the Cotton Ball.
Balls are held across the country primarily during the winter and spring. The event itself is an extravagant display of designer clothing, filet mignon and top-of-the-line alcohol. The event itself is an extravagant display of designer clothing, filet mignon and top-of-the-line alcohol.
An extravagant display of designer clothes, five-star food, top-of-the-line alcohol and dazzling decor, the ball may seem excessive to some but is a normal party for the people of this world.
Alison Perry, a St. Louis native, recently participated in the city’s annual Veiled Prophet debutante ball. This ball was ranked one of the “Top 5 Debutante Balls Of the World” by Guest of a Guest, a website that covers high-society events.
“The ball usually starts with the girls walking down a ‘runway’ as they make their debut,” Perry said. “The girls walking are escorted by another member of the VP and wear floor-length dresses that they usually design with long white gloves. The last seven girls who walk down the runway are the six maids of honor and the Veiled Prophet Queen— Queen of Love and Beauty. After the girls make their debut, everyone leaves the ballroom and returns soon after for the King’s Supper, which consists of dinner and dancing. This lasts until four or five in the morning and then breakfast is served. It’s an all-night affair.”
Aside from the price of a gown and additional costs for professional hair and make-up artists, the families of debutantes must pay a considerable upfront fee for their daughter to take part in the occasion. Although it varies from ball to ball, according to a Denver Post article, participation is usually a non-refundable fee of about $2,500, with additional costs for each family member and guest in attendance.
Despite the outrageous cost amid a recession, the number of debutante balls has multiplied in recent years.
The St. Louis Veiled Prophet Ball used to be an opportunity for the daughters of prominent residents to find suitors within the Veiled Prophet organization. Nowadays, with marriage far from most 18-year-old minds, the significance of the ball has shifted. It is now about becoming a part of a larger community— an upper class community— rather than finding a husband.
“The purpose used to be to present the women to society as eligible for marriage. I think that probably the only part of that that is still relevant is the being presented to society part but more as an adult than a hopeful young wife,” Bowman said.
In spite of this change, which recognizes the growing independence of young women, girls continue to parade around on stage curtsying, wearing wedding dresses and behaving just as they are told.
“You have to hang out with these people and learn these dances and learn how to be a lady, which is really silly,” Tara Boggarm, another debutante participate from Texas, said. “Men can also be a part of it but they don’t put them through the same things.”
In the 21st century, people with so much privilege still revert back to these antiquated gender roles. Even if it is just a ball, these are patriarchal customs continuing in a progressively modernized world.
Another reason for participation is the social aspect of the event. Participants spend months preparing, shopping and looking forward to a night of fine food and drinks, good friends and dancing until the wee hours of the morning.
“It’s for the VP members’ daughters to make their ‘debut’ and be presented to their society but today, I think its treated more like a big party,” Perry said. “It’s fun to get to see all your friends from different schools around St. Louis and party together in one place.”
News coverage of the events has changed significantly over the years. According to Harriet Lipnick who has resided in St. Louis for more than 60 years, build-up for the event has disappeared from local papers and airwaves.
“Throughout the year the paper used to announce the girls who would debut in the ball,” Harriet Lipnick, a St. Louis resident said. “We’d also all hear about the floats coming to the parade and want to go see them. They don’t have floats like they used to.”
Nowadays, emphasis tends to be put on the fundraising component of the balls. When asked what the purpose of the event was, participants were quick to note the charitable nature of the ball.
“The ball is also a really great way to raise money for the Helping Hand Home for Children,” Bowman said. “The tables at the ball are always ridiculously expensive and people are really generous at the silent auction so I think that has somewhat taken over the spotlight as well.”
Each ball raises money for a local charity, and hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised by debutante balls across the country every year. Earlier this year, the Denver Post reported that the Denver Debutante Ball picked a new beneficiary. Rather than donating proceeds to the Denver Symphony Orchestra, which it has raised $4.2 million for since 1956, money will now go to the Denver Botanical Gardens.
In addition to money raised at the event itself, the debs are required to do many hours of community service prior to the big day.
“The VP actually does a lot for the community,” Perry said. “All the girls who walk in the ball are required to do many hours of community service over the years to benefit the city of St. Louis.”
However, efforts to build community and bridge social inequality are invalidated when the attendees of these balls are evaluated.
“I was the only person who wasn’t white except for another girl who was Hispanic,” Boggaram, who’s parents immigrated from India, said. “I do that think that those stereotypes and historical motivations are kind of reinforced.”
The deliberate exclusion of minorities and blue-collar workers raises serious cause for concern. While ball committees claim to be slowly bridging this racial and class gap, debutante balls are largely white.
“I think the experience opened my eyes to a lot of age-old traditions,” Bowman said. “While these traditions don’t mean the same things that they used to, it’s still pretty cool to think about the fact that you’re doing something that so many generations before you have done. It’s like you’re included in that piece of history.”
But too often over-looked is the history of racial discrimination and class distinction. Only a small, elite portion of the society is actually “included” in this “city-wide” tradition. Debutante balls function to strengthen the binary of wealthy charity-givers and poor receivers, reinforcing a social structure of inequality.
Debutante balls are an idea of the past kept alive by elitist families and organizations. Despite the philanthropic facade, it is another way for the wealthy to secure and reinforce their economic standing.
Debutante balls may well be an American tradition but its a tradition of privilege that may not be worth keeping.
Abby Sophir is a junior TVR major who would rather play in the mud than wear a dress. Email her at gsophir1[at]ithaca.edu.