Debutante, n. [from the French debut, or beginning]: a young woman making her formal entrance into society.
The phenomenon of the debut came into vogue in America during the early 1800's. Commonly known as "coming out," the inaugural ball was usually a young woman's first formal affair, and as such marked the end of schoolgirl days. Symbolically, it represented the metamorphosis of a young girl into a young woman eligible to receive suitors. Cynical observors often labeled the coming out season "the marriage market,", since a debutante's family hoped that by the end of the season and its whirl of parties, dances, and functions, the debutante would have become some scion's fiancee. A historian or sociologist might interpret this social mechanism to introduce a girl to the "Right People" as an affirmation of class superiority.
In this country, the concept of "coming out" peaked during the 30's and 40's, when the media followed and photographed debutantes almost as often as it did movie stars. The symbolic meaning faded as the debut developed into a traditional excuse to embark on a round of expensive parties.
"Coming out" became even more of a snob statement since it furnished the spectacle of a privileged class enjoying its privileges.
Like many social bastions, the debutante fell into disrepair during the sixties. Recently, however, she has staged a comeback, though not without concessions to the times. Her "season," far from being a winter--long whirl of activities, takes place in the few weeks when everyone is home for Christmas vacation. In year's past, a deb often faced the agonizing choice of making a debut or going to college. Today, individual families rarely present their daughters as in times past. Instead, some type of social organization whith a name like the Bachelor's Club or the Spinster's Circle sponsors her and her sister debutantes. That is, they will give the presentation ball and coordinate the various social functions, in return for a considerable fee, colloquially known as "the deb's dowry."
Out of a need perhaps to justify the elaborate and useless expense-the theory that conspicuous consumption provides employment and entertainment for the masses having lost popularity some time ago--the sponsors frequently donate any profits to charity. Otherwise, the traditional trappings remain intact. Technically, a girl is "invited" to join that year's debutante "class." She must be clad completely in virginal white, and wear long white gloves. The club will supply her with a bouquet of roses and either she or her sponsors will provide at least two male escorts, dressed in tails, so she can dance away every minute of the ball if she so wishes. Photographers will be on hand, naturally, constantly taking candid and posed pictures, which they will gladly (and expensively) collate into a leather album. In this way, the memories of this glorious evening can, with a little prompting, glow in her heart forever.
All this is expensive. Besides the original fee, a family must pay to attire its daughter in her virgin white gown and often outfit her escorts as well. Other expenses include tickets for any guests they wish to bring, and the binding for the previously mentioned photo album. In addition to the official ball, the family may wish to give a private ball of their own. All told, a debut can easily cost over a thousand dollars.
Despite the illusions of elite selectivity, the truth is that just about anyone who will put up the money is acceptable. Of course, matters may become more complicated in larger cities where several separate balls occur; some clubs may be more prestigious than others. And a debutante today is more likely to be an object of derision than a golden girl. Yet, even with much of the exclusivity and the prestige and the envious crowds gone, the debut remain de rigeur for certain people. But let us experience at first hand debutante scene today by recreating the events leading up to the big night.
The Pre-Presentation Cocktail Party:
The Youngbloods Gentleman's Club recently revived the defunct debut custom in this medium-sized city by promising to send the proceeds to some worthy cause. That first year, the new Natural History Museum received five thousand dollars and the Youngbloods retained eleven thousand to "cover costs." Tonight in the Bloodhound Room, the evening before P (for Presentation) Night, the Club is hosting cocktails and canapes for this year's class of nineteen debutantes and their parents. The girls, who have little in common beside their age, delicately probe each other's reasons for coming out.
The motives are mixed. Some girls invoke principle; one young lady points out that she is "the first Jew ever to set foot in this club, let alone debut in it." Others envision more concrete rewards: "my folks promised me a car for this." "My Great-Aunt Alicia would turn in her grave if I didn't" is a common explanation. A few are cheerful--"This should be a blast"; most are; resigned. Only one fails to see the point in any of it. "It's so silly--my boyfriend's already asked me if he could ask me to marry him someday."
Meanwhile, the parents heartily compliment each others' daughters. "Weezie is certainly a picture tonight," ventures one man to a beaming woman. "Isn't she?" responds Weezie's mother. "I'm so proud of that girl, the way she's gotten hold of herself. She really messed up her life a few years back, just messed it up--"
"Oh, um...I'm sorry-"
"Oh, honey, she was rebelling. She wasn't too happy at her new school, and then her father and I got divorced, and then her dog died, so she just decided to rebel, yessir. She was on the dope line for a while. But she's all straightened out now," adds Weezie's mom, popping a chicken liver canape.
At ten the next morning, nineteen girls and nineteen fathers arrive at the Youngbloods' Club, to hang up their debut gowns and to practice the Presentation in the ballroom. Picking their way among trails of plastic cedar, they listen as a sleepy-eyed Youngblood explains the procedure: the announcer will call out each girl's name; holding a bouquet of white roses, she will then ascend the platform, curtsey to the audience, then march down the hall and latch back onto her father's arm. They run through it once, simulating the rose bouquets with short ropes of the plastic cedar.
Supervising the curtsies is Janet Tell Locke, a tiny, trim old lady with a sprig of holly pinned to her shoulder. Most of the girls know her because she taught them ballroom dancing, and taught their parents before them. She still holds her cotillions, and one of the girls asks her how the classes are going. "Just fine," she replies. "We're teaching the hustle now." Miss Locke has learned the secret of survival.
An hour before the ceremony begins, the debutante dressing room is steeped in chiffon clouds. Nineteen girls are sliding into slips, blowdrying hair, jostling each other with kid-gloved elbows. Some have brought maids who, in rushing to help their mistresses, nearly bowl the other girls over. The gowns sparkle and rustle and gleam, all as white as the driven snow. One girl is sporting a copy of her mother's wedding dress, another the family pearls. The third wears Grandma's lace-trimmed gloves and no bra.