A debutante or deb (from French: débutante, "female beginner") is a young woman of aristocratic or upper-class family background who has reached maturity and, as a new adult, comes out into society at a formal "debut" or possibly debutante ball. Originally, the term meant that the woman was old enough to be married, and part of the purpose of her coming out was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families, with a view to marriage within a select circle.
Vienna, Austria still maintains many of the institutions that made up the social, courtly life of the Habsburg Empire. One of those is the most active formal ball season in the world. From January 1 to March 1, no less than 28 formal balls, with a huge variety of hosts, are held in Vienna. Many are for specific nationalities, like the Russian Ball or the Serbian Saint Sava ball ; social groups like the Hunter's Ball or Verein Grünes Kreuz ball, or trade groups like the Coffee Roasters or Doctors Ball. Some of these balls also have débutantes. However, the two that are best known for their débutantes are the Officer's Ball and the Vienna Opera Ball.
The Ball der Offiziere is considered to be the direct successor of Vienna's Imperial Court Ball. The modern version was founded in 1919, by the association Alt-Neustadt, an association of graduates of the Maria Theresian Military Academy. They have organized the ball publicly since 1926. The Ball is held on the third Friday of January across the twenty-three salons of the Vienna Hofburg Palace and includes nine bands of different styles of music, military formations, and dancing troupes from around the world, the patron is the President of the Republic and is hosted by the Chief of the Defense Staff. The entrance and presentation of the 80 Débutantes is the highlight of the opening event, followed by the presentation Ministers of State, then the Diplomatic Corps, and finishes with the debutantes leading the first formal Viennese Waltz to the music of the Blue Danube. The ladies are from the nobility, daughters of senior ranking military officers, or female officers in the Austrian military. They are presented to the Minister of Defense. The dress code is evening dress: white tie and tails or Mess Dress Uniform for men; strictly floor-length gowns for women. The final ceremonial is the blowing of the hunt horns and takes place 4 o'clock in the morning.
The Vienna Opera Ball is held in the auditorium of the Vienna State Opera which is turned into a large ballroom. On the eve of the event, the rows of seats are removed from the stalls, and a new floor, level with the stage, is built. The ball does not start until around 10 pm when the Austrian president and his guests enter the imperial balcony. Their arrival is heralded by trumpets. The Austrian national anthem is played followed by the European anthem. There are performances of the state opera ballet company and classical arias sung by the opera stars. These are normally a small selection of Italian opera and famous Austrian pieces. The highlight of the opening ceremony is the introduction of 180 debutante couples. These are carefully selected young women and men who have successfully completed an application program and a strict classical dance choreography organised by the Elmayer dance school. The debutantes are led into the opera house to the sounds of Carl Michael Ziehrer's Fächerpolonaise. The dress code is evening dress: white tie and tails for men; strictly floor-length gowns for women. white opera gloves are still mandatory for female debutantes at the Vienna Opera Ball.
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In Australia, débutante balls (or colloquially "deb balls") are usually organised by high schools, church groups or service clubs, such as Lions or Rotary. The girls who take part are in either Year 10, 11 or 12 at high school (i.e. aged between 15 and 18). The event is often used as a fund-raiser for local charities.
The Australian debutante wears a white or pale-coloured gown similar to a wedding dress. However, the dress does not come with a train on the skirt, and the debutante does not wear a veil. The boy wears black tie or another formal dress suit.
It is customary for the female to ask a male to the débutante ball, with males not being able to "do the deb" unless they are asked. The débutantes and their partners must learn how to ballroom dance. Débutante balls are almost always held in a reception centre, school hall, the function room of a sporting or other community organisation venue e.g. RSL club, or ballroom. Usually they are held late in the year and consist of dinner, dancing, and speeches.
In the United Kingdom, the last débutantes were presented at Court in 1958, after which Queen Elizabeth II abolished the ceremony. Attempts were made to keep the tradition going by organising a series of parties for young women who might otherwise have been presented at Court in their first season (to which suitable young men were also invited) by Peter Townend. However, the withdrawal of royal patronage made these occasions increasingly insignificant, and scarcely distinguishable from any other part of the social season.
The expression "débutante", or "deb" for short, has continued to be used, especially in the press, to refer to young women of marriageable age who participate in a semi-public upper class social scene. The expression "deb's delight" is applied to good looking unmarried young men from similar backgrounds.
The presentation of débutantes to the Sovereign at Court marked the start of the British social season. Applications for young women to be presented at court were required to be made by ladies who themselves had been presented to the Sovereign; the young woman's mother, for example, or someone known to the family. A mother-in-law who herself had been presented might, for example, present her new daughter-in-law.
The presentation of debutantes at court was also a way for young women of marriageable age to be presented to suitable bachelors and their families in the hopes of finding a suitable husband. Bachelors, in turn, used the court presentation as a chance to find a suitable wife. Those who wanted to be presented at court were required to apply for permission to do so; if the application was accepted, they would be sent a royal summons from the Lord Chamberlain to attend the Presentation on a certain day. According to Debrett's, the proceedings on that day always started at 10 am. As well as débutantes, older women, and married women who had not previously been presented could be presented at Court.
On the day of the court presentation, the débutante and her sponsor would be announced, the debutante would curtsy to the Sovereign, and then she would leave without turning her back.
The court dress has traditionally been a white evening dress, but shades of ivory and pink were acceptable. The white dress featured short sleeves and white gloves, a veil attached to the hair with three white ostrich feathers, and a train, which the débutante would hold on her arm until she was ready to be presented. Débutantes would wear pearls but many would also wear jewellery that belonged to the family.
After the débutantes were presented to the monarch, they would attend the social season. The season consisted of events such as afternoon tea parties, polo matches, races at Royal Ascot, and balls. Many débutantes would also have their own "coming-out party" or, alternatively, a party shared with a sister or other member of family. The Queen Charlotte's Ball, a contemporary revival of the traditions of presentation at court, continues under the patronage of the Duke of Somerset.
American debutante balls
A cotillion or débutante ball in the United States is a formal presentation of young women, débutantes, to "polite society", typically hosted by a charity or society. Those introduced can vary from the ages of 16 to 18 (younger ages are more typical of Southern regions, while older are more common place in the North). In some areas 15- and 16-year-olds are called "junior débutantes".
One of the most prestigious, the most exclusive and the most expensive debutante balls in the world is the invitation-only International Debutante Ball held at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where girls from prominent world families are presented to high society. The International Debutante Ball has presented princesses, countesses, baronesses and many European royalty and aristocrats as debutantes to high society, including Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia, Vanessa von Bismarck (great-great-granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck), Princess Natalya Elisabeth Davidovna Obolensky (granddaughter of the Prince Ivan Obolensky, who is the Chairman of the International Debutante Ball and himself the grandson of John Jacob Astor IV – founder of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel), Princess Ines de Bourbon Parme, Countess Magdalena Habsburg-Lothringen (great-great-granddaughter of Empress Elisabeth "Sisi" of Austria) and Lady Henrietta Seymour (daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Somerset).
Daughters and granddaughters of billionaire businessmen, American politicians, senators, congressmen, ambassadors and some United States Presidents have also been presented at the International Debutante Ball; for example, Tricia Nixon, Julie Nixon, Jennie Eisenhower, Ashley Walker Bush (granddaughter of President George H. W. Bush and niece of President George W. Bush), Lucinda Robb (granddaughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson), Christine Colby (daughter of CIA director William Colby), Hollister Knowlton (future wife of CIA director David Petraeus), Charlotte and Catherine Forbes (granddaughters of Malcolm Forbes) and Christina Huffington (daughter of Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post). Ivanka Trump (daughter of President Donald Trump) was invited but chose not to attend.
To gain entrance to a debutante ball, débutantes must usually be recommended by a distinguished committee or sponsored by an established member of élite society, typically their mothers or other female relatives. Wearing white gowns and satin or kid gloves, the débutantes stand in a receiving line, and then are introduced individually to the audience. The débutante is announced and then is walked around the stage, guided by her father who then presents her. Her younger male escort then joins her and escorts her away. Each débutante brings at least one escort, sometimes two. Many débutante balls select escorts and then pair them with the debs to promote good social pairings. Cotillions may be elaborate formal affairs and involve not only "debs" but also junior débutantes, escorts and ushers, flower girls and pages as well. Every débutante must perform a curtsy also known as the St. James Bow or a full court bow, with the exception of Texas débutantes who are presented at the International Debutante Ball at New York City's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, who perform the "Texas Dip". This gesture is made as the young woman is formally presented. Débutante balls exist in nearly every major city in the United States but are more common and larger affairs in the American South.
The Christmas Cotillion in Savannah, Georgia, first held in 1817, is the oldest débutante ball in the United States. Many cities such as Dallas and Atlanta have several balls in a season. Dallas, for example, is home of the traditional Idlewild organisation, as well as more modern organisations such as the Dallas Symphony Orchestra Presentation Ball and La Fiesta de las Seis Banderas, both of which benefit charities. The National Cotillion and Thanksgiving Ball of Washington, DC., hosted by Mary-Stuart Montague Price, has met every November for over 60 years with proceeds going to Children's Hospital. Debutantes can formally participate in the ball for up to three years, with different colors representing their increasing confidence and sophistication: debutantes wear white, post-debutantes wear black and the post-post debutantes wear red.
Another "Old South" débutante ball is the St. Cecilia Society Ball held annually in Charleston, South Carolina. This ball is described in Alexandra Ripley's novel, Scarlett, the sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With The Wind. The Society was formed in 1766 as a private subscription concert organization. Over the next fifty-four years, its annual concert series formed the most sophisticated musical phenomenon in North America. Although its musical patronage ended in 1820, the St. Cecilia Society continues to flourish today as one of South Carolina's oldest and most exclusive social institutions. Today, one of the main functions of the St. Cecilia Society is to host the annual debutante ball. The society admits only men whose fathers or brothers are members, and so the women must be from one of these families.
In New Orleans, Louisiana, a débutante is usually presented during the Carnival season. In New York City, there are still several deb balls. One that draws from all over the world is the International Debutante Ball. Also, there are other charity and social balls such as the Infirmary (benefits the local hospital), the Society of Mayflower Descendants Ball, and the Saint Nicholas Society of the City of New York Ball (founded 1835). As an alternative to a ball, and more commonly in the old North, a young woman might have her own "coming-out party", given by her parents. Unlike a collective ball, which would be only held at a certain time of the year, such a party could be at any time of the year, but might well be scheduled around the débutante's birthday or graduation from high school or university. In theory, the only women who could be invited would be those who had already made their débuts, thus affording a sort of rank-order to the débutante season. "Old-money" families often send their preteen sons and daughters to dancing classes, called cotillion, and etiquette lessons in preparation for these parties, which launch their children into society and act as major networking events. Even less grand débutante balls typically require debs to attend a few lessons in social dance, comportment, and in executing their curtsy.
The African American community has a long tradition of charitable events and activities since the early 20th century. A large portion of these activities happened during social events and formal activities, namely, cotillions and debutante balls. It was at these events that those African Americans who had the means to expand their wealth were able to meet with other successful African Americans, and make social and political and economic connections. These formal cotillion and debutante balls still thrive as a viable outlet for those seeking success to participate in one of the most traditional vestiges of the African American upper class.
Debutante balls in U.S. television and films
Several television series focused on young people from wealthy families include episodes with débutante events. "The Debut," an episode of The O.C. (a drama about wealthy Californians), featured a representation of an American débutante ball. "Hi, Society," (season 1, episode 10), "They Shoot Humphreys, Don't They?," (season 3, episode 9), "Riding in Town Cars with Boys (season 5, episode 10), and "Monstrous Ball" (season 6, episode 5) of Gossip Girl, also from The O.C. creator Josh Schwartz, features a débutante ball in New York City. "Presenting Lorelai Gilmore", an episode of Gilmore Girls shows Rory Gilmore as a débutante. She makes her debut at a Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) débutante ball that her grandmother helped put together. In The Critic, Jay Sherman's younger sister Margo is persuaded to reluctantly attend her débutante ball.
Crime dramas also have investigated début-related murders. "Zoo York," an episode of CSI: NY, featured the CSI team investigating the murder of a débutante. Medical examiner Evan Zao comments that he attended a débutante ball. "Debut", an episode of Cold Case, tells the story of a young girl who is murdered the night of her débutante ball. In an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, entitled "Streetwise", detectives investigated the rape and murder of a débutante.
Films with débutante themes include Metropolitan, Whit Stillman's début feature film, a comedy of manners set during the deb season in Manhattan, and What a Girl Wants, a 2003 film in which Amanda Bynes plays an American teen whose estranged father is a British Lord, and who is presented at a coming out party after being reunited with her mother. In another movie featuring Bynes, She's The Man, the main character attends a debutantes preparation program throughout the movie which ends with the debutante ball. Something New, a romantic comedy has a cotillion scene of upper class African Americans on the west coast. The Debut, a film on contemporary Filipino American life, touches upon a wide variety of cultural themes within the plot of an informal débutante event.
The 1992 film The Addams Family is centered around the reconciliation of Gomez and Fester Addams, who had had a falling out as teenagers when Gomez had wooed both his date and Fester's (Flora and Fauna Amore, the siamese twins) at the débutante ball. In the 1994 film Little Women, a "coming-out" party is thrown, Aunt March is also seen talking to Marmee about when Meg will be introduced into society.
In Mexico, Dominican Republic, Panama, Puerto Rico and Paraguay, débutantes are young girls who take part in a Festival de Debutantes, or a "Quince Años" upon their fifteenth birthday.
In Brazil and Mexico, such events are called Baile de Debutante (Spanish and Portuguese) or Festa de Debutante (only Portuguese), or Quince Años (Spanish) or Quinze Anos (Portuguese).
- Michael Mayerböck: 21. Jänner 2011 Wiener Hofburg. in: Der Soldat, Nr. 2/2011 vom 21. Jänner 2011, S. 1.
- 60 Jahre Bundesheer – Musikalischer Auftakt in das Jubiläumsjahr. Abgerufen am 1. Februar 2015.
- http://www.ballderoffiziere.at Geschichte des Balles der Offiziere Abgerufen am 12. Dezember 2011.
- "Make Your Debut At The Vienna Opera Ball-Dresscode". upstream.wiener-staatsoper.at. Retrieved 9 November 2019.
- "Obituary: Peter Townend". The Daily Telegraph. 18 July 2001. Retrieved 14 August 2012.
- The semi-autobiographical novel Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes 2008 is an informative description of partaking in 'The Season' in these final years compared to its height.
- "In vogue on NYSD". NYSD. Retrieved 17 December 2017.
- "Christine M. Colby to Marry". New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017.
- "Hollister Knowlton Betrothed To David H. Petraeus, a Cadet". New York Times. Retrieved 17 December 2017.
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- Debutante’s Guide to Life. Cornelia Guest. 1986. p.108
- Each of the numerous invitations in the St. Cecilia Society Collection at the South Carolina Historical Society, which span from 1841 through the 20th century, names the location of the event
- However, in the case of Helen Barney, the term "débutante ball" was applied to the "coming-out party" given her by her uncle, William Collins Whitney, at his home at 871 Fifth Avenue in New York City on 5 January 1901. Cleveland Amory, Who Killed Society?, pp. 502–503. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.
- Anderson, Adrienne. "About Cotillions of Color". Cotillions of Color. Archived from the original on 8 March 2014. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Hann, Christopher (15 November 2010). "The Lost History of Black Cotillions". Drew News. Drew University. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Casimir, Leslie (18 July 2004). "COTILLIONS MAKE A COMEBACK Courtly Tradition Updated By African-Americans". New York Daily News. Retrieved 28 February 2014.
- Anderson, Ann (2012). High School Prom: Marketing, Morals and the American Teen. McFarland. pp. 7–10.
- Alvarez, Julia. Once upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (Penguin, 2007), the Hispanic version
- Butler, Nicholas Michael. Votaries of Apollo: The St. Cecilia Society and the Patronage of Concert Music in Charleston, South Carolina, 1766–1820. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
- Chenier, Elise. "Class, Gender, and the Social Standard: The Montreal Junior League, 1912–1939." Canadian Historical Review 90#4 (2009): 671–710. in Canada
- Jabour, Anya. Scarlett's Sisters (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2007) on upper class Southern belles
- Lewis, Cynthia, and Susan Harbage Page. "Secret Sharing: Debutantes Coming Out in the American South." Southern Cultures 18#4 (2012): 6–25.
- Marling, Karal Ann. Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom (2004) excerpt
- Neeland, Elizabeth C. "The Woman in White: An Analysis of Women's Meaning-making Experiences in Debut" (MA thesis. University of Georgia, 2006) online, a case study of the 2005 Blue Gray Colonel's Ball in Montgomery, Alabama, to study Southern debutante culture
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