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A debutante (UK /ˌdɛbjuːˈtɑːnt/, /ˌdeɪbjuːˈtɑːnt/) or deb (from the French débutante, "female beginner") is a girl or young woman of an aristocratic or upper-class family who has reached maturity and, as a new adult, comes out into society at a formal "debut". Originally, the term meant 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.
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 16 and 18), and the event is often used as a fund-raiser for local charities.
The debutante girl wears a white dress 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 a tuxedo or other 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 respective squires who are partaking in the official proceedings must learn how to ballroom dance. Débutante balls are almost always held in a reception centre, 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 girls 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 girls 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 girls 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 also 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.
American debutante balls
A cotillion or débutante ball in the United States is a formal presentation of young ladies, débutantes, to "polite society," typically hosted by a charity or society. The ladies introduced can vary from the ages of 16 to 21 (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 expensive debutante balls in the United States is the International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, where girls from prominent world families are presented at the ball. In the past Princesses, Countesses, Baronesses and European royalty have attended. Daughters of Ambassadors and even presidents have been presented. (Princess Katarina Yugoslavia, Julie Nixon, Jennie Eisenhower)
To gain entrance to a 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 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 presenting at the 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.
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 middle-class.
Various Ukrainian émigré organisations in the United States such as the Ukrainian American Medical Association of North America, the Ukrainian Engineers' Society of America, Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization, and the Ukrainian American Youth Association have hosted annual black-tie debutante balls since the Second World War as fundraisers and introduce young Ukrainian ladies between the ages of 16 and 18 to their local Ukrainian communities. Ukrainian American debutante balls take place in many American cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Newark, Washington D.C., Detroit, and Boston. Besides the traditional waltz of the debutantes, one of the highlights of these balls is the Kolomyjka which usually takes place past midnight wherein every guest has the opportunity to spontaneously demonstrate their Ukrainian dance skills such as the Hopak or Arkan. Kolomyjka dances tend to last upwards of a half-hour of nonstop folk dancing, ultimately returning to the traditional black-tie ball atmosphere.
In most areas of the United States, the debutante ball and coming out party has largely been replaced with a combination of the senior prom and the graduation party (see Academic graduation by country,) which extend the 'coming out' to include young adult males. The senior prom is a black-tie dance hosted by the school for high schoolers in their last year, seen as a teenage rite of passage. Prom season tends to last from April until May. Upon their child's graduation from high school, parents may throw him or her a high school graduation party to celebrate the achievement and the child's ascension into 'adulthood.' Graduation party season may last from May until June of each year, with multiple parties held each weekend, and the parent's coworkers, extended family, and members of the community are invited for networking, rather than solely the honoree's friends. Instead of a ball, these parties usually follow an informal open house (common school event) reception model or may be a garden party, with guests coming and going as they please. Cash gifts and advice for the honoree are expected in most communities and it is considered insulting to decline attendance.
Debutante balls in US 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 upper middle class 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 and Order: SVU, 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's ball. Something New, a romantic comedy has a cotillion scene of upper class African Americans on the west coast. The Debut, a film considered to be an accurate snapshot of 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 centred 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 the Disney Channel made-for-TV movie Cow Belles, starring Aly & AJ, one of their characters gets kicked out of the ball for not having enough money.
In an episode of the Nickelodeon television series CatDog, there is an entire story based on the debutante of the character Shriek, a member of a gang called the Greaser Dogs who happens to come from a wealthy family.
In Mexico, Puerto Rico, Panama, and Paraguay, débutantes are those 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).
- "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.
- 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.
- Alvarez, Julia. Once upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA (Penguin, 2007), the Hispanic version
- 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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