Debutante balls and the persistent obsession with the purity of young women

Debutante balls are where our obsessions with high society and the purity of young women converged. For centuries, marriage was the only career path for women and Debutantes have had to aspire to idealised conception of what it means to be feminine.  This is perhaps why we find Debutante balls so fascinating.  Entrenched with traditional ideas of gender and class, these balls were once an aristocratic tradition, whereby those who have barely reached adulthood, are debuted.  This was considered a rite of passage for these young women who were bred as socialites, as they took their first steps towards marriage.  

In the UK, the tradition involved donning the most glamorous pearl-white gowns, attending a ball and being presented to wealthy and appropriate (and often older) cavaliers during London’s high society season.  In pictures, they are seen dripping in jewelry floating down the stairs in unison with the male suitors in the background.  Of course, we call them debutante balls and not cavalier balls for a reason, as the debutantes are the main event.  Attendees often included royalty, with Queen Charlotte’s Ball considered the most exclusive in the country, and was hosted by the Royal Family. It is a tradition that persists in many forms.

All movements were carefully choreographed to allow the brokering of wealth through marriages. With inheritance and property laws largely ignoring the existence of women, debutante balls allowed for economic match-making between families.  It served as a strategy to maintain a hereditary upper class by creating opportunities to marry within the class, and without requiring ‘newcomers.’

Historically, the debs would have almost always had a rudimentary education.  Nothing too substantial, but enough to hold a conversation (British women only started attending university towards the end of the 19th century).  The most accomplished debutantes might have spoken French and studied Latin.  They would, like many debutantes today, spend weeks in preparation for the ball, as they would need to perfect their curtsey and learn how to dance in step.  Outside of the season, they may still be studying, or even enrolled into a finishing school, a school for young women that focuses on teaching social graces and upper-class cultural rites as a preparation for entry into society.  It was important for a young Debutante to understand etiquette and how to negotiate the complexities of social situations if they were to attract a husband.   For many, a daughter enrolled in one of the fine swiss finishing schools would have been a pinnacle of success in child-rearing.

I first came across Debutante Balls in my teenage years, when a friend recommended a documentary on the subject.  I poured over the images of these beautiful young women, who were a similar age to me, but more elegant, more glamorous, and better dressed. They dripped with a quiet confidence.  I understood there was a process whereby I could also attend such an event (I had not quite grasped that I was not aristracatic) pending an interview with my parents.  Enchanted with the beauty of these young debs, I queried this with my mother.  Ever-supportive, she said she would be happily interviewed if I did apply, but once they noticed her soft Mancunian accent, they probably would not be interested. My ambitions were quickly forgotten.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

A brief history 

The debutante ball today is far flung from it’s not-so-humble roots.  Although they are believed to have originated in the 17th century, George III held Britain’s first official Debutante ball in 1780 in honour of his wife Queen Charlotte’s birthday.  Debs would be escorted in front of the monarch and curtsey. Only girls who had a relation who had herself been presented at court could apply, and they had to wear virginal white.  Tiaras were optional, but only if they were in the family.  Alongside Queen Charlotte’s Ball, there were a number of private or fringe Debutante Balls.  Young women could spend the season in London and attend multiple debutante balls in a bid to secure their future.  The tradition flourished, with some notable marriages and debutantes.

Lady Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire was once a debutante.  Shortly after, on her seventeenth birthday, married William, Duke of Devonshire.  She once considered the ‘most eligible debutante of her age,’ before her marriage to the Duke.  In marriage, she established herself as quite a remarkable and fashionable socialite, influencing not only her immediate peers, but parliamentary politics.  However, the success of the marriage floundered.  There were some notable affairs on both sides, with the Duke’s standoffish and cold behavior documented in the 2008 film, The Duchess.  

The notorious Mitford sisters were debutantes, as they were born to Lord and Lady Redesdale and therefore, also aristocratic.  In 1932, Unity Mitford debuted at the palace, in the same year her socialite older sister Diana left her husband to pursue an affair with Oswald Mosley who had founded the British Union of Fascists (BUF).  Unity later left the UK for Germany, where she eventually became close friends with Hitler. 

These events continued until 1914, where the balls were paused during the first world war.  By this time, the fashionable event had spread across Europe and through the British colonies, incorporating regional traditions into the familiar format.

Debutantes Abroad

Debutante Balls had been imitated in various ways across the globe in British colonies whilst Britain remained the dominant power in the West.  As Kristen Richardson explained in The Season, ‘the practice of formally presenting young women to society was exported from English in some form to most of its colonies during the consumer revolution.’  The Debutante balls soon became intertwined with upper-middle class American culture.

The first Debutante Balls were held in wealthy port towns, such as Charleston, New Orleans, and St. Louis.  These towns acted as hubs for the new colonizers for social events.  The events soon trickled down and were replicated in smaller towns.  In the same period, numerous private clubs and societies were founded to allow effective social climbing.  They began hosting the same Debutante Balls as many do so today. 

However, Americans had no titles nor royalty to bow down to.  With no hereditary titles to filter out the nobodies, the tradition heavily relied on the daughters of wealthy merchants and king’s representatives to attend.  Therefore, the balls could take place wherever there was the means to hold a ball.  In the smaller towns, the same white families in these towns maintained power and influence through intermarriage for generations, facilitating the creation of a new upper class in America.

Like the UK, once Debutante balls were introduced they were present for centuries.  Debutante Balls in the US still perpetuated an ideal feminine beauty.  In the mid-twentieth century and with a boom in advertising for young women, teenage girls were soon implored to buy products that would allow them the Debutante-chic.  These advertisements largely used the image of a white and blonde and used the myth of debutante-exclusivity as a means to sell hand creams to powders. 

Just as the popularity of the balls began to wane in the UK, it did so too with Americans.  For decades, the shows of extravagance were considered an exciting spectacle, but there was a growing sentiment that Debutante Balls were obscene and unnecessary. There were numerous transatlantic matches, to allow the exchange of wealth for hereditary titles.  This soon was considered passe, as Richardson explains that many saw the debutante balls as the facilitation of ‘American capital being wasted on dowries used for the upkeep of European aristocratic households.  Newspapers wrote coyly that the wealthy classes had an unhealthy, undemocratic obsession with acquiring hereditary titles.’  College soon began to replace Debutante Balls as an intermediary step between girlhood and eligibility for marriage. 

Despite the turning tables, the tradition persisted.  The most infamous Debutante Ball is the International Debutante Ball, which was only founded in 1954 by social, philanthropist and humanitarian Beatrice Dinsmore Joyce. Joyce, who was dubbed as the ‘Duchess of Debs’ and the ‘Grand dame of debutante balls,’ was inspired to create an American debutante ball after hearing Consuelo Vanderbilt make an observation about debutante balls and how lucky girls are who travel to debutante balls in different countries.The first balls were held at the Plaza Hotel, with 35 girls from different countries and different states. As it grew with more girls participating, it moved to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.  

There are still countless debutante balls across America, but the International Debutante Ball remains the most infamous.   Like with many things, the memories of the debutante balls are mixed.  Eleanor Roosevelt, former US diplomat and first lady, famously once said of her debut, “It was simply awful. It was a beautiful party, of course, but I was so unhappy.”

In 2008, Deidre Murphy curated an exhibition that explored the lives of these young debutantes.  Of the exhibition, she said: “The tendency is to think that everybody just had a wonderful time and while, of course, the vast majority of people did, in doing research I met some people who didn’t necessarily have the time of their lives.  For instance, certain people who were shy or didn’t like the discomfort of waiting around for a man to ask them to dance. It wasn’t always easy.”

Whereas others remembered these occasions much more fondly.  Former debutantes are partially responsible for a revival in areas and the continuation of the traditions in other areas.  Many have made the tradition a 21st century business.  Diana Mosley (nee Mittford) would go on to write a visually-rich book celebrating debutantes.

Other than the US, one of the most successful Debutant Balls is held in Austria.  Since 1814, the Austrians have held the Wiener Opernball that boasts not only the elegant young Debutantes, but also a star-studded guest list, an impressive musical heritage and some of the best ballet dancers in Europe.  Nowadays the young debutantes can participate for the modest sum of 1000 EUR.  There are still 450 balls held annually in Austria, but the Wiener Opernball remains the firm favourite, due to its history and strong ties to Swarowiski.  Previous attendees have included Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton. 

Photo by Brett Jordan on Pexels.com

The Reluctant Debutante

Debutante balls we know today are very different to Queen Charlotte’s Ball.  The Queen finally ended the tradition of the annual ball in 1958, against a backdrop of overt criticism against the royal family as the UK edged into the swinging sixties and sexual revolution.  Being a virgin was widely considered a precondition for being debuted, but social attitudes towards the purity of young women were changing.  It had become less popular since the war for a number of reasons.  In 1955, The Reluctant Debutante, by William Douglas-Holme, hit the London stage.  This light-hearted satire provided a social commentary on debutantes and poked fun at the pushy parents who attempted to broker marriage.  Whilst the tradition may have been still popular for parents, young women began to feel embarrassed or worse, uncool, at attending the Debutante ball.  

Lord Altrincham is considered the person who put the nail in the coffin.  He venomously attacked the Queen and wider Royal Family, writing that the royal household reflected a ‘tight enclave of British ladies and gentlemen’ rather than the good relations with the commonwealth.  As Fiona McCarthey explains in the Last Curtsey, ‘what he saw as the court’s ‘social lopsidedness’ was emphasised by the blatant social selectiveness of palace presentation, outdated rituals which Altrincham suggested should have been “quietly discontinued in 1945.”  He believed that Britain should strive for a classless Commonwealth Court and the only people who deserved to be presented to the monarch are those who had positively earned the right.  

Many senior royals were unabashedly happy about ending the traditions.  The Duke of Edinburgh declared the tradition “bloody daft.”  Princess Margaret would later explain that they had to end it because “every tart in London was getting in.”  The somewhat snobbish comment has been attributed to the vast number of girls who claimed to have had aristratic connections, which made the already tedious task of being curtseyed to by hundreds of teenage girls seem never ending. 

Paris and London

Whilst it seems that the royal family are in no rush to reintroduce debuts at the palace any time soon, there have still been attempts to revive the debutante balls in various forms in the UK and in wider Europe.  Perhaps the most successful has been le Bal des Debutantes, affectionately called ‘Le Bal,’ which takes place in Paris every year.  It first began in 1958, continuing for ten years until the 1968 uprising.  It was resurrected in 1994 by Ophélie Renouard as an invite only event that celebrates French couture, beauty and charity.  It is widely considered a modern take on the traditional deb ball and debs were no longer required white.  Renouard initially conceived of le Bal as a way to get media attention for French fashion houses.

Every autumn, about twenty glamourous young women flock to Paris for le Bal, with their invite in hand.  Rather than the traditional links to dukes and earls, le Bal is known for attracting businessmen and women and celebrity offspring, such as the children of Jet Li, Reese Witherspoon, and Bruce Willis. Participants must be aged between 16-22 and embody the ideal of an accomplished young woman.  For le Bal, this means being a studious young woman with a passion for fashion and charity, ideally with celebrity parents.  As with many Debutante balls, the ideals they are asked to embody are often conflicting.  You are meant to be accomplished, but even for the balls that are not invite-only, the costs of entry render it inaccessible to most.  Therefore, you are only compared to a small slice of your peers.  

In London, Debutante balls are big business and tend to cater for wealthy individuals and their offspring, rather than the established middle and upper classes.  The London Season hosts the new Queen Charlotte’s Ball and has refocused on training young women in British etiquette.  Although it claims Debutantes also participate on an invite-only basis, Debutantes are allowed to send in applications, in which they provide a photograph of themselves.  Clearly Euro-centric ideals of beauty still play a large role in the life of a debutante.  Although Queen’s Charlotte’s Ball nowadays barely makes newsstands, it has enjoyed success in exporting it’s brand of British etiquette. Several years ago, they were asked to set up a Shanghai Bebutante ball and since then they have been selecting three Chinese debutantes to attend their London ball alongside three American girls and 14 English girls. Jennie Hallam-Peel, organiser of the ball, said they introduced the Chinese debutantes after being approached by “some sort of trillionaire” who said “we would love Chinese girls to be involved”.

Whilst Le Bal appeals to celebrities, Queen’s Charlotte’s Ball attempted to turn it back on the celebutante.  In 2009, when it was reintroduced, Hallam-Peel explained “I think people are sick and tired of New Labour’s political correctness and this horrendous cult of the celebrity […] People want to re-instate some of the proud institutions that defined Britain’s identity and I believe debutantes are very much part of that.” Clearly, the nationalism associated with the Debutante ball also appealed.  

The other large Debutante ball in London is the Russian Debutante Ball, which was hosted annually in the splendour of the Grosvenor House ballroom in Mayfair for five years until 2017, with scores of Russian women dressed in white ball gowns being debuted.  Tickets could be bought at a range of prices upwards of £290.  You might think it strange for a man to attend a beauty contest alone, even exploitative, but eyebrows are not raised when the same man spends upwards of £500 to watch a 17 year old debut.  Originally, it was quite successful with photographs of filled ballroom floors, however, this success faltered after the Salisbury poisonings. 

In 2018, it was announced the ball was cancelled for the next two following years.  In light of an increasingly suspicious reception for Russian oligarchs and members of the elite, it became too difficult for Russians to obtain UK visas after the Salisbury attack.  The majority of the tickets were naturally sold to wealthy Russians and it became no longer viable for the event to continue.  In previous years Princess Olga Romanoff, a relative of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, has been patron of the ball and has welcomed British royalty such as Princess Michael of Kent. 

The revived balls in London have had a mixed response.  They are both nowhere near as big as their international counterparts and largely attempt to cater to international wealth, selling what is regarded quintessentially British abroad.  As social attitudes have changed, they have enjoyed limited success.  Whilst the rest of the world have their deb balls, those that take place in the UK (and to a lesser extent, Le Bal) still attempt to imitate the Debutante balls from a bygone era.  This is proving difficult to do. 

Exclusivity

Exclusivity has long been associated with the Debutante Ball.  The white Debutante dress, although associated with virginity, was primarily an indicator of exclusivity and wealth.  The vision of the ideal Debutante is also narrow.  But with Debutante balls no longer requiring aristocracy as a means of entrance, they are also no longer a way for young women to find husbands – an idea that seems garish by today’s standards.  Although all the balls claim to celebrate young women who are accomplished, this is merely lip service.  Wealth, not titles, instead has become the de facto prerequisite for joining a Debutante ball.  Those who become debutantes are still expected to embody the high standards of the debutante 1950s and the ideal of feminine beauty.

Whilst focussing on celebrating accomplished women is a kinder interpretation of the uncomfortable tradition, it still excludes those from poorer backgrounds or filters out people on their appearance, it can’t truly be considered celebrating talented women.  The invites are reserved for those with money, and do not seem reserved for the teenage carer who also secured a place at a top university, nor the working class scientist on the rise. 

Generally speaking, the UK is less keen to celebrate such a tradition.  It does not translate well into modern values.  If you were to ask a middle-upper class family about the ambitions for their teenage daughter, they would undoubtedly say something along the lines of attending university, finding a meaningful career, and even finding someone they love.  British culture demands that we are often quite modest of our achievements and of our wealth, so a daughter with a place at Oxbridge or entering into a high-flying job brings more quiet pride than one floating downstairs in a ballgown for the middle classes.  Of course, neither are exclusive, but many would consider the latter vulgar.

Criticism of the Debutante balls has often, and quite unfairly, been aimed at those who attend them as debs.  Many of those had barely left childhood, some have been enthralled with the idea of debuting and others’ have shied away.  Attitudes towards women have changed since Queen Charlotte’s Ball first started.  Despite a huge amount of pressure on young women to adhere to still social norms in the age of Instagram and self-optimisation, British teenagers are no longer bred to become socialites, nor to attract the attention of economically beneficial husbands. 

Yet you still cannot ignore how intertwined the Debutante Ball is with not only traditional ideas around gender, but also class, ethnicity, and race.  Whilst the traditions contained in a Debutante ball are very similar to those found in a beauty contest (the idea of a debut, the focus on appearance, age etc), they are considered as inherently different.  This is because any person can enter a beauty competition and in previous years, there have been a number of high-profile beauty queens from poor-middle income backgrounds, whereas Debutante balls are presented as upper-class and elite events.  

Once upon a time, it would have been possible to rub shoulders with nobility simply by purchasing a ballet ticket.  But in a world where anyone can enjoy a seat at the opera for £4 and traditionally ‘high class’ activities are quite rightfully being made to be more accessible to the masses, this is no longer the case.  The only way to really distance yourself from any old Joe is to put your money where your mouth is.  This has allowed a business to thrive, that celebrates an inflated sense of self-importance it gives young women and their parents when they come out to society. 

This is why some of the most famous balls that exist today are on an invite only basis.  Those that are not, are so expensive that they filter out poorer women anyway.  There is an allure to exclusivity that is hard to explain, but for the debutante balls, it is a mix of needing a sense of belonging, enjoying the siren song of narrow ideals about how a young woman ought to behave, and mixing with those in your class.  

This inclination towards exclusivity is reinforced when the only discussion they have on poorer women are them as recipients of their charity only, rather than as equal and capable peers that can also be accomplished and celebrated.   Needless to say, those who argue their need for existence by virtue of charity work or fundraising are in the company of Freemasons and the President’s Club.  
Regardless of the various commitments to celebrate accomplished young women, once you strip away the charity and faux-feminist elements, you are left with young women dressing up for society approval.  This is when it all begins to feel like oppression.  These balls may feign elitism and exclusivity, but it can never be said they celebrate accomplished women nor meritocracy.  Rather, until it becomes more open, it will remain a vulgar reminder of some darker parts of British history, such as sexist ideals, bad marriages, and colonisation.  This no longer sits well in British society.

14 Comments

  1. I have heard people talk about these debutante balls, but I never knew much about them. This is really fascinating and it makes me want to read more up on them.

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  2. Wow, what an interesting read! I never knew about the story of these balls. Looking forward to reading more of your writings!

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  3. A girls fancy staff, a ball! It’s the time were girls have to dress elegantly. I remembered in our country the debutants usually wear big gowns with petticoats. It much like of attending a ball also.

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  4. wow..it looks much amazing and gorgeous..i haven’t ever heard of these debutante balls ago but now much interested to know more about these….

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  5. wow..it looks much amazing and gorgeous..i haven’t ever heard of these debutante balls ago but now much interested to know more about these….

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  6. This was a really interesting read. I’ve heard of debutante balls and seen them in movies/television, but didn’t really know much about the history behind these events. I think it’s a clear testament to the way that women were viewed at the time – something to be seen as a trophy or property to own versus an equal to their male counterparts. While I’m glad to see that our society is trending in a much better direction, I have to wonder about how these types of traditions will fare over time.

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  7. very interspersing. I never knew about it and now I am even more curious to dig into this story more. thanks for sharing!

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  8. This is fascinating! I honestly didn’t know about the history and culture of this. I think some are celebrating this kind of ball in here but just a copycat.

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