It’s Easy to Dismiss Debutante Balls, But Their History Can Help Us Understand Women’s LivesRoundup
tags: cultural history, womens history, debutante balls
Kristen Richardson is the author of The Season: A Social History of the Debutante.
The debutante ritual flourished roughly from 1780 to 1914—beginning with the first debutante ball in London and ending with the outbreak of World War I. During these years, Great Britain became the dominant power in the West, and its culture spread outward from the fashionable capital of London to provincial cities in Britain and eventually to its far-flung colonies. His Majesty’s British subjects, and later Americans, too, waited on coral atolls and in bustling port cities for ships that brought newspapers filled with word of fashionable music, dance and conversation. Daughters had their seamstresses copy dresses they saw, adapting them to climates with Spanish moss and pink sand or icy winters and salty air. Even the daughters of an innkeeper at a ferry on the Shenandoah walked for seven miles three times a week to attend the lessons with a French dancing master who taught them to trace the same quadrilles danced by aristocrats in distant, foreign courts.
These young women who were presented to monarchs, who were betrothed to waning aristocrats, or whose fathers scrounged for money so they could walk across a stage and curtsy to a small-town mayor or rodeo clown, were united by an irresolvable dilemma—the only respectable career for women was marriage, and the best marriages were made by debutantes.
The debutantes we think of today, bowing deeply in frosty dresses, originated and evolved in England and America quite simply because they were needed to solve a problem. The Protestant Reformation in 16th century England and northern Europe ended the extremely convenient practice of cloistering unmarriageable girls in convents. While Catholic aristocracy in Europe continued this practice, the English aristocracy now had a daughter problem. Protestants, you see, don’t have convents. When an exasperated Mr. Bennett says of his five daughters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: “What’s to be done with all these girls?” he was speaking to a marriage problem that had existed, unresolved, for several hundred years already. The Reformation left wealthy or titled Englishmen with a glut of daughters, whose marriages had to be considered most delicately since, by law, they could not inherit their fathers’ estates. The type of marriage the debutante ritual would provide was safe—the girls were presented to vetted company—and prevented a bad marriage from dragging down the status of an entire family, like Lydia’s threatened to do in Austen’s novel.
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