What is a Debutante?
A Debutante is typically a wealthy young woman, or woman who will inherit great wealth, who usually comes from an upper class family. Generally, the debutante would declare her eligibility for marriage in an official “coming out” event, at or around her 18th birthday. Coming out ceremonies differ widely in countries, and not all countries have a debutante class of girls, also call “debs.”
Several purposes were served by the debutante presentation. First, it maintained that women who were presented would come from family backgrounds with significant stature. Second, other members of the upper class and the minor royalty could then consider each debutante marriageable. However, amount of inheritance often was more influential than presentation at court.
It is clear that women in the middle classes in England, who were still considered gentlemen’s daughters, did not always have debutante status. Unless a parent was titled, a daughter was unlikely to be considered a debutante. Most gentlemen’s daughters were considered old enough to accept the attention of gentlemen when their parents decided it was appropriate. Customarily, older daughters had to first be married before younger daughters could be considered “out.”
The middle class convention now more influences the way we look at the modern debutante. Though marriage was once an ultimate object of debutante ceremonies, these ceremonies are more associated with a rite of passage for young, rich females. A similar tradition occurs in Hispanic countries and in the US for girls of Hispanic origin. They tend to celebrate the Quinceanera, a celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday, signifying she is now a woman. Wealth and social status are not a factor.
It’s certainly not uncommon among the rich and upper classes in the US to have debutante balls yearly. They may be referred to as cotillions in the Deep South and along the Eastern Seaboard. Each debutante wears simple white ballgown, long white gloves, and is usually presented by her father. Most major cities in the US have cotillion or debutante balls, but they are exclusive. They are typically organized by the families of several of the participating girls and may benefit a charity.
Many debutante balls in other countries bear similarity to high school proms and may be organized by secondary schools. In Australia, some girls are invited to take part in these balls, making class still a factor. In Southern Ireland, most balls are open to all girls in a particular grade. Thus almost every Irish girl gets to be a debutante at least once in her life.