Confession: I was a reluctant deb.
Okay. I lie. I only appeared reluctant (uninterested eyes, bored sighs) because I was in the throes of my teenage years, and being impossible was the cool thing to do at the moment. But inside, oh inside, I was bursting with the very opposite of reluctance. I was ecstatic. I, a Truly Rich Young Girl, would be presented to society as a Truly Rich Young Lady, ready to contribute to the Truly Rich World. In my white dress, as a halo of light followed me as I entered the ballroom, I was ready to declare that, yes, I am ready to be... wooed by many white knights?
Okay, I was a confused deb. While I was secretly thrilled at the thought of being part of this exclusive ritual, I wasn't 100 percent on board with—or even sure about—the purpose of the debutante ball. I remember this conversation with my Truly Rich Mother:
“Si-si, you are attending a coming out ball this year, and that's that,” said my mother.
“Why! Please tell me what am I emerging from, Mama? A cocoon? A tunnel? The flu? This prison that is called your house?” I replied.
“Don't be smart with me! Now try on this dress.”
“It looks horrible. Like your cupcakes.”
“Put it on, Si-si. Now.”
The mood swings of a teenager, plus the prospect of meeting a gaggle of young men and wearing some very important jewels from the family vault, made me go along with the whole affair and finally attend what my grandmother described as “...a monumental event that every woman of upstanding background must do—now, put on the dress!”
Some parties have become so over-the-top that it becomes a vulgar display of wealth rather than a celebration of womanhood.
As a fully realized woman now who has had a measure of time to reflect on this situation, I have made a classic pros-and-cons list about the debutante ball. Is it a worthy occasion for modern women? Should it go the way of the dodo? And did I really have a good time?
You wear your first serious gown.
Well, technically, I received my third serious gown because my christening gown and one particular toddler sheath were also major. In the end, with the thankful intervention of a stylish aunt, I wore a facsimile of the wedding dress Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face—down to the ballerina-length skirt, which was controversial for a deb! I loved twirling in it all night! I would still take it out for a spin today, but I need my wasp waist back.
You are plunged into glamour.
The glitter and gloss of a proper ball is something to be excited about for nowhere else can you experience all the elements of the Truly Rich World in one setting. There is the well-appointed ballroom with its crystal chandeliers so loaded with sparklers you feel like they could crash to the floor like ice daggers; the young men in tails and the old women wearing serious hardware; the food that you will not eat because you are so nervous and the Champagne that you will drink because you are nervous; and all the good manners and perfect grace at their fullest powers. When you have been raised to never expect anything, attending a party to celebrate your existence is amazing.
You are continuing tradition.
For every argument that says the debutante ball is an archaic affair, there is the counterargument that says it is a golden tradition. It will be an honor to take part in a social exercise that goes back decades, and which your mother and her mother's mother have also been part of. Also, when you are wearing the sapphire earrings your grandmother wore to her coming out, it's not the time to gripe about being old-fashioned.
What does it mean to be presented to society today? The original debutante balls were meant for royals and Truly Truly Rich Families as a means to announce a woman's readiness to get married.
You have to wear a gown.
In its initial versions, as dictated by many old people, my coming out gown was akin to a pastry decorated by unsupervised kindergarteners. Very awful. And even in its Hepburnesque final form, I still had to deal with wearing this contraption all night. How I wished there were still fainting rooms where young women could dramatically rest because their corsets were too tight! (I didn't wear one, by the way.)
It's now everywhere.
Not that we don't want to share the fun of a deb ball with all, but nowadays anyone and everyone can hold their own debuts—usually a celebration of a young woman's 18th birthday—that the special affairs have become a never-ending mishmash of parties. I can no longer even tell the young women apart!
Some parties have become so over-the-top that it becomes a vulgar display of wealth rather than a celebration of womanhood. And some debs have also become so desperate in their need to have the best coming out ever that they resort to getting impossible things such as sacred locations.
Even the most traditional debutante balls have become ordinary. Le Bal des Débutantes in Paris is now merely an opportunity to parade the latest by Parisian couturiers. This year's debs include Ava Phillippe, the daughter of Legally Blonde actress Reese Witherspoon, in Giambattista Valli Haute Couture. Cute.
The meaning is blurry.
What does it mean to be presented to society today? The original debutante balls were meant for royals and Truly Truly Rich Families as a means to announce a woman's readiness to get married. But we are not royal nor are we rich (no matter how rich we are) in that old world sense, and parading a woman as being ready to be wed is just not modern. What if she does not want to get married?
In the Truly Rich World, the old connotation of the debutante ball still has meaning. These parties are a way for rich heirs to meet one another and, maybe, get married (and by extension join the fortunes of two families). So is it like a mixer—but fancy? That's fine, I guess, because I do know many romances that began on a deb night. When the lights go dim and the kisses have been stolen, all that matters for a young woman is that she had a wonderful, and dare I say, magical time.