Heritage

The Fascinating History of Debutante Balls And How They Entered Asian Society

Their original purpose was to find an aristocratic young lady a worthy match.
IMAGE WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
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Many young ladies celebrate their debuts in the Philippines, but these are not to be mistaken for the débutante balls of high society.

From the French word débutante which means a female beginner, the concept of debutante balls is for young ladies from aristocratic or upper class families to be introduced to society. The purpose of this usually extravagant event is for eligible bachelors and their families to select a prospective match within an upper-class circle.

The English origin

The earliest recorded event with similar characteristics to the modern débutante ball was the one held by King George III in 1780 to celebrate the birthday of his wife Queen Charlotte. The nobility was invited to this occasion to raise money for a maternity hospital. What made this party different from others was it centered on young women who made their first official appearance in the British upper-class society.

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Queen Charlotte
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tradition of coming out or being presented to society became mainstream in England. No decent girl would even dare be courted without being presented first. If they were also planning to attend parties in Paris or New York, then they would also need to be presented in these cities.

So, how did it work? In England, the very first step was for a debutante to be recommended by a distinguished committee, or sponsored by a lady who, herself, had been presented to the current sovereign. Usually this was the young lady’s mother or close relative.  

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The Queen Charlotte Ball
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

If the application was accepted, the future debutante would be sent a royal summons from the Lord Chamberlain to attend the Presentation on a certain day. Aside from the débutantes, older women and married women who had not previously been presented could be presented at Court.

During Presentation Day, when débutante and her sponsor were announced, the debutante would curtsy to the Sovereign, and then she would leave without turning her back.

This occasion usually marked the beginning of the English social season. Débutantes were then allowed to attend events such as afternoon tea parties, polo matches, races at Royal Ascot, and balls. The most famous ball was Queen Charlotte’s birthday ball, named after the monarch who inspired the tradition. Many débutantes would also have their own "coming-out party" to celebrate their official presentation.

In 1958, the final official ball that had the Queen’s support was held. For the years before that, not only was the royal family facing an image crisis, there were also rumors that some ladies would endorse candidates from questionable backgrounds… for a fee. One of which was Lady St. John of Bletso, who helped launch several debutantes all at once. Society was scandalized. Princess Margaret even said, “We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in.”

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More: How Princess Margaret Paved the Way for the Younger Generation of Royals

Though the ball was still held until 1976, the event lost its appeal after it lost the support of the royal family. After centuries of tradition, it finally folded.

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A debutante ball held in Ireland.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Modern balls as charity and luxury events

Just as the ball lost popularity in the United Kingdom, it gained support elsewhere.

In New York, there’s the International Debutante Ball held every two years at the Waldorf Astoria. Established in 1954, the ball attracts debutantes from different countries as well as daughters of presidents and celebrities, such as Tricia Nixon and Ashley Walker Bush.  

While different states made their own version of the ball, it’s the one in New York that’s considered the most prestigious and the one many debutantes flock to.

In Europe, Paris has le Bal des Débutantes, which started in the late ‘50s. It was held on alternating years at the Paris Opera House and in Versailles. It also followed the English tradition of girls wearing white gowns and gloves as an allusion to wedding dresses. In the early ‘90s, a more modern version of le Bal was organized by French public relations maven Ophélie Renouard. It was held at Hôtel de Crillon, in a ballroom overlooking the majestic Place de la Concorde.

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The Paris Opera House, where the first versions of le Bal de Debutantes were held.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Aside from the change of venue, the event also had a humanitarian aspect since money was raised for charity. This soon became part of the tradition of le Bal. Because of this, it attracted even royalty such as Princess Diana’s niece, Lady Kitty Spencer, daughters of American celebrities, and scions of wealthy business owners from Asia.

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Snapshots from a past le Bal event.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Naturally, it also became the playground of high fashion designers. Débutantes soon started wearing designer gowns from the likes of Dior, Chanel, Valentino, Vivienne Westwood, and more.

Debutantes were originally required to wear only white gowns.
Photo by WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Since the Philippines has no internationally recognized ball, some Filipino families in high society opt to present their daughters in foreign coming out events.

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In 2017, for example, Monica Concepcion, was invited to attend. She is the daughter of Joey and Marissa Concepcion. Joey is CEO of RFM Corporation and the founder of NGO GoNegosyo. The year after, it was Kayla Uytengsu's turn. Kayla is the daughter of Alaska Milk Corporation CEO and president Fred Uytengsu Jr. and his wife Kerri.

Participation of Filipinos and other Asians in le Bal started in 2003 to recognize the booming Asian economy and the region's high-net-worth family. One of the first Asian participants was Wan Baobao, granddaughter of Wan Li, the former chairperson of China's National People's Congress. Other attendees that year were socialites Penelope Pei-Tang from China and Candy Soo from Singapore. 

More: Class or Crass: All About Debutante Balls, By the Truly Rich Lady

Traditions anew and Asian expansion

Seeing the revival of interest in this tradition, Jenny Hallam-Peel, a former debutante, who works as an attorney and runs a company called The London Season, hoped to start the ball again in the U.K. In the early ‘00s, she began touring London's elite private day schools in the hopes of recruiting willing debutantes.

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Instead of being presented to the Queen and announcing that they are open to marriage, the modern ball focused on entering high society with enough knowledge on business, networking, etiquette, and fundraising for charities. They are also trained in diplomacy, foreign orders of precedence, and the orders of precedence in the United Kingdom, ranks of the British peerage, and more.  

The ball also opened its doors to young ladies who are not from noble families, as well as girls from other countries. Since its revival, the ball has been hosted at Dartmouth House, Leeds Castle, Kensington Palace, and the Royal Courts of Justice. What stayed the same, however, is that debutantes are still expected to partake in the traditional London season, including the Henley Royal Regatta, Royal Ascot, and the Glyndebourne Festival Opera.

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While the ball is no longer hosted by the Queen, John Seymour, 19th Duke of Somerset, and Judith-Rose, Duchess of Somerset, with Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia and Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff have taken over. And instead of curtseying to the monarch, they do this to a birthday cake, which the "Debutante of the Year" cuts with a ceremonial sword.

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The U.K.’s new Queen Charlotte's Ball also helped establish its own Asian version, the Shanghai International Debutante Ball. In 2011, Hallam-Peel started helping Chinese socialite Vivian Chow Wong to launch the Shanghai International Debutante Ball. This equally prestigious ball was held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel and later, at the Peninsula Hotel. Similar to its Western counterparts, designers and luxury brands soon took this opportunity to sponsor debutantes. Jeweller Chaumet and French luxury beauty brand Guerlain were among the headline sponsors for the very first event. 

In an interview, Wong said a debutante needs to be well educated and well-mannered.

“If she needs an etiquette lesson, she won't be on my invitation list," Wong said.

However, family background is not a strict requirement since the ball also invites young women who have exceptional talent or skills. For example, in 2013, Lauren Marbe, a daughter of a British taxi driver, was invited because she has an IQ of 161, which is said to be higher than Albert Einstein’s.

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Balls and debuts in the Philippines

Though not as lavish as the ones in New York, London, or Paris, Filipinos in the U.S. have created their own version of the ball. The Filipino-American community in Minnesota for example, has its own Debutante Ball.

In 1977, then Fil-Minnesotan Association president Ophie Balcos wanted to engage the young Filipino community as tomorrow’s leaders. Though the association already held an annual Valentine’s Ball, she added a Debutantes’ Ball with the help of Caridad Evangelista, who chaired the event.

The group wanted to follow the footsteps of the ball in New York, creating a similarly extravagant event. However, in the ‘80s, FMA’s board members and other members of the community questioned the “elitist” nature of the event despite debutantes coming from different backgrounds and socio-economic status.

More: Carnival Queens: Inside the Grand, Intriguing World of the Manila Carnival and Its Storied Beauties

The rule that wealthier families shouldn’t show off was emphasized, a rule still in effect today. At the end of the ball, there’s also a scholarship prize given by FMA to a Debutante and Escort who excel in their academics, their extracurricular, and their community service.

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While the Philippines waits for an internationally recognized ball on its own shores, daughters from wealthy families have the option to attend the ones abroad or have their own coming out parties. The Filipino debut, which is closer to the quinceanera tradition of Hispanic countries, celebrates an individual’s coming of age instead of being presented to society.  

In the age of Instagram, celebrations of some of these young Filipino women are covered by the press due to the visually stunning decor and overall lavishness of events. The Filipino debut, which is quite different from Queen Charlotte’s Ball or les Bals in Paris, can be celebrated by any Filipina from any social or economic background.

Though there has been criticism of these formal events as a show of luxury and less about tradition, at the heart of it are still the debutantes, young women who have blossomed into maturity and are ready to take on the world.

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