The debutante tradition originated during the seventeenth century in order to recognize the coming of age amongst the wealthy. Young women were presented to the European court. The tradition has become a part of affluent Southern American culture (Knudsen 1968). While it may seem to be a harmless celebration to some, the practice is rooted in a sense of opulence, social superiority and inequality.
I personally am contemplating the decision to participate in the debutante tradition. After all, the ball is a fun celebration amongst family and friends. However, as I look at the process objectively I recognize the culture of privilege and the elitism it perpetuates. I am from Charlotte, North Carolina, a city rich in social tradition where social status matters amongst the Lulu Lemon-wearing, yoga-going, gossiping moms. Women network with other women to be asked to join one of the two debutante clubs to prove their social worth. Memberships in churches, country clubs, supper clubs, as well as the private schools one’s children attend (or an occasional reputable public school), distinguish the separate social circles of each of the two clubs. Girls are ‘put up’ [i] in a debutante club automatically if their mother, or grandmother is a member. Although the members of the club are anonymous to the outsider, on the day the debutante class ‘comes out,’ [ii] the participants’ names are listed in the newspaper. The affluent class is therefore presented to the whole city.
In his (1967) book, “Who Rules America,” William Domhoff describes the ‘social upper class’ as the dominant power holders in society. The social upper class use social cohesion from “common membership in specific institutions, and friendships based on social interactions within those institutions” to form a ruling class. In essence, debutante balls are the very social institutions that serve to differentiate members of the elite class from the rest of society and build solidarity within elite society. Thus, these events create the class awareness that Domhoff alludes to.
However, the “coming out” is not a young socialite’s first experience of elite social life. These girls are typically raised within an upper class environment, attending preeminent preschools, dancing classes or cotillion, private or boarding schools, country clubs, and colleges. Their economic privilege transfers into cultural capital. [iii] At an early age, they become familiar with the custom, values, and attitudes of the upper class. The debutante ball then just becomes a rite of passage, an expectation, and an explicit presentation to the outside society. Their participation makes them aware of their own high social status and solidifies it to others.
To participate in the debutante process, a family has to not only to be determined ‘socially worthy’ by the rest of the ‘social upper class,’ but also has to pay to participate. Debutantes must pay close to $5,000, plus the cost of a white ball gown and travel cost of friends and family who will be guests at the ball. Total expenses reach and exceed $7,000 per ball.
This particular enactment of both gender and class revives white southern culture’s emphasis on being well mannered. Grandmothers and mothers are excited for their young female family members to debut, as they relish teaching their offspring the way the social elite women act. The tradition forges stronger bonds between women in a Southern elite family. It additionally publically reaffirms the social status of the parents and grandparents to the entire society.
While to me this tradition seems obsolete, why is it still happening? Why am I conflicted about my decision? The answer is: it is fun. I would be able to celebrate my youth, and the excitement of the future with my family and closest friends.
Yet this outdated, longstanding tradition continues to help the social upper class recognize their superiority, demonstrate their elitism, and add one more ball gown to their closet.
[i] ‘put up’= When a girl is talked about amongst the club regarding her worthiness to be in that class of debutantes, typically around the girl’s senior year in college. One can be ‘put up’ based on long lasting family ties, mother or grandmother membership or friend recommendation (in order of impact).
[ii] ‘Coming out’= The term describing the actual party, signifying the girl’s formal debut into society.
[iii] Bourdieu’s concept of Cultural capital= non-financial assets that people draw upon to enhance one’s position within the social order. These symbolic elements can be “tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc.” (Bourdieu 1977)
*** Photos are borrowed from Charlotte friends.