A Smithsonian Best History Book of 2019
“Sparkling.” —Genevieve Valentine, NPR
Kristen Richardson traces the social seasons of debutantes on both sides of the Atlantic, sharing their stories in their own words, through diaries, letters, and interviews conducted at contemporary balls. Richardson takes the reader from Georgian England to colonial Philadelphia, from the Antebellum South and Wharton’s New York to the reimagined rituals of African American communities. Originally conceived as a way to wed daughters to suitable men, debutante rituals have adapted and evolved as marriage and women’s lives have changed. An inquiry into the ritual’s enduring cultural significance, The Season also reveals the complex emotional world of the girls at its center, whose every move was scrutinized and judged, and on whose backs family fortunes rested.
Richardson's immersive debut uncovers the surprisingly long history and stylized rituals of the debutante tradition. Instituted by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century as a means "to form beneficial social and political alliances," the ceremonial presentation of aristocratic young ladies at court had morphed, by the mid-18th century, into weekly "assemblies" hosted by "lady patronesses" seeking to match their daughters and nieces with wealthy, socially connected bachelors. In America, Richardson writes, the debutante custom reached its apotheosis as the "defining ritual" of the merchant and professional classes. Drawing from the journals and letters of colonial, antebellum, and Gilded Age debutantes, Richardson portrays young women enjoying or enduring their "social seasons." In a diary account, Albany socialite Huybertie Pruyn recalls being "dragged" by her mother to the 1891 Patriarch Ball, where her escort was "her second cousin, at least 55 years old." Exploring 20th-century rituals, Richardson reports on Mardi Gras krewes, the relationship between debutante balls and elitism in the African-American community, and the publicity-generating International Ball, held annually at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. A few minor historical errors Anne Boleyn wasn't pregnant when Henry VIII sought to annul his first marriage don't distract from the fun. This entertaining, eye-opening portrait captures a tradition that is "long dead but will never die."