A Smithsonian Best History Book of 2019
In this enthralling history of the debutante ritual, Kristen Richardson sheds new light on contemporary ideas about women and marriage.
Kristen Richardson, from a family of debutantes, chose not to debut. But as her curiosity drove her to research this enduring custom, she learned that it, and debutantes, are not as simple as they seem.
The story begins in England six hundred years ago when wealthy fathers needed an efficient way to find appropriate husbands for their daughters. Elizabeth I’s exclusive presentations at her court expanded into London’s full season of dances, dinners, and courting, extending eventually to the many corners of the British empire and beyond.
Richardson traces the social seasons of young women on both sides of the Atlantic, from Georgian England to colonial Philadelphia, from the Antebellum South and Wharton’s New York back to England, where debutante daughters of Gilded Age millionaires sought to marry British aristocrats. She delves into Jazz Age debuts, carnival balls in the American South, and the reimagined ritual of elite African American communities, which offers both social polish and academic scholarships.
The Season shares the captivating stories of these young women, often through their words from diaries, letters, and interviews that Richardson conducted at contemporary balls. The debutantes give voice to an array of complex feelings about being put on display, about the young men they meet, and about what their future in society or as wives might be.
While exploring why the debutante tradition persists—and why it has spread to Russia, China, and other nations—Richardson has uncovered its extensive cultural influence on the lives of daughters in Britain and the US and how they have come to marry.
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."