My sister was a debutante this weekend.
You may not know what that is. Colby had a few friends from college come down for the event, and they said their only previous exposure to debutante balls comes from Gilmore Girls. So, without further ado, a few definitions to get us through the story:
Debutante – (a.k.a. the “deb) a young lady of 21 years, who is formally coming out to society. The event at which she “debuts” is called a debutante ball. (In some societies, it’s 18 years of age.)
Presenter – the man who accompanies and presents the debutante to society. It is almost always the debutante’s father.
Marshal – a young man of the same generation as the debutante, who is understood to protect the debutante’s interests/honor within the society. Marshals are usually the debutante’s brother, cousin, friend, or boyfriend.
So that you get a visual, here are a few pre-event pictures:
It smacks of something, doesn’t it? Something you might have seen on Platinum Weddings or Bridezillas?
Back in the day, coming out to society was also an opportunity for fathers to show off their daughters as young women eligible to marriage. My sister’s hairdresser – when he was shoving her product-stiffened hair into a french twist – called it “Pimp My Kid,” which is actually pretty accurate. Now, it’s less about having a run-through of mock-wedding and more about upholding our Southern traditions, but some bits remain. The dresses you see before you are actually wedding dresses. The white kid gloves that extend past your elbows are required. Afterwards, a lot of the debs dry their bouquets as keepsakes.
We are not a Southern Belle-type family. When I was a deb two years ago, I was dragged kicking and screaming. I was still attending Vassar at the time. My feminist ideals were being compromised. My sister (a student athlete and aspiring athlete) and mother (a former tomboy) are of the same mind.
Of course, that said, we’ve lived in the South for long enough that we couldn’t blow it off entirely. An actual Southern belle – a ninety-six-year-old woman who befriended my mother at bible study – thought she was doing us a huge favor by lobbying to get us into this club. Once we were accepted, it was hard to argue with someone who was a matron of society. And then, she passed away, and we really couldn’t argue with her. We did it – albeit reluctantly – in her memory.
This time around, from my position as my mother’s assistant, it was very busy. I was the person who shuttled around friends or bought last-minute necessities like pantyhose or ran to find the baby powder needed to put on the elbow length gloves. I realized there was a sliver of glass in my foot after Mom had already zipped me in my dress. I didn’t have time to go to the hospital, so I cut a hole in my hose, grabbed some nail scissors and some tweezers, and performed minor surgery. (This was an achievement. I’m very, very squeamish.)
When it started, the ceremony just seemed vaguely silly. Here’s what actually happens:
1) One at a time, each debutante walks into the hall with her bouquet and stands smiling while a herald announces her name at a podium.
2) Her father/presenter comes out in his coat and tails, and he takes her hand as she curtsies and the herald announces her father/presenter’s full name.
3) Debutante and the presenter walks down the length of the room under a spotlight while the herald announces how many of the deb’s ancestors were debutante club members. Little old ladies – debs themselves, decades back – look on and think private opinions about each girl’s dress, father, and later marshals.
4) At the other end of the hall, the deb curtsies a second time before her father passes her off to the two marshals. The herald announces the marshals full names.
5) The marshals take the debutante’s elbows and walk her across the room. At the other end of the room, the deb and her marshals pause for one final smile before exiting the room.
6) After every deb has had a turn, all the debs come out with their fathers for a grand finale: the girls dance with their father and each marshal in turn.
The boy dancing with the deb is my handsome young brother. He waltzes too quickly for the music, but he looks good doing it. The man with a similar outfit and the woman in the gold dress are my parents. The gray head in the right hand corner of the screen is my ninety-four-year-old great-grandmother.
Very silly, but tradition is often silly. There’s a story in here somewhere but not quite yet. It’s still too fresh, too immediate.
Mainly, after it was over, I was glad for the opportunity to celebrate my wacky, wonderful sister.
It’s not just that she’s coming out in society. She’s turning 22 on Thursday and applying to grad schools next year. Soon, she’ll be well on her way to becoming a physical therapist, the kind that everyone wishes they had – so pushy that she asks for things that your body doesn’t want to do, but so cute/charming/persistent that you can’t turn her down.
Happy birthday, sister!