When you think of a debutante, you probably think of rich girls, elaborate dresses, and extravagant galas. And you wouldn’t be wrong—being a debutante basically requires wealth, hotness, and big parties. But the history of debutantes is much wilder than you might know, so strap in as we unveil the real story behind all the glitz and glamor.
1. Discussing Semantics
Traditionally, a debutante is a young woman born into wealthy or aristocratic means. When she reaches maturity, she’s “introduced” to society at her debut (hence why she’s called a debutante). The debut was a formal event where the debutante’s parents officially brought their daughter into the world of high society drama.
2. The Rest of Us Just Use Tinder
The original reason for presenting a debutante to society was simple: You were trying to find her a promising husband. Parents hosted debuts when their beautiful, rich daughters reached the age where they could legally get married. It was common for young women to spend their debuts getting introduced to a number of bachelors.
3. Before We Go On…
We’ll just get this out of the way now, to avoid confusion later on. A debutante’s debut was often called her “coming out party.” Obviously, this has a very different meaning today. For clarity, unless we say otherwise, we’re using the older meaning. Although I’m happy to report that there’s at least one LGBTQ debutante on this list!
4. Living The High Life
Plot twist: The fancy balls you probably picture when I say “debutante” didn’t actually start until the Victorian era. Before that, they were far less extravagant. From that point on, though, debutante balls became social pressure cookers. To this day, there is a strong focus on social etiquette and morality, with guests scrutinizing the ladies’ conduct and appearance. Sounds super fun.
5. Punctuation Is Important
The word “debutante” is of French origin. The original word is “debutante” and it means “female beginner.”
6. Anyone Here Speak Austrian? Wait…
Apart from the US, one place where debutantes have remained a tradition is Austria. Since debutantes were part of the courtly ballroom practices of the Hapsburg Empire, Austria honors their history by continuing to hold balls as special events throughout the year. One such event is specifically for debutantes.
7. Never Thought of it That Way
Anyone with a passing knowledge of the US will know that high school prom is a big deal. But you probably didn’t know that some people think prom’s origins lie in debutante balls. Unlike the snooty, exclusive galas though, anyone can go to prom—and you’re pretty much expected to get messy at them. Win win, in my book.
8. Grand Gala
One of the most prestigious debutante balls in the world is the International Debutante Ball. Beginning in 1954, this event is celebrated bi-annually at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Male members of the US Military academy escort young women of high society around the “ultimate networking event.” Yeah, a lotta powerful and established families are part of this shindig.
9. Roll Call!
For anyone curious about the more famous participants in the International Debutante Ball, here’s a few examples: fashion icon Vera Wang, Princess Mary Alexis Obolensky, Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia, car manufacturing heiress Alaina Bentley, and Princess Aurelia of Liechtenstein. The prestigious “old money” American families associated with the International Debutante Ball include the Eisenhowers, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts, and the Mars family.
10. Lost In Adaptation
Unsurprisingly, debutantes and debutante balls appear in many films and television series. Some of the more recent, well-known examples include The O.C., What a Girl Wants, Gossip Girl, and Bojack Horseman.
11. Back Before Tabloids Ruined It
Even the Great Depression, WWI, and WWII couldn’t stop debutante balls. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, magazines and newspapers often covered the lavish events and relished in their decadence. Even publications like Time, Life, and Newsweek bent to the public demand for their upper-class updates!
12. Kardashian Precursors
In the 1930s, people became obsessed with following the lives of spoilt young heiresses. The hardships of the Great Depression caused a renewed interest in seeking escapism, and what better way to do that than follow the lives of the ultra-rich who hadn’t been ruined by the Stock Market Crash? A number of these young socialites captured the public’s interest, and they were dubbed the “Glamor Girls” or the “Poor Little Rich Girls.” We’ll go over them in further detail in this article.
13. I Don’t Mean To Brag, But…
As you’ve probably figured out by now, debutante balls were far more than just a celebration of a rich young girl entering the marriage market. These balls were also a chance for the woman’s family to flaunt their wealth, influence, and power. For example, a debutante named Audrey Clinton came out in 1951. A picture of her ball featured her posing beneath a portrait of her great-great-grandmother. If that’s not a boast about a proud family legacy, we don’t know what is.
14. Bringing Prestige To Politics
Several women associated with the White House received debutante balls when they were young ladies. The more recent examples include former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, both of President Richard Nixon’s daughters, and two of George H.W. Bush’s granddaughters.
15. Runs In The Family
Speaking of Nixon’s daughters, both Tricia and Julie Nixon were both presented at the International Debutante Ball. Although the sisters debuted in different years, one thing they had in common was their escorts. They both attended their coming out balls with the men whom they eventually married (Edward Cox and David Eisenhower, respectively).
16. Always Going For The Bad Boys…
One American woman who became a debutante during her youth was none other than Jazz Age icon Zelda Fitzgerald. However, going through that tradition, even in such a traditionally Southern place as Montgomery, Alabama, didn’t stop Fitzgerald from becoming highly unconventional later in life.
And no, she didn’t meet F. Scott Fitzgerald at her debut, so if her parents wanted her to find an acceptable high-class hubby, she didn’t do that either!
17. Life Inspiring Art
Zelda Fitzgerald wasn’t the only famous debutante who interacted with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Two of Chicago’s “Big Four” debutantes–Ginevra King and Edith Cummings–became F. Scott’s muses. In fact, King and Cummings inspired the characters of Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker, respectively, in F. Scott’s masterpiece The Great Gatsby.
18. This Is Just Tragic
Ginevra King and F. Scott Fitzgerald first met when they were teenagers in Minnesota. Despite the class difference between them, King completely fell for Fitzgerald, even going to bed with his letters beside her. Everything came to an end, however, thanks to King’s father, who angrily warned Fitzgerald that “poor boys shouldn’t think of marrying rich girls.”
If that line sounds familiar, it’s because both the 1974 and 2013 film adaptations of The Great Gatsby used it.
19. This Party’s A Right Ripper!
One place where the elitism hasn’t clung to the tradition of debutantes is Australia. In fact, the whole tradition of debutante balls isn’t found in Australia’s cities, but its rural areas. Any young women are welcome to attend and participate as long as they buy a ticket, wear white, and perform formal dances.
20. Let’s Get It On ‘Till The Early Morn
Debutante balls weren’t just known for their wealth and splendor, but also for their longevity. These parties went into the hours of the early morning. Basically imagine if your old college parties had had an actual budget.
21. Long, Long Ago
The origins of a debutante ball go all the way back to the 1600s. At this time, they were less like a party and more like a formal introduction to the English monarchs. Young women from wealthy and noble families went to the royal court to socialize as new adults (while also trying to find the most promising husbands possible, natch).
22. “Celebrity Debutante” Is A Mouthful
Over the years, the word “debutante” has come to describe any famous young woman from a rich family who gets attention for their lifestyle rather than any accomplishments. This has given rise to the slang term “celebutante,” which usually describes such people as the Kardashian sisters, Nicole Richie, and Paris Hilton.
23. I Remember When…
During the Gilded Age, Consuelo Vanderbilt lived large as an heir to the highly wealthy and prestigious Vanderbilt family. Obviously, she had a wildly extravagant debutante ball, which she described in her ghostwritten autobiography The Glitter and the Gold. Poor Consuelo was less interested in the party than the intense preparations that came before.
24. Always About The Money
Speaking of the Vanderbilts, another member of their family was a famous debutante. Gloria Vanderbilt was a classic “Poor Little Rich Girl” right from the start. Long before her coming out, she was the subject of a scandalous custody battle between her mother and her aunt. The furious squabble for little Gloria Vanderbilt (and her trust fund) became known as the “trial of the century.” Nowadays, people might know her better as being the mother of famous news anchor Anderson Cooper.
25. What’s Spanish For “Many Happy Returns?”
In several Latin American countries, girls attend a unique version of a debutante ball. On their 15th birthdays, girls have a “”Quince Años,” “Quince Añera,” or “Festival de Debutantes.” This lavish party stems from the old times when turning 15 meant everyone assumed a girl had reached adulthood.
26. Open Hearts And Open Purses
Many famous American debutantes used their wealth and privilege to support philanthropic and charitable causes. Barbara Bush (named for her grandmother) is a long-time supporter of the Human Rights Campaign, supporting LGBTQ causes. For an earlier example, Doris Duke famously left more than $1 billion of her money to charity!
27. Oh Great, More Pageants
In California, the Pasadena Tournament of Roses is an alternative version of a debutante ball. Each September, the tournament creates a Royal Court of Roses, made up of six “Rose Princesses” and one “Rose Queen.” In order to win this honor, young women are interviewed and then participate in a selection process.
28. Sounds Super Chill
There are a surprising number of boxes to tick in if you want to become a Rose Princess or Rose Queen. You must be no older than 21, no younger than 17. Also, you have to be enrolled full-time at either a Pasadena high school or accredited postsecondary institution. Oh, and your grade point average must be at least 2.0, and finally, you must be unmarried without any divorces or children in your past. Easy!
29. The Times Are A’Changing
One issue with the Pasadena Tournament of Roses (as well as the idea of debutante balls in general) is their clear bias towards white Christian women. It took the Tournament of Roses more than a century to select a Rose Queen with Jewish heritage. The young woman in question was Louise Siskel, and she also happened to be the very first Rose Queen to be openly LGBTQ.
30. Who’s Behind The Mask?
Missouri’s own St. Louis is the home of the Veiled Prophet Ball. Originating during the 1870s, the ball’s mysterious “Veiled Prophet” selects one of the invited debutantes to become the “Queen of Love and Beauty.” In more recent years, the VP Ball left some of its elitist origins behind when it received a new name: “The Fair St. Louis.”
31. Familiar Faces
You’re probably familiar with at least one winner of the title “Queen of Love and Beauty” at the Veiled Prophet Ball. In 1999, a 19-year-old Ellie Kemper received the title. She’s since gone on to act in such acclaimed projects as The Office, Bridesmaids, and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
32. Long-Lasting Event
The Vienna Opera Ball has been held in the Vienna State Opera annually since 1814. Beginning as a distraction from the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars, the ball also featured debutantes making their prestigious introduction to high society. Even to this day, 180 debutante couples are introduced each year during the Ball. In an unusual gender-equal twist, this ball introduces both men and women.
33. The Big Four
Not all debutantes are famous for just being rich. Edith Cummings was one of the “Big Four” debutantes in Chicago during the 1920s, but her claim to fame far eclipsed that title. In 1923, Cummings won the U.S. Women’s Amateur golf tournament, earning the nickname “The Fairway Flapper.” The following year, she graced the cover of Time magazine for her sporting achievement. She wasn’t just the first female athlete to achieve this honor, she was the first golfer to do so as well.
34. Sacré Bleu
Here’s a big irony about the word “debutante”—these kinds of balls didn’t really happen in France or any French-speaking parts of the world! So why do we use a French word? It probably means that pretentious people love to use French words to sound smarter and more cultured.
35. International Recognition
In 1938, the American socialite Brenda Frazier received one heck of a debutante ball. Well-known throughout the Great Depression, Frazier was in the public eye from age 12. In a time when the lives of the wealthy inspired awe and envious fascination, Frazier’s debutante ball was so lavish and publicized that Frazier’s picture was used on the cover of Life magazine. She also earned the title, “Debutante of the Century.”
36. Wild Party
If you’re wondering just what made Brenda Frazier’s debutante ball so spectacular, we’ll elaborate. The venue was New York City’s Ritz-Carlton, and Frazier made her debut to a crowd of 2000 people. During the evening, Frazier danced with a number of celebrities, including film star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
37. Is Someone Saying “Boo”?
Despite the popularity of debutantes in American society during the 20th century, they’ve always attracted criticism, especially during the Great Depression. In 1930, Barbara Hutton had her coming-out party in New York. Her debutante ball included high-profile guests like the Rockefellers and cost a total of $60,000 (almost a million dollars in modern money). The party’s extravagant cost resulted in such a furious backlash that Hutton had to go of the country to escape all the venom.
38. So, She Wasn’t Amused?
In 1958, the United Kingdom actually banned debutante balls. Queen Elizabeth II herself put her foot down and ended the practice. Although several attempts have been made to bring them back into fashion, Elizabeth’s action has proved more or less effective at ending the debutante craze on the British Isles.
39. I Hate Scalpers
You might be wondering why Queen Elizabeth banned debutante balls. While you’ve probably thought up a few good possibilities (elitism, sexism, excessive costs), but the reason was actually corruption. Young women were desperate to be introduced at these lavish balls, refusing to let their lack of social connections get in the way. A black market popped up, giving young ladies illicit ways to score invitations to these debutante balls.
40. Not So Fun After All?
One thing people tend to forget about debutante balls is the physical toll they took on the debutantes themselves. In the case of Brenda Frazier, a wealthy heiress and fashion icon in her own right, she claimed that she tried to never move her neck in public because she didn’t want to undo her hairstyles. She also admitted to suffering from eating disorders to maintain her weight.
As for her debutante ball, she suffered from the flu at the time, and as the night dragged on, swollen feet. By the time she finally rested the following morning, she was so exhausted that after she woke up from her rest, she didn’t even remember what had happened at her own coming-out party.
41. All That Glitters…
Just as there was a physical toll, there was also a mental and emotional toll to being a debutante. Returning once again to the “Debutante of the Century,” Brenda Frazier later wrote that she had felt miserable as a debutante. Even during her immense popularity, Frazier was exposed to criticism that she was just famous because she was from a rich family and hadn’t done anything.
What disturbed her was that this was a fair criticism, and she felt “pushed into social functions” to satisfy her vapid admirers. Eventually the “mockery of fake smiles” was too much for Frazier. She attempted to take her own life more than 30 times.