Rites and Regalia of American Debdom

Karal Ann Marling

It is an institution that seems almost hopelessly out of date, a social relic of bygone times. The very word debutante evokes images of prim, poised beauty, expensive gowns, and sumptuous balls, all of which seem anachronistic in these post-womens liberation times. But as Karal Ann Marling reveals, debdom in America is alive and well and ever evolving.

For thousands of young women every year, the society debut remains a vital rite of passage, a demonstration of female power; debs continue to be viewed as the finest flowers of a distinctive American culture. The debut and its offshoots—the high school prom, the sorority presentation, assorted beauty pageants—continue to emphasize celebrity, class, and community. But why does this peculiar tradition persist? Marling has the answer, as she demystifies debdom and the long-term American hankering after the trappings of royalty.

“An engaging history of debdom as both ritual and rite that took shape over two centuries of change. Marling chronicles the various iterations of the American debutante, its shifting form, and the transforming social and economic landscape responsible for such changes. The book reveals much about the entanglements of gender, wealth and status, and race as it explores this ever-evolving institution.

—Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth

“A thorough exploration of the form and content of female coming-of-age celebrations. . . . Written in an informal style, generously illustrated, it is readily accessible to a popular as well as an academic audience.

—The Annals of Iowa
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Debutante presents a penetrating and entertaining look at American debdom from the colonial era to the present day. Debbing has always been a performance art, created by and for women. In its heyday in the nineteenth century, debut signified the formal presentation to elite society of a young woman of substance who was eligible for marriage. During the twentieth century, it evolved from the glamour girl galas of the Great Depression to the charity bashes of the 1980s after the Deb Drought of the 60s and 70s. Marling reviews this colorful history, documenting changes in debdom right up to our own day, when the sisterhood of debs includes African Americans, Latinas, and members of other ethnic groups once carefully excluded: now even economically disadvantaged young women have their coming-out, where the emphasis of the event is on community.

In these pages, aspiring debs and curious readers alike will be taken from teas and cotillions to café society and discover the rich material culture of debdom, with its flowers and favors, gowns and pearls. Theyll also meet famous debs of the 30s like Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and glamour girl Brenda Duff Frasier; experience black American high society at the debut of Nat King Coles daughter Cookie; and attend such civic spectacles as Kansas Citys Jewel Ball and St. Louiss Veiled Prophet Ball.

In sparkling prose graced by a gallery of captivating photos, Marling provides an illuminating inside look at debs and a world that continues to celebrate the spirit and diversity of American womanhood.

Additional Titles in the CultureAmerica Series