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.
- ISBN-13: 9780393608731
- ISBN-10: 0393608735
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: November 2019
- Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.1 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.15 pounds
- Page Count: 288
When she was 17, Kristen Richardson was invited to become a debutante. The prospect of being on display held no interest for her, but as Richardson attended the ritualized “coming-out” parties of friends, she became fascinated by the enduring upper-class ritual, which has been largely overlooked by historians. In The Season: A Social History of the Debutante, Richardson argues that if we dismiss such traditions, “we miss a key part of women’s history, and of the history of marriage as well.”
Readers of Jane Austen and Regency romances are, of course, familiar with the role that “the season” played in early 19th-century England. For middle-class families with marriageable daughters, a season involved considerable preparation, expense and sacrifice: renting a house in London, scrambling for acceptance at Almack’s assembly rooms, getting a suitable wardrobe. And there was always the pressure on debutantes to make a “successful” marriage.
What makes Richardson’s account of debutante rituals so fascinating is her exploration of how the practice was exported to the United States, with dancing masters in demand in cities like Charleston and Philadelphia in the 1740s. Blending research and vignettes, she expertly traces the practice through old New York, the antebellum South and into the Gilded Age, when girls outside the tightknit structure of New York society went abroad to seek a husband or a title. (Think Cora, the Countess of Grantham, in “Downton Abbey.”)
Richardson brings her chronology up to modern times, revealing how presentations, sometimes organized by closed secret societies, continue in cities like Charleston, New Orleans, St. Louis and San Antonio. There’s even an explosion of debutantes in China and Russia. One chapter explores African American debutantes and social clubs, where events have often included a charitable aspect with a focus on community service and education.
The debutante ball, it turns out, isn’t a thing of the past at all. Sometimes young women use it to create a persona or promote a personal brand. But as Richardson reminds us in this engaging and thought-provoking history, the use of daughters to cement power and wealth is very hard to give up.