What is a Debutante?

A Debutante is typically a wealthy young woman, or woman who will inherit great wealth, who usually comes from an upper class family.  Generally, the debutante would declare her eligibility for marriage in an official “coming out” event, at or around her 18th birthday.  Coming out ceremonies differ widely in countries, and not all countries have a debutante class of girls, also call “debs.”

Several purposes were served by the debutante presentation.  First, it maintained that women who were presented would come from family backgrounds with significant stature. Second, other members of the upper class and the minor royalty could then consider each debutante marriageable.  However, amount of inheritance often was more influential than presentation at court.

It is clear that women in the middle classes in England, who were still considered gentlemen’s daughters, did not always have debutante status.  Unless a parent was titled, a daughter was unlikely to be considered a debutante.  Most gentlemen’s daughters were considered old enough to accept the attention of gentlemen when their parents decided it was appropriate. Customarily, older daughters had to first be married before younger daughters could be considered “out.”

The middle class convention now more influences the way we look at the modern debutante.  Though marriage was once an ultimate object of debutante ceremonies, these ceremonies are more associated with a rite of passage for young, rich females.  A similar tradition occurs in Hispanic countries and in the US for girls of Hispanic origin.  They tend to celebrate the Quinceanera, a celebration on a girl’s 15th birthday, signifying she is now a woman. Wealth and social status are not a factor.

It’s certainly not uncommon among the rich and upper classes in the US to have debutante balls yearly.  They may be referred to as cotillions in the Deep South and along the Eastern Seaboard.  Each debutante wears simple white ballgown, long white gloves, and is usually presented by her father.  Most major cities in the US have cotillion or debutante balls, but they are exclusive.  They are typically organized by the families of several of the participating girls and may benefit a charity.

Many debutante balls in other countries bear similarity to high school proms and may be organized by secondary schools.  In Australia, some girls are invited to take part in these balls, making class still a factor.  In Southern Ireland, most balls are open to all girls in a particular grade.  Thus almost every Irish girl gets to be a debutante at least once in her life.


What is a Debutante Ball?

A debutante ball is an event where a young female, or in some cultures, a young male, is formally introduced into society.  In many societies, a debutante ball is associated with wealthy and socially-influential families.  The United States, England, Ireland and Australia all have variations of the debutante ball.


In Australia, a debutante ball is often part of the high school system.  The Australian debutante ball is usually optional and only for those students, both male and female, who wish to take part.  Both males and females are included because the ball symbolizes the debut of the soon to graduate high school student into the young adult world.  Traditionally, the girl asks the boy to the debutante ball and dinner and speeches and ballroom dancing are all features of the evening.


In Ireland, debutante balls are often quite similar to high school promos in the United States.  The debutante ball is a school function and students either go with formal dates or with an informal group of friends.  It is customary for either a boy to ask a girl to the ball or a girl to ask a boy.  Students often travel by limousine for the occasion.  Ballroom dancing is often available, but is traditionally not considered a mandatory activity at an Irish debutante ball.


In England, the history of the debutante ball centers around ceremonies that involved the debutante having to wear certain clothing such as a feather head dress.  Traditionally, English debutantes were introduced by former debutantes, often the mothers if they had had a coming out, or else a mother-in-law introducing her son’s new wife.  Quite often though, debutante was a young woman ready to look for a husband.  Queen Elizabeth II sanctioned court ceremonies for debutantes and began the English practice of more social introductions in the form of a debutante ball.


In the United States, a debutante ball is also sometimes called a cotillion.  American debutante balls may be quite elite and formal with a receiving line of debutantes all in white gowns who are introduced in turn on stage by their fathers.  The debutante also often has a date at the ball or sometimes more than one male date.  The males may also be dressed all in white or in a military uniform.  Charity donations may be a part of the American debutante ball.