A Look Into the (Not-So-Secret) World of Debutantes

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For our first episode we spoke with Kristen Richardson, author of The Season: A Social History of the Debutante, a nonfiction work that explores the history of the debutante in society.

For some, the fascination with debutantes began with works like Jane Austen’s seminal romance Pride and Prejudice, which is set in turn of the 19th century England and depicts the pressures placed upon women of that era to secure a financially prosperous marriage for the good of their family—an effort that involved “coming out” to society at balls and dances filled (hopefully) with wealthy suitors.

For others, they were actually debutantes themselves, having once partaken in the coming-of-age ritual that’s still tradition for many high-society families. Author Kristen Richardson almost fell into the latter group at the behest of a relative, but chose at the last minute not to debut: “I was pretty shy. There was no way,” she recalls. Inevitably, however, she found herself drawn towards the debutante world. “I’ve always been really interested in weird rituals of social class,” Richardson admits. “I grew up in-between one family that was working class, my mother’s side of the family, and then my father’s is sort of upper-class WASP.”

Richardson’s research into the strange world of debutantes took her from the invitation-only International Debutante Ball held in New York City’s Waldorf Astoria hotel to the livelier New Orleans courts of Mardi Gras. Although debutante culture has evolved over time—it has shifted from the original purpose of securing an advantageous marriage to now functioning as social theater—what remains at its core are the teenage girls who come to symbolize power, position, and reputation. “Men and families invested a vast amount of money and power into these girls,” Richardson explains, “and they should be taken seriously. Not only because of it, but for their own intrinsic value.”

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