Cover image for Debutante : rites and regalia of American debdom
Debutante : rites and regalia of American debdom
Marling, Karal Ann.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Lawrence : University Press of Kansas, [2004]

Physical Description:
224 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
How do I become a debutante? -- Fuss and feathers : making a bow to royalty -- Tea time -- Having a ball : the debutante cotillion -- Trust-fund debs and glamour girls -- Bouquets of buds : the jewel ball -- The veiled prophet chooses his queen of love and beauty -- A different kind of debut -- Democratic debbing : the hopes and horrors of prom night.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HQ1229 .M25 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

On Order



It is an institution that seems almost hopelessly out of date, a social relic of bygone times.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-women's 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."

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. They'll 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 Cole's daughter Cookie; and attend such civic spectacles as Kansas City's Jewel Ball and St. Louis's 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.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Although the days of the debutante may seem long past to some, cultural commentator Marling shows how the American ritual still lives in every prom dress and Miss America pageant. As with Merry Christmas!, her exploration of America's most visible holiday, Marling investigates the history of a phenomenon and displays fresh insight about its repercussions. She writes that debdom's chronology is "sometimes serpentine, if not circular... today's prom queens are every bit the equal of the No. 1 Deb of 1938." Before dallying with the present, however, she examines the past. In the late 1700s, the rules for introducing a daughter into society became increasingly elaborate, with parents jockeying for better social standing through their rouged and white-dressed offspring. Cultural changes kept society matrons and daughters on their toes, as teas came in and out of fashion and dress requirements changed at a breakneck pace. Through sharing details of how debdom has changed, Marling is able to delve into different shades of American society during various eras, and how the country's notions of class and gender have been reflected in the attitudes toward debutantes and "high society." Although there are currently few deb cotillions, Marling believes debdom is a circular route and still burgeons today in somewhat altered form. For example, a wave of deb worship in the 1950s, in which magazines described every facet of dresses, jewels and parties, feels awfully similar to the actress worship of today. Marling shows off her scholarly research skills and still maintains a lively, almost coquettish tone. Her style matches her subject matter, and the effect is charming and enlightening. 60 photos. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved