The Problems Solved by Debutantes

On class, power, whiteness — plus Pride & Prejudice and the Kardashians as "one giant Lydia"

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I’ve thought of a lot of ways to introduce this Q&A, but the best is the most straightforward: Kristen Richardson’s The Season: A Social History of the Debutante is one of the best popular histories I’ve ever read. While reading, I underlined constantly; after reading, I could not shut up about it. When she agreed to do a Q&A, it took me weeks just to narrow down the questions I wanted to ask her (and, as you can see below, they are still QUITE LONG).

The book is beautifully written, with sentences that filled me with jealousy, but feels like an elegant ice pick, breaking and refining understandings of how young, monied women have been wielded to bolster or claim status within class and racial hierarchies. I can’t recommend it highly enough — and am thrilled to have her words and ideas in the newsletter this week.

You write that debutantes were necessary — were, in effect, manufactured — to “solve a problem.” What was that problem in post-Reformation Europe, how did it shift over the centuries to come, and what, broadly defined, is the problem that they solve today? 

So, yes! The original problem the Reformation created was a glut of daughters. Fathers had always married off their daughters to the best possible suitors to keep their wealth as concentrated as possible and to create powerful strategic alliances. Until the Reformation, many rich European families would invest all their money in their “best” daughter and send the daughters they deemed less valuable to convents to avoid having to dilute their fortunes by providing each one with a dowry. The family would pay a nominal fee for the daughter to live in respectable seclusion, which some young women preferred given that they were not choosing their husbands.

When Henry VIII separated from Rome and dissolved all the Catholic institutions in England, these fathers were no longer able to cloister their unmarriageable girls and had to find ways to pair them off. Because marriage was the only remaining respectable path for women, a daughter’s failure to marry could embarrass her family and keeping her at home was more expensive than the convent. So, by the time Mr. Bennet throws up his hands in exhaustion about “what’s to be done with all these girls?” in the early pages of Pride and Prejudice, the daughter problem had already been brewing for several hundred years. 

I’m going to skip over some details about how the daughter problem evolved over the next two centuries through the English Civil War and Restoration. This is all in the book, but I think we are safe to fast-forward to the mid-18th century when we recognize today as the debutante ritual began to coalesce. The court presentations, the curtseys, the social season, balls, intrigue, dresses—they are all linked to the consumer revolution and the rise of capitalism. Whereas once a father might have bartered a marriage with one of his friends in a kind of vacuum, daughters were now conspicuously desirable products within this new, larger market system in which everything, including people, could be assessed before being bought and sold. 

Marriage laws were loose, which had never really mattered that much when the social environment was easier for parents to control. But the world was shifting rapidly, especially in London. Population had increased, people were moving there in search of work created by burgeoning industry. Coffeehouses, theaters, and literary, scientific and philosophical associations flourished. An active political underground and burgeoning demimonde filled with actresses, courtesans, painters, and musicians demonstrated the need for more defined social spaces, particularly for young women who were reading novels by Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Richardson, whose stories featured realistic characters who were making at least some of their own decisions.

The idea that it might be acceptable to marry someone you loved grew throughout the Enlightenment and was so seductive and delightful that it threatened the traditional marriage practices of the aristocracy. Characters in literature of the period—the social imposters, the rakes, the men trying to snatch up heiresses and elope to Scotland, the disgraced priests who married people without parental consent—they reflect this tension. Marriage was so jumbled and the daughter problem so intense that Mary Wollstonecraft and others called for a new secular convents system. If a young woman was going to marry for love, it was going to be critical to make sure she didn’t meet anyone she shouldn’t fall in love with. 

By the mid-18th century, we have these main players: 

1.     Aristocratic families in a variety of financial circumstances. The ones in bad circumstances were going to need to find a rich partner for their son or daughter. The ones in good standing were going to be at the top of the hierarchy.

2.     A group of powerful (but often vulgar) merchants and bankers with greater political and economic power who were in want of socially advantageous marriages for themselves and their children.

3.     Tons of daughters (aristocratic and bourgeois) in search of husbands.

All of these people were mixing together in a chaotic social environment with no safe place to assess each other. 

Aristocratic fathers began angling for laws that gave them control over marriage and finally got them in the 1740s. This might seem like a lot of dry backstory, but the passage of Hardwick’s Marriage Act, a series of regulations that tightened up parental control over marriage, is key to understanding how debutante solved the marriage problem. The law increased the age of consent to marry without parental permission to 21 and it made it law that you had to marry in a church.  These legal marriage restrictions made parents feel safer to let their daughters loose, and this is key, among vetted company. Parents could assess potential partners and watch relationships develop over a season where innumerable balls, dancing assemblies, afternoon calls, country house parties, trips to spa towns like Bath (etc etc) all functioned as safe proving grounds. The system provided children with a modicum of choice without challenging a larger system of patriarchal control. 

The British brought the debutante ritual with them to the colonies. It was popular chiefly among loyalists who longed to retain ties to the upper echelons at home (or wanted to seem like they had them). Debuts grew in popularity after the Revolutionary War severed any ties to the authentic aristocracy in Britain and social climbing became more necessary. The ritual helped to create an upper class by facilitating intermarriage between rich colonists and the family alliances it cemented helped to ensure that a real meritocracy was never truly established in the U.S. 

Up until the Civil War, the debut looked similar in North and South because the social season took place in rich cities along the Atlantic seaboard (rich young women who lived in remote locations would come to cities to have their season). The debut is an endlessly malleable ritual and as the US became larger and more complex society, debutante balls began to take on more regional qualities. When the country fractured, it began solving different regional problems. These are broad strokes, but in the North, you would find both the staid, old money Edith Wharton kind of debut and more glamorous, expensive events where people began to seek out publicity and press.

In the South, it began to look a lot like Civil War reenactment. Old families could assert themselves and did so in genteel poverty, which itself became a supremacist signifier. By the 1870s, there were debutante queens at spring festivals, carnivals, and at Mardi Gras. Taking the debut onto a larger stage was a way for old families in the South to make a statement about beating back Reconstruction. These city-wide events were attended by the public and the white queen from a powerful family reminded the larger city and its residents who was in charge. 

It is not surprising that white people would be asserting themselves most intensely at a time when Black Americans were beginning to make rapid economic gains. Black Americans (free and enslaved) had held formal and costume balls since before the Revolution, but wealthy Black Americans began introducing debutantes during Reconstruction, mostly launching their daughters at parties at home. The ritual looked like the white debut in its basic structure (formal introduction, suitors, dancing) and was also a class-consolidating event. Black debutante parties and balls were a natural outgrowth of the racial uplift movement and the debut provided an opportunity for girls to reclaim and enjoy the respectability that was denied to them by a white culture that oversexualized and degraded them.

Members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority at the annual cotillion ball in an undated photograph that looks very late ‘80s / early ‘90s to me (Gado / Getty)

There are numerous balls today—big group events sponsored by both women’s and men’s clubs, carnival balls, sorority balls, and debuts thrown by elite groups like Jack and Jill. Black debutante balls retain a focus on academic achievement that the white ritual has never had (the opposite!), which reflects the different way each group has sought social and economic advancement. Some balls require a minimum GPA and most have mentoring and community service components. There is, unsurprisingly, a great deal of class conflict and friction around the Black debut as well. 

When Americans became super-(nouveau) riche during the Gilded Age, status-seeking fathers arranged symbiotic (but often miserable) marriages between their heiress daughters and cash-poor European aristocrats. These marriages created a new international and interconnected upper class that resembles the one we still have today. There were tons of these marriages—they continued until World War I, at which point the debut stopped solving the original problem of getting daughters married. The war fractured society so completely that the debut quickly lost that utility. Only the social performance remains, and it has been an effective way to maintain class connections and to vet rich newcomers since then. Photos of debutantes and balls still sell newspapers and magazines.

Debutantes are still solving status-related problems. For women from already-established families, being a debutante is often a statement about one’s willingness to remain within the confines of one’s social class. Presenting a daughter is still helpful for social climbing, especially in regional cities. The debut still looks like Civil War reenactment in some places, and remains a strong statement about white power. It can be a way to launder one’s reputation through misdirection (look at my beautiful daughter, not at my not so pretty finances) and is immensely popular among oligarchs. I always give the example of publicity-avoidant Ren Zhengfai attending his daughter’s debut in Paris at the height of the Huawei espionage scandal. It was the one event where he didn’t have to answer any difficult questions.

The debut today is low stakes for individual women. Your life is going to be fine if you don’t get married. You can achieve status in other ways if that’s what you want. But the ritual is still high stakes for society at large. Debutantes? Who cares, right? But the debut still helps people select which women are going to be the most powerful allies of men; the ones who are going to police other women’s manners and create the standards of exclusion that best serve men. At boarding school we used to call them “the girls who get to be pretty.”  

In various points in the book, you discuss how a certain segment of society (say, the aristocratic class of 18th and 19th century Europe) became too accessible, so a class has to create *new* standards, *new* clubs, *new* forms of exclusivity in order to distinguish themselves. Even judgement of other people, particularly as performed in correspondence, was a way of showing that you were more genteel than others. There’s something so existentially exhausting about this process — and reading the book, a sense of that exhaustion does periodically come through, particularly in the accounts of women who had to endure the season, which is of course shot through with the knowledge that these people were extremely privileged and should want for nothing, and yet here they were, trudging along, knocking on doors, presenting cards, seeing who’d welcome them in for awkward conversation in the sitting room, and trying to eat cake without getting their white gloves too butter-stained. 

Did you get a similar sense of bone deep weariness while researching and writing the book? And how do we reconcile that pity with the fact that all of that labor was, first and foremost, in service to hoarding wealth and excluding others? 

I really love this question and my answer is yes, it was exhausting and very depressing at times, especially because a lot of people assume it’s a light or silly topic. People were often dismissive when I told them what I was writing about, and I was really worried that people would assume the book was dumb, so I over-researched for years. Most of the work I did to understand the evolution of the family through marriage and property law isn’t even in the book, but I felt like I had to have all the artillery I needed to destroy anyone who thought this was a superficial subject. 

At the same time, I didn’t want the book to sound tortured. I wanted it to be readable. So, in that way, I did feel a kinship with these girls who spent their lives absenting any appearance of effort. I related to some of the surface-level aspects of their lives. I grew up in rarefied, beautiful, private spaces filled with powerful people and noxious entitlement. I received a lifetime of both silent and overt instruction in how to assess the world in ways that support that culture that hoards wealth and excludes others and hides it with glamour and beauty. I knew how to read what I was looking at. I just had other options. Still, I wanted people to *enjoy* reading the book, to get into the detail, to see how it’s funny and beautiful, and to understand the complexity of it, and, ultimately, to conclude that this isn’t something we should be doing.

I am not sure we can reconcile the sad drudgery of their daily lives with the awfulness of the institutions that they were holding up! They were victimized, but they were violent, too. 

I love the small attention you pay to aspects of physical culture and performance in the book. You write about how incredibly elaborate dress and hair styling were often intended as a sort of test: if you could survive it, if you could flirt in it, if you could get through the night without ruining it, that itself was a testament to your quality as a woman. Or, as you write: 

“At colonial assemblies, debutantes were both coy and inviting, holding fans closed to their faces. They lowered them to show off a slender, beautifully angled wrist, one that knew how to make elegant movements that conveyed whether they were romantically available, interested, or bored. Wrist movement was part of a new language of leisure.” 

What components of physical culture and performance make up the language of leisure today? I know the answer is Instagram, but I want to know more. 

Well, it’s an interesting time because the language of leisure is now so muddled. It’s crucial not to confuse leisure, which is inherently performative, with peace or relaxation, which happen in private, no cameras, no “curation.” We do have a lot happening that would still fall into the category that Veblen referred to as “conspicuous leisure.” These are the activities that convey you have a ton of money and don’t need to show up at a job on someone else’s schedule. Some of these have not changed much over time—boats, planes, beaches, horses, sport, travel, etc. The signifiers of wealth and ease haven’t shifted that much, but our access to them has increased and that’s where something like Instagram comes in.

Original Caption from 1932: “The secret of how pretty Washington debutantes maintain that healthy summer tan, which many of them are still displaying, despite the cloudy wintery days, in the Capital, was revealed today by our inquisitive photographer, who found Misses Laura Barkley, daughter of Senator Alvin Barkley of Kentucky, and Kathleen Carmichael, daughter of General Robert Carmichael, basking in the invigorating rays of huge artificial sun lamps in the Shoreham solarium.” (George Rinhart/Getty Images)

Instagram has killed off glamour by providing the public with constant access to rich and/or famous people’s leisure time, which was once either hidden or strategically revealed to a larger public through enticing images that were highly edited and controlled. (If you want to have a look at some of older images of rich white people at leisure, better versions of what you’d find in a family album I mean, Slim Aarons’s or Cecil Beaton’s photo archives would be good places to start. For comparably glamorous photos of the Black elite, you can search through archival images of wealthy summer enclaves like Oak Bluffs or check out this current exhibition at the California Museum of African American Art.)

Because remote glamour is no longer possible and old-style leisure activities are too accessible to the masses, we are left with two newer cultural performances for the rich: conspicuous effort and conspicuous virtue, both of which can be monetized.

Rich and famous people now eagerly share curated versions of the tedious work that debutantes tried so hard to hide. This is not “Stars, They’re Just Like Us.” This is vetted content. We now watch the hard work of becoming beautiful. We see celebrities get Botox and fillers, we see stylists choose their clothes, we see hair, makeup, and skincare, interior decorating, gardening, travel, pets, book clubs. If the celebrity or rich person does this well enough, they can get a sponsorship and make money. Sometimes they are already selling their own products. Conspicuous virtue is related to conspicuous effort but is more specific and dangerous. The most insidious example of performative virtue is the pushing of diet and wellness products. Instagram shows us people’s exercise and yoga routines, “clean” meal-planning, “what I eat in a day” videos, vitamin regimens, before and after photos. Niche diets and cleanses validate orthorexia and obscure other eating disorders in a fog of pseudo-spirituality so they can be packaged and sold. Hollow, performative support for causes is another example of conspicuous virtue. 

Part of what people find compelling about Instagram is waiting for these ridiculously-constructed lives to collapse. We wait for mistakes like people watching a NASCAR race. Hilaria Baldwin’s con was so pure and stupid and her Instagram so pathetic, that her exposure gave everyone life. So the audience is necessary for the leisure performance, but will turn on you too.

The final chapters of the book, on the more regional and contemporary manifestations of debutante society, are an incredible mix of weirdness, anachronism, almost farcical levels of dress expansion (San Antonio!!!), and, in many cases, the maintenance of white privilege, power, and societal supremacy.

I first found out about your book after the weird Sunday afternoon a few months ago when Ellie Kemper briefly became Twitter’s main character because of her participation in Veiled Prophet Ball, which is all of the above, and was characterized as a KKK ball.  

Can you contextualize the Veiled Prophet ball for people who aren’t from the area? And how do we talk about these events that are central to propping up white supremacy with precision and accuracy while not shying away from the central reason for their existence? 

That dust-up was fascinating to me! First, Black activists have been protesting this ball *for decades* including during the protests that took place after the murder of Michael Brown, so it was amazing, but not surprising, that it took Ellie Kemper’s participation to make it go viral. A lot of people from St. Louis were saying “UH YEAH.” I think it blew up so majorly because Kemper’s personality makes for such a contrast to the ball itself and because she had never said anything about it. She seems so sweet, right? And then you see the picture of the original Veiled Prophet’s costume that circulated on Twitter, and he looks a Klansman. It’s easy to make the step to KKK princess, but, like many other Twitter controversies, this is more complicated than it seems on the surface.

Let’s start with the ball. The Veiled Prophet Ball is a debutante party that has been happening in St. Louis since the late 1870s. The ball was part of a larger event called the Veiled Prophet Fair, which was started by a group of business leaders after a huge general strike in 1877. These men wanted to regain control over their businesses and stamp out any remaining social unrest in the city, so they got together and formed a civic organization to consolidate their power and ensure that another strike didn’t happen. They called themselves the Order of the Veiled Prophet after an orientalist poem “The Veiled Prophet of Khorrasson,” by Irish poet Thomas Moore. The poem, widely popular then (it sucks), was inspired by the life of al-Muqanna, an eighth-century Persian chemist and mystic who, after he had burned his face, wore a veil. The men concocted a legend that claimed al-Muqanna as their leader and as a benefactor of the city itself. At each fair, the prophet (a business leader) would choose his “Belle of the Ball,” later called the “Queen of Love and Beauty,” from among the eligible daughters of his friends, making the debutante ritual a key component of St. Louis’s civic life. Yes, it is very, very weird.

So, is Ellie Kemper a KKK princess? No. Nuance is important here. Did she participate in a racist debutante presentation? Yes. Is the Veiled Prophet Ball the only racist debutante presentation? Absolutely not. Are we always responsible for stupid things we did as teenagers? No. But if something you did as a young adult doesn’t align with your current values, you should really get out ahead of it and not just hope that it never comes up.

My copy of The Season is dog-eared with places where I was thinking about the similarities between debutantes and influencers, particularly the Kardashians — whose rise I’ve always thought of as the 21st century version of the Bennet family from Pride & Prejudice. I think of the section of the book when you describe a debutante’s scrapbook, “edited” to “the point of curation,” while “carefully removing any trace of personality until she perfectly embodied a cultural ideal.” 

Going back to the idea of the debutante as a solution to a problem, what problem did the Kardashians solve for their family by becoming celebrities — and what categories of class and distinction have they troubled? 

The Kardashians operate outside of any traditional understanding of class or distinction unless you define class solely based on net worth. It is almost classist to try to analyze them using any traditional metric because, like the Trumps, they have a visceral and relentless tastelessness. In their case, it doesn’t come from core criminality or sociopathy, but from a willingness to exploit the creativity of others and dull it down to sell it to a wider swath of people. A ready example of this is their history of appropriating and whitewashing Black women’s style. If we untether class from objective economic realities and use the word to describe qualities that people can have regardless of their socioeconomic status—kindness, respect for others, some style that originates in joy and creativity, generosity, integrity, empathy, curiosity etc.—the Kardashians don’t fit that definition either. 

I think their original dilemma was that their father, Robert Kardashian, died young. They were rich, but here again we have estate taxes and too many daughters. Plus, he was most known for defending O.J. Simpson, hardly something that is going to win you a lot of respect or set you on a course to greater fame. After he died, the family was left in obscurity that was tinged with notoriety. Kris Jenner’s remarriage to Olympian Caitlyn Jenner was not going to cut it. Yet, they have long since overtaken their real ticket to fame, the Caroline Bingley figure, Paris Hilton. But their 21st century innovation is that they have flattened into one giant Lydia, complete with superficiality and sex scandals. 

The season’s “number one debutante” Brenda Frazier drives her "steeds" in the quadrille of coaches during the debutantes cotillion of the velvet ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York, October 1938 (Getty)

The Kardashians have debutante roots, but I think they’re most like the 1930s debutantes like Brenda Frazier, who had a socially ambitious and nightmarish stage mom who dressed her up in heavy makeup at age twelve and sent her out to waltz with ancient predators at the St. Regis. I always think of Brenda when I see the “you’re doing amazing sweetie” gif. Brenda was in ads for everything from Studebakers to doughnuts. Walter Winchell coined the term “celebutante” for her. She was famous for nothing, so famous that her debutante portrait was on the cover of Life Magazine. 

The original debutante ritual was about using young women to create powerful clans, but the Kardashians have created a clannish influence where marriage (even Kanye) doesn’t really matter much at all. 

You can buy The Season here, and follow Kristen on Twitter here. She’s promised to try and answer your questions, including any and all about ‘Bama Rush, so ask away in the comments.

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