Ah, the Debutante Season. The Official Preppy Handbook called The Debut one of the cornerstones of Prep Life that has seen its heyday pass. And that was in 1986. What does that term conjure in your mind? Well, before you answer, don’t think I don’t know what kind of elitist hot water I am jumping into here with this post, so just calm down, crackers and sit on your lips for a minute and hear me out. I go on all the time about lost traditions and all the rest. I love weddings and look forward to the receptions because these are the only vestiges we have left of long forgotten civility. Everyone is dressed their very best, the rituals of etiquette are strictly adhered to, and the booze flows and we dance like fools as the band plays on. What, I ask you, is better in life? So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that SP is fascinated by the Debutante Ball. Let’s start by saying that my little town in Southeast Alabama did not have any deb balls — much less a debutante season — by the time our little bundle of madras joy (the future SP) came along. There were Cotillion classes (dancing school) at the club, but there was no formal deb season, nothing but a long-forgotten tradition whipping in the wind (apologies to Margaret Mitchell). When I lived in New York City, I witnessed the buzz and flurry of white dresses in the winter snow scurrying into a hotel or running around Fifth Avenue, but from afar and usually through the magazines or newspapers or through one of my favorite movies of all time Metopolitan. So when an invitation came in the mail last week for an honest to goodness Debutante Ball, in Charleston no less, well, you can imagine that it about knocked SP’s argyle socks off. Come now and let’s see what this Debutante Season is all about. For you un-interested types, go to the next post. But should you or a friend ever need any information on the who’s it and what’s it of a Debutante Ball, bookmark this post for future reference. Let’s dive in, shall we?
The debutante ball as a rite of passage for young girls evolved from a seventeenth-century European custom in which aristocratic families presented their daughters at court to help them find suitable husbands. You know SP has a lot to say and I don’t want to waste my percentage of your attention with background: for a more thorough and detailed history lesson check out these links here and here. If you prefer a critical cadaver to work on you can go here. Scroll down this page to read about the grandmother of them all, The St. Cecelia Society whose membership requirement is born in the blood and only passes through the male line. Divorce and you’re out. Die and you’re out. Sorry, but that’s the way it is. Here is a very good article in The Charleston Mercury with a rare interview of a Charleston deb.
So who debuts? Anyone. Well, anyone without a penis, but even the presence of that appendage does not necessarily exclude one from a social debut. Historically, young men have been feted at their own Beautillion Ball and the Jews have Bar Mitzvahs (the Bat Mitzvah is the Hebrew Deb Ball). So what do I mean when I say anyone? Anyone rich you say. No. How often do I have to tell you, money is in the eye of the beholder. Anyone’s parents can host a ball (or “party” if “ball” is too big a word) for their daughter. A group of parents can get together and host their own ball for their daughters and split the cost. Nothing is impossible in America. If you can dream it you can be it. Scale is everything. Compare it to a wedding. Anyone can have a wedding, but some are more expensive and in better neighborhoods and get written up in the newspaper. Same for Deb balls. Thirteen Charleston matrons just shuddered at this thought as they pulled up their shawls, but this is the truth.
Now for the discussion below, I am speaking on the role of the invited guest for the most part. You fellows who are asked to be escorts will receive the proper protocol instruction from the deb’s mother or the local Mrs. McMatron whose life long duty it is to preserve the traditions of the deb ball, God bless her. Before we begin we should say a word about Discretion. Like entering into any exclusive club, the first rule of Fight Club is don’t talk about Fight Club, er Deb Ball. And forget about admitting a member of the press or heaven forbid a photographer. So it is with deliberate obfuscation that I tread here, omitting names and any identifying features in most circumstances to protect the generous few who are willing to discuss the inner workings of these sacred rituals. If and when word gets around that SP is posting about Deb season, invitations will dry up quicker than good liquor in the summer heat. Why do you think I waited until this weekend to post this? My invitations are already safe in hand. But never fear Grandmother Old Guard, I will never betray your trust. I enjoy being let in too much to do that. But I will tweak and prune so that our readers can see behind the white curtain because that’s what we do here at SP.
R.S.V.P. – The invitation arrives. It will be as fancy as the fanciest wedding invitation you’ve ever received and it should be answered immediately and with the same procedure as that other white dress affair. First, if the invitation is addressed just to you old chap, then it means just you. Not a date, not a girlfriend, no other woman. The hosts have carefully invited you because you are a man and you have a purpose at this ball and that purpose is to dance with the ladies present, and in particular, the debutantes. Many attached men will never see the invitation as it will go to his girlfriend or wife, so this is directed at single men for the most part. If there is not a reply card and envelope (and SP hopes there is not) you answer an invitation in the exact wording as it was sent and you write it on your nicest correspondence card. Social Primer accepts with pleasure your kind invitation to attend the Snow Ball on December 2oth, 2010. Please see this link as Miss Post says it best.
Dress Code – Black tie. Black tie means black tie. Not white tie, not kooky tie, black tie. Although, there are exceptions like every rule, once you have it down then you are allowed to break it. And by break it I mean, I love seeing a rake stroll into a ballroom with a velvet jacket, or tartan trousers or yes, velvet slippers to liven up the sea of penguins. But this is for the super confident and experienced dandy, not for the beginner. I am asked all the time for advice when shopping or renting a tuxedo. I have done this so many times, I’ve taken to writing a list, like going to the grocery store. Here it is for you.
Check List –
Black jacket with peak lapels
Black pants with satin stripe
White Tennis collar shirt is my preference but Wing collar is certainly acceptable. Pleats versus placket front. Placket front reads more formal, but I do like both. I find placket stands up better to sweaty dance moves.
Bow tie is black. Or SP reversible tie with just a hint of rebel Blackwatch showing.
Braces are black and make this suit so much more comfortable. You’re already strapped in like a baby seat, braces let you breathe.
Cummerbund – non-negotiable. No to the vest. Not a good look. Pleats always worn open side up.
Shoes are patent lace ups (or high highly shined leather) or opera pumps. Or velvet slippers.
Cuff links – Gold knots & studs, or your choice but avoid whimsy.
Pochette (pocket square) should be white silk, but I do like red sometimes.
Black silk socks that go to the knee. Never show naked ankle in a dinner suit. If you want to feel extra old school, go with the garters.
Never wear a watch with evening clothes (Tuxedo). The idea is that you should not be worrying about the time because you have no where better to be.
White Tie – A word about White tie -White tie means white tie. Tails are only ever worn with white tie and white pique vest. And usually white kid leather gloves. Escorts and deb fathers will usually wear white tie. To repeat: white tie means tails. Tails means white tie. You would never wear a black tie with tails just as you would never wear a white tie with a dinner jacket. It is not done. So don’t do it.
Thrift – A Word about Thrift. Many people ask me if they can borrow my jacket, my pants, my tie, my cummerbund, etc. I say yes, but this will do you little good if you don’t already own a tuxedo. No shop I know of will rent you a formal shirt. Or a pant. Or a jacket. They rent all or nothing, so it is very difficult to piece meal a tuxedo ensemble together. Rentals usually cost about a $100 for the full kit. You can however, find incredible things at a thrift store. I stumble upon Tuxedos all the time at thrift stores. If the jacket fits in the shoulders and isn’t a tent on you, the rest can be faked rather easily. The pants can be altered and a run to Brooks Brothers for braces (suspenders) will solve that. At the thrift we can also find cummerbunds and shirts. Shoes are a little more difficult to find, but not impossible. If the shirt is not formal, once heavily starched will do if it fits (1/4 – ½ inch cuff should come out of the jacket sleeve). I can live without the studs if you don’t have any. So you see, faking black tie is actually a lot easier than day dress. It’s black, it’s worn at night and no one really knows what ‘s correct or not, so it’s easy to pass.
So you’ve answered the invitation, assembled your black tie look, now it’s time to head to the ball and discover what joys will be waiting there. Generally speaking, there will be a receiving line of debutantes and their families. Some eschew this formality and some take it a step further with a formal presentation usually involving a curved stair case and lots of candle light. There will be a drinks reception, a sit down dinner and then a dance party to end all dance parties with a jamming band and a, oh, sorry. Obviously this is the part I like the best.
The Code (for guests at a Debutante Ball. Escorts have a different set of duties.)
-Be on time. If you insist on being late, because it’s your thing or you may feel more comfortable arriving later if you don’t know many people, I totally understand. But so called “fashionably late” is fifteen minutes. Not a half hour. Not forty-five minutes, certainly not an hour. It’s not fashionable or cool. It’s just rude.
- Do not remove your jacket or your tie. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If a man wears a tie out he wears a tie home. It is not sexy or cool to have your bow tie dangling down your shirt. Now I do relax this rule if it’s chilly and your bare shouldered date is cold you would certainly slip your jacket over her shoulders. Also, if it’s three in the morning and you’ve been drinking for 8 hours, it may happen that your tie accidentally comes undone and you are too overserved to retie it. Ahem.
- Do not desert your date. You dance with the one who brung you. Pay attention and be attentive. Stand when she stands, hold her chair, remove her coat, help her back into it, retrieve her drinks, do nothing for yourself you would not do for her first.
- Do not take a bunch of photographs. If someone wants a picture it should be done at home before or after. I know this is tough in this age of facebook, but some things are sacred. You can take photos outside on the sidewalk or at the after-party at the bar down the street, but not inside the hall. First, it’s annoying and secondly, the old guard would probably have a cow if they saw you photographing their debs.
- Do not get overserved. Hold your liquor. You should know by now which liquor makes you all warm and smiley and a great dancer and which liquor makes you redneck drunk and looking for a fight.
- Try not to sweat through your suit. I know this is hard to do when the groove is in your heart, but do try. Take a break from the dance floor and intersperse your liquor drinks with water. Nothing is worse than a soaking wet sweat hog in a tuxedo.
- When to leave - A gent never makes the first mention of going home. No matter if you are using the shrimp fork to keep your eyes open, you would always wait for your date to end the evening. Even if she asks you, you would politely tell her that you are completely content in her company.
Now go shake a leg and I’ll see you on the dance floor.
Coming next: An interview with one of Charleston’s most sought after escorts and his take on the ins and outs of Debutante Season.