The New Debutante
by finn-olaf jones
Next February 1, 16 debutantes from New York’s international community will take their bows before their families, Manhattan glitterati, and members of the diplomatic corps at the Viennese Opera Ball in the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom. “I inherited something that had become moribund and gray,” says Marcie Rudell, who for the past 11 years has been producing the event. But now Rudell says, “there’s more demand for those spots than there has been in the last two decades.”
The New York deb season is thriving. Tickets to the International Debutante Ball—held a few days before the New Year—sell out by mid-December, says Margaret Hedberg, who as head of the International Debutante Ball is one of the grand dames of New York debutante society. She took the reins from her aunt, who founded it in 1954. “It’s become more inclusive,” says Hedberg of one of the reasons behind the revival, despite the recession and hunkering down of one percenter wealth. “We now have old money, new money, and corporate money.”
Yes, debutante balls are back, but in an incarnation to reflect our times. To the uninitiated, the scenes of young women promenading in virginal white dresses in Manhattan’s grandest ballrooms might seem like outmoded, hollow pomp for the well-to-do. But a new type of debutante is taking her curtsy on the spotlighted platforms: career oriented, media savvy, and ambitious.
Claudia Keep, a sophomore at Bryn Mawr College, donned her whites last year at the Saint Nicholas Society ball. “Being 18 in New York is hard, especially if you’re trying to make your way in the current marketplace,” she says. “When you become a debutante, you enter this world of people who are there for you—predebs, postdebs; you’re suddenly part of this group that ranges from teenagers to 80-year-olds. The modern debutante is usually a career woman, and the connections are there to be useful.”
This may explain why there’s been a bit of age inflation in the past decade among the deb set, once almost exclusively the 18-year-old prepster crowd. Jennifer Rolfe, a corporate attorney from one of New England’s grand old families, debuted at the Mayflower Ball and Viennese Opera Ball seven years ago. She says: “I was out of college when I made my debut. At the International Debutante Ball there are even 25-year-olds. Today the balls are much more open to women who are trying to establish themselves in their careers.”
Rolfe points out that a lot of women who participate in these balls have recently moved to New York from out of town and want to get connected. “[The balls] really help people launch,” she points out, “not just socially but professionally—there’s a deep bonding that happens when you spend time going through a ritual like this. I know of one person who started her own financial consulting company through clients she met at the ball.”
Few women represent the face of the modern debutante better than New York native Hadley Nagel, who came out in no less than four balls over the 2009-2010 season. She made quite the media splash as journalists honed in on her overachieving CV. Nagel was a skilled networker having seemingly everyone from US congressmen to Harvard professors on her speed dial. (“It’s impossible to use your iPhone wearing long, white kid gloves,” she quips.) She also had won a full merit scholarship to Johns Hopkins University. “Titans in Party Dresses” enthused The New York Times in a gushing article about her.
Why would the Times, People magazine, and practically every glossy tabloid and national paper be providing such breathless coverage of the modern deb scene in the first place? Because the balls now come equipped with efficient public relations teams, great photo ops, and the whiff of old-world glamour missing from New York since Audrey Hepburn donned white gloves in Funny Face. In short, the perfect marketing opportunity for young women making the leap into the world beyond their SATs—or increasingly their college degrees.
In an age that values keeping up with the Kardashians, these young women are opting for more tasteful ways of raising profiles without baring more skin beyond a few inches between the shoulder and the top of their long gloves. But they walk a fine line between self-promotion and discretion. “I don’t advertise that I was a debutante,” says Keep. “In fact, it’s not something I volunteer to people unless I know them well. A lot of people have an idea that it’s elitist.”
But while modern debs may not be posting their every experience on Facebook, they are not averse to press. Positive media coverage can help a budding career in most any field—and raise a profile for whatever it is a deb may want to do business-wise. Like The Blue Book of the Hamptons set— which overlaps this one—East Coast debs aren’t part of a group that respects overt flaunting of privilege. It’s one thing to let journalists do it, another to initiate it yourself.
While practically every major US city has its share of cotillions, New York is deb mecca with a smorgasbord of long-established annual balls, including the Viennese Opera Ball, where waltzing is a must; the Saint Nicholas Society, which celebrates New York’s Colonial history; the Bal des Berceaux for Francophiles; the Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball (the Infirmary Ball, for short), which benefits New York Downtown Hospital; the Mayflower Ball for descendants of those first puritans; and the International Debutante Ball, a UN in evening dress.
All that curtsying isn’t for naught: most of the balls are associated with at least one charity. For instance, the International Debutante Ball supports a servicemen’s charity and the Viennese Opera Ball raises money for nonprofit programs, including Lauren Bush Lauren’s FEED Foundation, which fights world hunger.
Today’s deb has come a long way since the tradition was launched during the 17th century in European royal courts. In the old days daughters were a liability, says Margaret Hedberg, of the International Debutante Ball. “If they didn’t marry, they’d become old maids, the future Miss Havishams.”
So perhaps we should breathe a sigh of relief for the propagation of our Founding Fathers’ generation that the deb tradition reached American shores in 1748. Back then, some 59 families in Philadelphia gathered together for a powdered wig hoedown known as the cotillion, a ritualized French court dance where daughters could be introduced to fellow blue bloods while parents struck deals before any bodices were untied.
In the 19th and early 20th century, much of the action went international. Young women of the newly prosperous industrialized classes would spend a full year “coming out” in a series of balls on both sides of the Atlantic that culminated in them being presented to the English monarch. If things went well they’d end up marrying into nobility— New World inheritances being used to shore up sagging English estates. That’s how Winston Churchill ended up with an American mother, Consuelo Vanderbilt became the Duchess of Marlborough, and the fictitious Cora Crawley (née Levinson) from Cincinnati became the Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey.
The media really jumped into the picture in the early 20th century, especially during the Depression when debutantes—or “celebutantes” as the press dubbed them—were covered with the same frenzy currently reserved for the Hiltons or Kardashians. But the party almost ended in the ’60s when women’s liberation, Vietnam, rock ’n’ roll, and sexual revolution made strutting to your parents Big Band music in virginal white seem rather... dated. “If you look at the pictures, in the early ’60s you had all these pretty girls in their gloves and white dresses,” recalls Christine Schott, a New York public relations consultant from a long line of debs. “In 1969, you went from these grand balls with 30 debs to two debs in rumpled dresses with their hair undone. Everyone thought the tradition was finished.”
By the time Schott came out in 1982, deb balls were back. “Reagan was president, people were making lots of money, and it became cool to change out of your jeans and put on something elegant,” says Schott, “as long as you were having fun.”
Few were having more fun than Schott’s deb classmate Cornelia Guest, free-spirited daughter of Manhattan’s socialite-maven CZ Guest, who showed that you could still wear white at the deb balls and then rock Studio 54 with Mick Jagger in a barely-there mini-dress to the nonstop applause of the media. Cornelia flaunted the new have-it-all deb lifestyle in her 1986 memoir, The Debutante’s Guide to Life. “If you have enough money and a good name, you could do anything,” she wrote. “You could do a striptease on a table... and they’d let you be a debutante.”
Now there’s little preball flashy behavior for events that have become more serious networking affairs. Many debs typically commit long before their coming-out ball to learn to waltz or quadrille, to bow correctly, and to attend a series of rehearsal dinners and brunches together before the big night. “In order to bond with everyone, the Viennese Opera Ball arranged for people to meet at various clubs around town in the months leading up to the party,” recalls Rolfe. “It’s a cool experience. I met people from all over the world.”
Schott’s daughter, Whitney, a senior at the private Kew-Forest School on Long Island who is making her debut at the International Debutante Ball (as her mother did), says that being a deb hasn’t involved “a big time commitment yet.” In mid-October she said she was due for her first fitting. “Misha Nonoo is designing my dress. Then there’s a tea, a bachelor’s brunch, where you go with your escort, and presumably we’re going to have time to practice the curtsy and general etiquette for the ball.”
And the big night itself? “It’s a shining moment in your life,” remembers Grace Quick, another recent deb, of her coming out at the International Debutante Ball. “The ball starts with a lot of dancing in what looks like a wedding party. Then, after dinner, you walk straight up in the middle of the dance floor to the stage with your escort and a West Point cadet carrying your state or country flag. You go up and curtsy in front of the entire crowd. It’s pretty nerve-racking but exciting. And you’ve got to get that curtsy just right. We practiced it for weeks beforehand.” If the deb is Texan, which many of these women are, she curtsies even lower—a special move known as “the Texas dip,” which is as elegantly strenuous as yoga in an evening dress.
“A deb ball might seem like just a party for rich girls,” says David Patrick Columbia, editor of newyorksocial diary.com and the grand interpreter of Manhattan’s privileged set. “But even though it seems out of date, it’s really the sort of ritual that is becoming more missed in modern civilization. The transition into being a meaningful member of society is something we’ve been celebrating since the cavemen. Not a bad thing that some segments of society still find the occasion worth celebrating.”
One no longer has to be descended from a deb to be invited. As long as “someone knows you,” the International Ball’s Hedberg notes, you have a chance to be invited to supply the $16,000 check to join her organization (which includes a dozen tickets to the ball). The other end of the cost spectrum is the Opera Ball’s $500 ticket, if you can get in. The rest of the outlay can range from extravagant to modest. “Some of the girls will get their dresses specially designed—Vera Wang is very popular. Others will just buy them off the rack at Saks and Nordstrom,” says Hedberg. (And there’s no stigma in that—after all, 1947’s Debutante of the Year Jacqueline Bouver wore a $59 off-the-rack number.)
With the exception of the Paris Crillon Ball, an invitation-only ball where the likes of Amanda Hearst glided around in couture sponsored by France’s great fashion houses, and some copycat balls showing up in cities like Shanghai and Moscow, the well-heeled of the world head to New York for the deb season. After all, as Columbia notes, the English might have invented the debutante tradition; the French might have made it chic; but New York made it modern.
photography by béatrice de géa (rotator, Bags, flowers); sari goodfriend (schott);
courtesy of International Debutante ball (brown, debs, herring); koek/patrickmcmullan.com (NageL); courtesy of vob archives (viennese opera ball)