Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Debutante Ball: A Remnant of a Different Age

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“Hey Upper East Siders, it’s that time of year again. When the mere act of descending a staircase means you’re a woman. That’s right. Debutante season.” – Gossip Girl, Season One Episode 10: Hi, Society.

The word debutante is defined as “an upper-class young woman making her first appearance in fashionable society.” It originated from the French word débutant, which means “leading off”. Its literal meaning and the ideas that it connotes—upper-class young women paraded in front of numerous individuals—hasn’t aged over time.

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Although debutante balls are still being held, its essence isn’t quite the same as when the occasion was first celebrated. The original debutante ball once signified the opening of the London Season and presented young British ladies of nobility to the Queen of England. Also, in a time where young women weren’t allowed to converse with men until they had come of age, it symbolized their eligibility for marriage. But nowadays, girls, boys, men, and women are free to interact with each other without the fear of tarnishing their reputations. This is the reality of today and it’s a far cry from that of the Victorian Era.

Given the modernization of societies all around, is a debutante ball still necessary? Does it hold the same significance as it once did? Taking a look at the more notable debutante balls that still exist as well as looking into the Filipino “debut” may shed some light into its place, or lack thereof, in contemporary society.

Around the World

The Queen Charlotte’s Ball

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No other debutante ball, not even Serena van der Woodsen’s, has been graced with the presence of every Queen of England since the late 1700s.

Queen Charlotte’s Ball is held annually in London, England and was founded by King George III who named it in honor of his wife in the 1780s. It marks the beginning of the London season and was celebrated for over 200 years.

Up until 1958, it was held in Buckingham Palace with the most elite members of British society in attendance along with the Queen who received each lady presented. While tradition is all well and good, it was Prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, who called the event “bloody daft.” Some say that it was both archaic and elitist, but that didn’t stop young ladies from throwing the ball and having a hoot.

It’s been held at various locations around London such as The Royal Courts of Justice and although the Queen no longer attends, the tradition of wearing grand white gowns and waltzing around a ballroom continues. Nowadays, it’s more of an excuse for the most privileged of British girls to wear designer gowns and party the night away.

The International Debutante Ball

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Gossip Girl’s Jenny Humphrey wasn’t exaggerating when she said “A debutante ball is all a girl could ask for. It’s gorgeous and formal and totally legendary.” And that’s exactly what New York City, New York’s International Debutante Ball is—legendary.

Founded in 1954, it is held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. Debutantes come from all over the world with politician, celebrity, and royal parents. Much of the occasion’s specifics haven’t changed since its induction into New York society—the venue, the attires, and the escorts. But, veering away from the tradition of introducing young ladies to potential suitors, New York’s debutante ball is geared more towards presenting empowered young ladies (with college degrees and the beginnings of successful careers) that don’t necessarily use the occasion to look for potential husbands.

Le Bal Des Debutantes

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If Blair Waldorf had grown up in Paris instead of New York, she probably would have been the star of Le Bal Des Debutante. She did say that she wanted her debutante ball “to be something to die for,” and if you’re an avid reader of Teen Vogue, then Le Bal would definitely be the ball to die for.

Held in Paris, France since its conception in the 1950s, Le Bal is oftentimes credited as the crème de la crème of debutante balls perhaps because it is the most glamorous and has debuted various daughters of well-known celebrities and politicians alike. Kyra Kennedy, great-niece of late President John F. Kennedy, debuted at Le Bal last 2013 while Tallulah and Scout Willis, daughters of actor Bruce Willis, debuted in 2011 and 2009 respectively. It is held at the Hôtel de Crillon, one of the oldest and most prestigious in Paris.

However, at its introduction into French society, it was held alternately at the Paris Opera House and in Versailles and followed the English tradition of white ball gowns, tiaras, and silken gloves. Since 1992, debutantes of Le Bal have opted to wear more modern gowns or even cocktail dresses. There hasn’t been a white ball gown in attendance for quite some time.

The Shanghai International Debutante Ball

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CeCe van der Woodsen on Gossip Girl said that “The cotillion teaches the good graces that women should always have in their arsenal,” and the debutantes at The Shanghai International Ball have those down pat.

While the previously mentioned balls are classics, those that have the sophistication and prominence that come with age, The Shanghai International Ball is a budding occasion in Chinese society. Aptly, on its first year in existence, it was held at the Waldorf Astoria in Shanghai, although the venue changes yearly. And as its name could tell you, Shanghai didn’t limit its debutantes to daughters of rich Chinese moguls: it opened its doors to daughters of prestigious families from around the world. That China has begun to host one of the most prestigious events for young ladies, could signify its blossoming economy and its entry into formal London or New York level society.

In the Philippines

Photo Source: Official Photographs from Clarisse Patricia Reyes’s Debut

In looking up the history and origins of the Philippine debut, you’ll find a lot of holes with no pieces to go in them. Some say that it is a tradition that was brought by the Spaniards during their 300-year stay, or that it is a Filipino variation of the quinceañera, the Spanish equivalent of a debutante ball — though the quinceañera is the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday while the debut celebrates the 18th. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the conventions followed in most Philippine debuts or cotillions are those of the British or American variations. However, unlike the debutante balls in London, Paris, or New York, the Philippine debut is held solely for one celebrant while the look and feel of it closely resembles Le Bal Des Debutantes.

The debut itself would normally involve of the giving of 18 roses to the celebrant by a male friend or family member, followed by a dance with each; the giving of 18 candles by chosen guests; and basically the giving of 18 of anything that the celebrant wishes to receive at her party. The most ostentatious so far is the giving of 18 thousands—a one thousand Peso bill per chosen guest—to the celebrant. Rather flashy, isn’t it?

The debut may also include an invocation prayer, welcoming remarks by the celebrant’s parents, a father and daughter dance, as well as a grand cotillion waltz dance. This dance is sometimes called the “Cotillion de Honor”, which is either a waltz or a traditional Filipino “Rigodon” and requires the participation of nine men, nine women, as well as the debutante and her escort. After each segment of the debut, the celebrant may or may not give closing remarks, and the dance floor is opened to all.

While the more traditional debutante balls are reserved for girls who come from nobility or high social rank, the Philippine debut is not quite so classist. Every young woman, regardless of social status, is allowed the opportunity to celebrate her 18th birthday in the most elaborate of ways provided that her parents are able to afford it. In fact, even those in the lower classes strive to hold a debut for their daughters believing that this celebration is of great importance.

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With celebrations this explosive from all around the world, you really have to wonder: what is the point?

While the celebration of the debutante ball is a tradition that spans centuries for Western societies, the case is not the same in the Philippines. Years ago, the point of a Western debutante ball was to present eligible young women to potential suitors. Nowadays, it is an excuse to dress up in white gowns, dance, and party.

Dan Humphrey, a main character from the show Gossip Girl, said “Cotillion just seemed antiquated to me, a remnant of a different age. People spend all that money to have their daughters basically dance in front of others for attention” and “[The debutante ball is] out of touch and totally classist.”

So is Dan right when he says that we must do away with debutante balls altogether? The Queen of England certainly thought so. But while the main purpose of the original debutante balls no longer hold any value in today’s society, it doesn’t mean that girls from anywhere and everywhere can’t celebrate their 18th birthday with the glitz and glam seen in almost every Gossip Girl episode. Though they may no longer be necessary, we’re all allowed to have our princess moment even if it is just for one night.


Article by Anna
Artwork by Ginny

When she’s not binge watching every TV show she can get her hands on, Anna is sitting at her desk fantasizing about the adventures she’s dying to have all over the world and recounts them in her little purple notebook. She despises pants and would rather walk around in her underwear than wear a pair of jeans.

Ginny is an 18 year old grandma whose interests include cats, tea, baking, sewing, and staying in bed. Art has always been a passion for her and, while she’s had to suffer countless late night plate-making sessions for school, is highly determined to pursue a career in the art world. She can’t go a day without making a song reference or uttering the phrase “oh my god.”


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