Tuesday, January 12, 2010

modern debutante

On December 30, 2009, my baby sister, Chesley Paige, became a member of the Durham Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball, in the 55th Debutante season. I was presented as a "deb" in December 2003. Since my presentation, I have seen the Society improve at great leaps and bounds. However, I believe it still has room to grow.

Many girls my age who were invited to participate declined, citing that the tradition served no true purpose and was outdated. Or it was simply too expensive to participate without some sort of return. While I chose to participate, to some extent, I agree with these young women.

Historically, the presentation of debutantes at court was a way for young girls of marital age to be presented to suitable bachelors and their families in the hopes of finding a suitable husband. The bachelor in turn would use the court presentation as a chance to find a suitable wife. This was most traditional in the United Kingdom. Other shapes and forms of this tradition can be found throughout history, all over the world.

Today, in the United States, balls can be found at the local, state and national level. The higher you go, the more often you'll find the ball's ticket sales going toward a particular charity.

The 2003 Durham Debutante Ball did NOT support a charity and did NOT participate in any service work. If it did, as an active participant, I was unaware of such contributions. Looking back at my deb experience, this is one of my biggest regrets. While the initial purpose of these formal events may have fallen by the wayside, I believe the tradition can carry on with new purpose.

The season traditionally asks groups of women to throw various types of gatherings to honor the young women who will be presented in December. I was extremely happy to see the 2009 debs participating in a "seasonal gathering" to support the local Habitat for Humanity project. It is of my opinion the Durham Debutante Society and Ball should continue in this charitable direction. There are many fortunate and giving families in the Triangle, specifically in Durham.

I believe the Society would see their number of participating young women in the annual Cotillion rise, as well as the number of high-caliber inductees to the Society itself. I know many women of the current Durham Debutante Society, of all ages and backgrounds, who are wonderful and caring people. I cannot imagine that these women do not share my sentiments toward this issue. Now, it is a matter of reforming and carrying out new purpose.

The amount of money that goes into the debutante season could be mind-blowing to those not familiar with the debutante season. Why not direct some of this money back to those who need it? Maybe take a percentage of the ticket sales to a charity, voted on by the debs who are being presented? The young women could split off into groups, research various charities and do short presentations to the entire group. As a whole they could vote and choose which one will receive the final donation.

As the 2009 debs did, I would also like to see the seasonal gatherings continue take a charitable direction. Believe me, I like a good party as much as the next girl, and I by no means want to take away the good time that often goes hand-in-hand with the season. But maybe replace two of the five events with service projects?

With all of this expressed, I am honored to have been asked and participated in the 2003 Cotillion Ball. I remain proud when I look back at the friends I made throughout the process and the group I am now associated with.

I believe in tradition and I believe in progress. Combining these two concepts is not always easy. As a past Durham Deb, I believe it is a necessary challenge the Society needs to face in order to continue this honored tradition while bringing it into the 21st century.


Below is a brief history about the Durham Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball, from an adaptation by current and past Chairs of the Ball. A special collection of the scrapbooks, pins and photographs documenting the Ball's history can be found on UNC-Chapel Hill's campus. These items are a part of The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library.

"The Debutante Cotillion and Christmas Ball of Durham, N.C., was founded by Mrs. Thomas Davenport Wright in 1955. Through 1960, the Ball was given as a benefit for Kenmore, a colonial mansion in Fredericksburg, Va., built by Colonel Fielding Lewis for his bride Betty Washington, the only sister of George Washington. In 1961, Mrs. Wright, along with Mrs. Edward McCullough Cameron, Mrs. Charles Harris Livengood Jr., Mrs. Edward Stewart Orgain, Mrs. William Edwards Cranford, founded the Debutante Ball Society of Durham, N.C. At that time the Durham Arts Council, formerly Allied Arts, became the beneficiary of the ball.

The Durham Society is steeped in tradition. In every year since its founding, young women have been presented at the annual ball. The debutante calendar begins each year in February when young women, chiefly from Durham, Chapel Hill, and Orange County, N.C., are nominated by members of the Society. Members, formerly "patronesses," are a group of women selected as representative of the best civic and social life of the community, and invited to lend their names, prestige, and efforts to the ball, and to chair and serve on all ball committees. Mrs. Cameron served as the first chair of the patronesses in 1955.

In March, the Society selects young women to be debutantes and invites them to participate in the process. The Durham Society prides itself on its decision to select young women not only for their social standing, but for their personal achievements and special talents as well. The debutante social season begins when the names of the new debutantes are announced in May at the Mothers Day luncheon. Additional parties and other social events take place during the summer and fall. The season culminates with the cotillion and ball in December.

The first Debutante Ball consisted of a receiving line, the garland waltz, cotillion figures, singing of Christmas carols, a welcoming address by a local minister, and the first dance by the debutantes and their fathers. In succeeding years, the polka sleigh ride and the minuet were added, and the cotillion figure became the Christmas tree.

In 1964, the Society held its inaugural debutante art exhibit, and in 1967, it introduced the creative writing contest. In 1989, debutantes began the tradition of presenting a long-stemmed red rose to their mothers, and in 1990, the chorale was re-introduced.

Other traditions of the Durham Society include the crest, designed by William Cranford, the husband of one of the founders, with the inscription Integras, Virtus, Gratia (integrity, virtue, grace)--the qualities emphasized by the Society throughout the debutante year. During 1969 and 1970, the crest adorned a canopy under which the debutantes were introduced. The canopy was replaced by a set built by students of the North Carolina School of the Arts for the ball's relocation to the Omni Hotel and Convention Center Ballroom. Today the crest is featured on a charm that is presented to each debutante.

Since its inception, more than 2,000 young women have been presented by the Debutante Ball Society of Durham, N.C.

Note: Adapted from a history of the Debutante Ball Society compiled by past chairs."


Maggie said...

I loved this post, Kat! And you're right, a lot more debutante cotillions should donate to charity or participate in a service project. I did the national debutante cotillion and one of the deciding factors in participating was that a vast majority of the ticket sales and fees were donated to the Children's National Medical Center in DC. And I agree with you, that if there was more participation in charities then there would be a higher participation number.

Elizabeth M. Johnson said...

Well said, Katherine. I wasn't familiar with the tradition and history of debutante balls and agree with you that participation would increase if the focus became a little more community-oriented. This is an important point that you make...and one that a former deb like yourself can make betters than others can!

Biff Hollingsworth said...

Great post. Thanks for mentioning the collection at the Southern Historical Collection at UNC. I just thought that I would share a link to a guide of the collection:


All of our materials in the SHC are open to the public for research. All you need is some curiosity (and a photo ID). :)


Biff Hollingsworth
Southern Historical Collection, UNC