Daughter of a Deb
25/07/2012 § 1 Comment
The idea that girls require guidance and education in order to become women — scratch that, to become proper ladies — is the foundation of charm school. You might recall we discussed this concept in February. I talked about how I saw value in the model, girls and women coming together in the name of self-education and improvement, but I disagree with the emphasis most of these institutions placed on being pretty, perfect baking skills or being a good wife. To hell with all that. And so, that’s why I created the Quite Continental Charm School, a modern guide for modern women to create their most charming life.
And while I might have turned the concept of charm school on its head for my own purposes, I still remain fascinated by all the traditions that prepare and commemorate a girl’s transformation into a woman, like the Bat Mitzvah or the Quinceañera. Growing up, I was none too interested in all of that Sweet Sixteen stuff, but I wasn’t able to completely escape the allure of the tradition. Perhaps it’s because I am actually the daughter of a “deb.”
What’s a deb? Historically, American debutantes were girls who had reached the age of maturity and were newly eligible to be married. As part of a formal — and usually quite lavish — ceremony the girls were presented to polite society (read: upper class) either singly or as part of a group, usually wearing some kind of fancy white ballgown. Fast forwarding a few generations, the deb of my mother’s generation wasn’t primarily intent on catching a husband. Her attentions were instead focused on making an excellent impression in her social circle (on her own behalf, as well as for her family), finding the perfect escort and wearing an amazing dress. While traditions do vary regionally, most debutantes also perform some sort of charity work as part of the process as well.
So, as we might have discussed already, my mother was quite the social butterfly growing up. When I was a young resident of Awkwardsville, living at the intersection of Braces Street and Glasses Avenue, I would often look at the pictures of my mom at one of the many photos of her at a prom or formal — from their sheer number, it would seem like that was all she did in high school — but it was the pictures of her at her cotillion, in that shining white dress, that would always stand out from all the others. What I felt is hard to describe, but I loved them without having any desire to be a deb. I left that to my sister, who seemed to enjoy it. Naturally, to her cotillion I wore a black, backless gown and painted my nails with Chanel’s Vamp. Naturally.
So for a change, I asked my mom to talk a little about what it was like when she was a deb, to hear the story behind the pictures I love so much (which I promise to scan sometime soon):
“The debutante thing was very different in 1965. You had to be invited to participate, and that produced a group of about 35. In the spring we waited with baited breath to see if we were chosen. Selection was based on family, character, and social standing. I was afraid I wouldn’t be chosen because your grandparents were not in the “in” social scene. But we were buddies with Alicia’s family (they were); and Alicia and I were best buds (but she had to drop out because she came down with mono). I was a little younger than the rest of the debs (required age was 17 of a HS senior), but it was the crowd I hung out with (I was 16 and a junior). Announcements were made and the formal tea was held; we wore hats and gloves and our best dresses to tea. In the countdown to Thanksgiving weekend, we were required to attend etiquette classes, We were also required to do a set amount of volunteer hours. I was assigned to the Neuro-Psychiatric Institute at UCLA (NPI). It was interesting. I had to wear a candystriper-type uniform (like a pinafore). I got to see the lab monkeys in their cages (that part was sad). Then weekly rehearsals began around mid-Sept. Mrs. Poole started us of with the waltz and curtsey. After we had that down, they brought in the dads, and then the escorts. The ball was held at the Ambassador Hotel in the Embassy Ballroom (where RFK was assassinated 3 years later). I had a room upstairs where I dressed and some parents hung out after hours. We had an all-night party as a group somewhere else.”
My mother’s debut was organized by the Los Angeles chapter of The Links, an international, non-profit volunteer service organization of women committed to enriching, sustaining and ensuring the culture and economic survival of African Americans and other persons of African ancestry. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Link’s ball; the first was held at Ciro’s, a famous nightclub on the Sunset Strip, because hotel ballrooms were not available for minority social events in Los Angeles in 1952. So you can imagine how happy I was, finding these pictures in the Life Archives. While these debutantes in 1950 are 15 years earlier than my mother’s era, and a good fifty years earlier than my sister’s, there are constants: the puffy white dresses, the elbow-length gloves, the proud parents, the nervous escorts, the pomp and the circumstance.
The photos, shot by Cornell Capa for Life Magazine, capture Harlem’s very first large-scale “negro debutante cotillion,” organized by Mrs. Lillian Sharpe Hunter, a prominent social-event promoter. If you would like to read the article — and there’s a great shot of the Rockland Palace Ballroom where all 52 girls debuted in front of an audience of 4,700 that you must see! — you can find it here.
(Above, L-R) Debutantes Joan Greene, Carole Mc Kenzie, Marian Romain,
Lois Mc Laughlin and Marcia Miller posing in their dresses.
Grand March is led by Mrs. Lillian Sharpe Hunter and the
guest of honor Grover Whalen for the debutante cotillion.
Were you a deb too? I would love to hear your story!