Downton Abbey: Presentation balls

rose mclareOn Sunday’s Downton Abbey finale, Rose finally was presented to society in a majestic ceremony with much elegance. I didn’t realize these women were presented to the King and Queen. I expected something like the presentation balls in the States (not that I’d been to one). I’ve read plenty of books and seen many BBC dramas, where this is mentioned, but I’m glad Downton showed us the real spectacle. Both Cora and Lord Grantham were stunning, as was Rose.

Thanks to my friendly, public library reference services, I’ve found out a bit about all this Presentation business:

From ABC-CLIO’s Daily Life through History website

debutante balls

The word debutante comes from the French, debut, which means, “beginning.” The young woman is said to be “coming out” when she is introduced, implying that she is leaving the sheltered world of family life to join a wider society. The tradition of formal presentation of a young woman is rooted in an old English practice where daughters of the aristocracy, who married within a very small circle of elite families, were presented to those of similar social standing when they reached a marriageable age. The practice continues to be associated generally with wealthy and socially prominent families.

In England, presentations took place during “The London Season,” which usually coincided with the sitting of Parliament. Generally, it began after Easter and continued until August when the grouse-hunting season started. Families of wealth and position made a mass migration from their country estates to London for “The Season,” to exchange their quiet life of limited entertainment for days of shopping, riding, and visiting; and evenings of theater, dances, and balls. It was regarded as the chance for young men and women of position to mingle and find a marriageable partner. Marriages were more likely to be made on the basis of social connections, eligibility, and finances than on common interests, compatibility, and love.

Before a young woman could join in the social activities of “The Season,” she had to be presented at court to the queen. This typically took place when she reached 18. Prior to that time the activities of a young woman of social position would be restricted to attendance at school and limited participation in any social functions. While the actual presentation would only take a few minutes, preparations for the event were extensive. There were rigidly prescribed rules for presentation that extended to dress and accessories. Unmarried women were expected to wear a white gown, although soft color over a white background was permitted. The gown had to have a train. The headdress had to have feathers and a tulle veil long enough to reach the train. The number and size of the feathers on a headdress varied with the whim of the monarch. Queen Victoria favored three large feathers.

Hours were spent learning how to walk wearing a gown with a train that extended three yards. The young woman also had to learn how to execute a full bow, where her knee almost touched the floor, and to rise without losing her balance. She had to back out of the room without tripping on her train, as she was not permitted to turn her back to the queen. Liveried servants were stationed strategically to assist the young woman in making a graceful exit.

Those being presented had to be accompanied by an older woman of rank and respectability who had already been presented. For most debutantes, this was her mother but a young woman could be taken under the wing of any socially prominent matron. After the Industrial Revolution, some members of the middle class amassed considerable fortunes. Daughters of successful middle-class families could be presented at court if they could find a sponsor from among the aristocracy. Aristocrats were anxious to make alliances with wealthy entrepreneurs, and the bourgeois wanted acceptance from high society. Sponsorship created a mutually beneficial arrangement.

Would Cora qualify? Was she presented?

Would Cora qualify? Was she presented?

In the United States, the practice of presenting young women can be traced back to 1748, when 59 Philadelphia families held “Dancing Assemblies.” Unable to present their daughters to the court in England, the colonists began their own custom. Debutante balls usually were private affairs held in the family home or a fashionable hotel. By the end of the 19th century, however, many affairs had become ostentatious showcases of family wealth, typical of the Gilded Age. Wealth and age were not enough for a young woman to be presented, according to an 1883 etiquette book,The Manners That Win, which stated that a debutante should have graduated from school and have a complete understanding of the rules that govern polite society, should be able to sing or play an instrument gracefully and dance elegantly. By the 1920s the rules governing a debut had somewhat relaxed in reaction to the more modern attitudes of the time. In Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage of 1922, etiquette authority Emily Post described ways, alternative to the ball, that a young woman could be introduced to society. She suggested an afternoon tea with dancing, a small dance, or a small tea without music. Post even included the very modest suggestion that a mother might simply have joint calling cards made. By this time, public balls or cotillions, as they were sometimes called, where young women from prominent families were invited to make their debuts collectively, had generally replaced private debuts. After World War II, debutante balls spread to almost every city in the United States, reaching an all-time high in popularity during the Eisenhower years. The sexual revolution and feminist movement of the following decades led many young women to abandon the event. Debutante balls had resurgence during the prosperous 1980s, and by the close of the 20th century many were sponsored by charitable organizations and linked to fundraising events. While historically, the purpose of presentation was to find a suitable marriage partner, today a debutante is usually presented for her accomplishments and to introduce her to the adult philanthropic world.

Debutante balls are held in almost every major city in the United States but tend to be more popular and elaborate in the South. Some cities have multiple balls during the season, which generally runs from November through January. In the North, some families host a private party as an alternative to the formal ball. This “coming out” party can be scheduled any time during the year but is often planned to coincide with the young woman’s birthday. An event such as this differs from a ball in that the event is smaller and the guests are commonly limited to the friends of the young woman.

Many formal traditions persist for these events, and there is a particular etiquette for dress. Debutantes are expected to wear white gowns and gloves made from satin or kid leather. The dress should be light, airy, and young. It should never be overly elaborate. If white is unbecoming, the debutante may wear a very pale color gown. Strong colors such as red, dark blue, and black are unacceptable. The debutante’s mother wears a ball dress and gloves as well.

The debutantes to be presented stand in a receiving line at the beginning of the affair to greet and welcome the guests. It is customary for the debutante to invite a few of her best girl friends to receive with her. These young women wear evening dresses but do not actually stand in the receiving line. With no official duties, they are there merely to share in the celebration. It is customary for family, friends, and business associates to send decorative flowers in the form of bouquets or baskets to the debutante. These floral arrangements are usually displayed near the receiving line. The debutante holds one of the bouquets while she is standing in the line.

When it is time to be presented, the debutante is announced and walked around the stage accompanied by her father, who makes the presentation. As the presentation is made, the debutante makes a deep bow or curtsy. This is sometimes called the “St. James’ bow,” harkening back to the court presentations. A male escort then joins the young woman and walks her away. Some debutantes have two escorts. Many balls select and pair the debutantes and their escorts. The debutante goes to supper with her escort. Her most intimate friends and their dinner partners are seated at her table. The debutante tables may be larger than the tables for the other guests in order to accommodate her friends, and they are usually located in the center of the room. After the meal, the debutante has no special responsibilities and is free to enjoy the party.

The prom is a modern outgrowth of the debutante ball. Proms began in the elite Northeastern colleges. Middle-class parents admired the poise and composure displayed by debutantes and their escorts at the balls. They began to institute formal dances as a means of showcasing social skills and elegance for their children and celebrating their emergence into society.

Dorothy Denneen Volo

Volo, Dorothy Denneen. “debutante balls.” Daily Life through History. ABC-CLIO, 2014. Web. 25 Feb. 2014.

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