A coming-of-age ceremony is not uncommon among world cultures. Fifteen-year-old Latin-American girls celebrate their quinceañeras as a representation of their entrance into womanhood. Bar and bat mitzvahs occur as coming-of-age ceremonies for 13-year-old Jewish boys and girls, respectively.
Last week, I attended another type of coming-of-age event: a debutante ball.
In retrospect, I admit I was ignorant. Of course, I would attend the ball to support my friend who was being presented as a duchess in a decades-old Dallas organization. I was happy to be there in her honor. But I also could not deny my preconceived notions about such an extravaganza. A debutante ball? Really? In my head, I had written it off. It had never crossed my mind as something in which I would participate. My impression of debutante balls was one of an exaggerated display of wealth and class in a neighborhood of Dallas known for proudly representing the upper echelon of society.
These affairs are part of Southern history and culture; yet, debutante balls and cotillions occur in many major cities in the U.S. One of the largest and most expensive galas is the International Debutante Ball at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The National Cotillion and the Thanksgiving Ball have been hosted in Washington, D.C. for the past 60 years. While many debutante balls do select duchesses based on family wealth or establishment in elite society, other balls have modernized the event — like the one I attended in Dallas.
La Fiesta de las Seis Banderas, established in 1986, began with the purpose of preventing the relocation of the oldest house in Highland Park, a prominent neighborhood in Dallas. Functioning under the Dallas Historical Preservation League, La Fiesta is a nonprofit organization that sponsors the celebration every year and raises money for beneficiaries. These include The Elisa Project, a group dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders, The Family Place, an organization that works to prevent family violence and peer bullying, and other local charities.
The gala itself was a curious experience. Being a black-tie affair, I took advantage of the free valet and walked in wearing my floor-length prom dress from two years ago. At the cocktail party that preceded the presentation, I gazed at the framed portraits of each duchess in her custom-made gown. The ladies were divided into six groups, each representing one of the six flags of Texas: France, Spain, the Confederate States of America, the Republic of Texas and the United States of America. I was skeptical, looking at my friend in her photo. The Duchess of the Confederacy? What year is this again? Unbeknownst to me at the time, the six flags represent the countries that have had sovereignty over the territory of the state of Texas. So much for any retention of seventh-grade Texan history.
As the ceremony began, I started to realize that reality was disproving my misconceptions. For two hours, I watched as each duchess was presented to society. Each girl wore a unique dress, walked to the front of the stage on the arm of her father and performed a deep curtsy, nose to the ground. The perhaps outdated, feminist-scorned tradition in which the father hands off the duchess to a young male escort may have rung an alarm bell in my head, but I had to keep in mind the bigger picture.
When I watched my friend perform her curtsy, I knew then it wasn’t about stereotypes or extravagance. I wasn’t there because it was a free party. I was there to celebrate and support my friend, along with our other closest classmates from high school. When she rose from her deep bow, we cheered the loudest, and heads turned at the noise of the undeniable praise from Table 85 in the back. A huge grin spread across my friend’s face.
Though I might choose a different approach to fundraising, I was wrong in immediately questioning the debutante phenomenon. My initial thoughts are likely akin to those of many others who had never experienced or witnessed something so foreign to them. But in the end, I was grateful to have seen what such an event was like, especially since it didn’t align with my interests. What I believed to be a ridiculously overdone tradition and a stereotypical characteristic of the South actually showed me that not everything is entirely what it seems.
Caitlin Karna is a rising sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. The Southern Drawl appears every other Sunday.
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