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Rites and Regalia of American Debdom

Karal Ann Marling

April 2004
224 pages, 61 photographs, 6 x 9
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1317-5, $24.95 (t)

book cover imageIt is an institution that seems almost hopelessly out of date, a social relic of bygone times. The very word “debutante” evokes images of prim, poised beauty, expensive gowns, and sumptuous balls, all of which seem anachronistic in these post-women’s liberation times. But as Karal Ann Marling reveals, debdom in America is alive and well and ever evolving.

For thousands of young women every year, the society debut remains a vital rite of passage, a demonstration of female power; debs continue to be viewed as the finest flowers of a distinctive American culture. The debut and its offshoots--the high school prom, the sorority presentation, assorted beauty pageants--continue to emphasize celebrity, class, and community. But why does this peculiar tradition persist? Marling has the answer, as she demystifies debdom and the “long-term American hankering after the trappings of royalty.”

Debutante presents a penetrating and entertaining look at American debdom from the colonial era to the present day. Debbing has always been a performance art, created by and for women. In its heyday in the nineteenth century, debut signified the formal presentation to elite society of a young woman of substance who was eligible for marriage. During the twentieth century, it evolved from the glamour girl galas of the Great Depression to the charity bashes of the 1980s after the “Deb Drought” of the ’60s and ’70s. Marling reviews this colorful history, documenting changes in debdom right up to our own day, when the sisterhood of debs includes African Americans, Latinas, and members of other ethnic groups once carefully excluded: now even economically disadvantaged young women have their coming-out, where the emphasis of the event is on community.

In these pages, aspiring debs and curious readers alike will be taken from teas and cotillions to café society and discover the rich material culture of debdom, with its flowers and favors, gowns and pearls. They’ll also meet famous debs of the ’30s like Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and glamour girl Brenda Duff Frasier; experience black American high society at the debut of Nat King Cole’s daughter Cookie; and attend such civic spectacles as Kansas City’s Jewel Ball and St. Louis’s Veiled Prophet Ball.

In sparkling prose graced by a gallery of captivating photos, Marling provides an illuminating inside look at debs and a world that continues to celebrate the spirit and diversity of American womanhood.

“Karal Ann Marling’s Debutante is a delightful romp through the history of the rites and rituals surrounding the debutante, the American girl being presented to society. At the same time, this is a serious and engrossing history of the intersections of race, class, and gender around the figure of a glorified girl—from the debs of New York high society to African-American ‘coming out’ adolescents, Hispanic quinceañeras, and the ubiquitous high school senior proms of the decades since World War II. . . . A well-written, fast-paced narrative that both scholars and general readers will enjoy.”--Lois Banner, author of American Beauty

“Marling marries the voice of a truly dishy gossip columnist to an astute analysis of American rites and rituals--what fun! And who would imagine that a history of the debutante could tell us so much about the diversity of American life and our changing notions of class, race, and democratic possibility?”--Beth Bailey, author of Sex in the Heartland and From Front Porch to Backseat

“Karal Ann Marling has written a lively, engaging, wide-ranging account of a quintessential American social rite. And she convincingly shows how traditions that once marked social exclusiveness have been adapted by a variety of American communities, from the Hispanic quinceañera to Ukranian, Jewish, and African-American coming-of-age rituals. This book is readable and immensely likeable.”--Joy Kasson, author of Marble Queens and Captives: Women in Nineteenth-Century American

“Teas, dances, germans, balls, cotillions––it all sounds so slight and passé. But, as Karal Ann Marling shows with such charm and skill in Debutante, such things have always mattered in an America that has never been quite as classless as it has pretended to be.”--Frank Deford, NPR commentator and author of There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America

“This is a delightful and significant book. The research is comprehensive and first-rate. The narrative is richly textured, and Marling’s inimitable anecdotes help to hold the reader’s interest throughout.”--Michael Kammen, author of American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century

KARAL ANN MARLING is the author of nineteen books, including As Seen on TV, George Washington Slept Here, and, most recently, Merry Christmas!


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