Debutante Balls

by Harry on January 8, 2022

This was the funniest moment of the semester, in my undergraduate political philosophy class. We had recently read one of Ingrid’s excellent papers on limitarianism, but were now discussion inequalities in higher education.

Student 1: My sister goes to an Ivy League school and you wouldn’t believe what her friends do, going off to ski in Colorado for the weekend, debutante balls, the lot.

Me: I had no idea there are still debutante balls.

Student 2: They have them in Louisville.

Me: I don’t believe they have them in Louisville.

Student 2: Why’s that? You think Louisville is poor?

Me: No…. I just, I dunno, think of them as an East Coast phenomenon.

Student 2 (witheringly): Harry, you know there are rich people everywhere.



Matt 01.08.22 at 1:39 am

For what it’s worth, I never heard people on the east coast talking about debutante balls. (I thought the movie Metropolitan depicted them as in serious decline in New York in the early 80s or late 70s or whenever that was supposed to be set.) But, the wife of one of my best friends is from Alabama, and they definitely had them there among the well-to-do in the 90s, and maybe still. (I never heard any kids at Penn, when I was there at various times, mention such things, though ski trips and trips to Europe and the like were not unheard of for many.)


PatinIowa 01.08.22 at 1:42 am


Brad DeLong 01.08.22 at 1:50 am

Indeed: I believe my great-grandmother was expelled from the Veiled Prophet Débutante Society in St. Louis for being a suffragette…


John Quiggin 01.08.22 at 2:52 am

They are common in Queensland, and not particularly associated with wealth. Here’s one for a small country town on the north coast

A bizarre consequence is that rugby league players taking part in the State of Origin series for the first time are called debutant(e)s – both spellings are common for men, though “debutante” is normal for women


Alan White 01.08.22 at 5:09 am

Hey if it was good enough for Patty Hearst on the west coast way back then. . . but I assume it just takes balls to have balls now though unevenly distributed among participants in all kinds of ways.


nastywoman 01.08.22 at 6:13 am

‘Las Madrinas Ball is a debutante ball held in Los Angeles, California by Las Madrinas (Spanish, the Godmothers), a nonprofit organization founded in 1933 to provide financial support to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and its medical research programs. The Las Madrinas Ball has been described as “the oldest and most prestigious” debutante ball in the Los Angeles area[1] and as “the most impressive debutante ball in Southern California”.[2] It is held in December each year and is the traditional starting event of the Los Angeles social season.

The sponsoring organization, Las Madrinas, was founded on October 11, 1933 with 65 founding members including descendants of Californio land-grant families and local wealthy families,[2] mostly from areas like Pasadena and Hancock Park.[3] The organization’s mission was to raise funds for what was then called the Convalescent Home of the Children’s Hospital by putting on an annual charity ball. Las Madrinas held its first charity ball two months later, on December 15, 1933, at the Biltmore Hotel. In 1939 the format was transformed into a debutante ball. The ball was suspended during World War II and resumed in 1945.[4] Historically the debutantes in the Las Madrinas Ball were required to come from families of “money and breeding and social position.”[1]

For the first 25 years press photography was banned; the ban was lifted in 1958 to permit Life Magazine to cover the event.[2]’


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nastywoman 01.08.22 at 6:29 am

and what always ‘floored’ me – that the US West Coast actually could be the utmost silly ‘conservative-debutante-ball-country-club-blue-book-orange-county’ in the whole of my ‘homeland’.


nastywoman 01.08.22 at 6:40 am

and about ‘discussion inequalities in higher education’ there isn’t hardly a better example as the world famous ‘University Of Spoiled Children’ – as it holds a lot of Debutantes of the
Las Madrina Ball – and a lot of members of the LA Country Club and the California Club and the most prestigious ‘Debutantes Ball’
them ALL –
the yearly BALL of teh Bohemians
‘Every July, some of the richest and most powerful men in the world gather at a 2,700 acre campground in Monte Rio, Calif., for two weeks of heavy drinking, super-secret talks, druid worship (the group insists they are simply “revering the Redwoods”), and other rituals.

Their purpose: to escape the “frontier culture,” or uncivilized interests, of common men.

The people that gather at Bohemian Grove — who have included prominent business leaders, former U.S. presidents, musicians, and oil barons — are told that “Weaving Spiders Come Not Here,” meaning business deals are to be left outside. One exception was in 1942, when a planning for the Manhattan Project took place at the grove, leading to the creation of the atom bomb.

A spokesperson for Bohemian Grove say the people that gather there “share a passion for the outdoors, music, and theater.”


nastywoman 01.08.22 at 7:08 am

AND did you guys know that in the list of all Debutante Balls in the US Louisiana has THE longest :

‘New Orleans
The Pickwick Club
The Twelfth Night Revelers (TNR)
Le Debut des Jeunes Filles de la Nouvelle Orleans
the Bachelors’ Club
the Debutante Club
the Mid-Winter Cotillion
the Original Illinois Club
the Young Men Illinois Club
Rex Mardi Gras ball
Krewe of Proteus
Knights of Momus
Mistick Krewe of Comus
Elves of Oberon
Krewe of Athenians
The Atlanteans[10]’


SusanC 01.08.22 at 1:05 pm

As a British person: yes, we have rich people, but I thought debutant balls were utterly, utterly obsolete and the kind of thing one only encounters in historical novels.


SusanC 01.08.22 at 1:20 pm

Being photographed for the frontispiece of Country Life magazine might have survived a little longer, but I think they don’t even do that any more.

(Now that I think about it, I am surprised that the Internet cosplayers haven’t made spoof Country Life covers featuring themselves. Cosplaying Kate Middleton is definitely a thing).


oldster 01.08.22 at 4:09 pm

I would have thought that debutante balls would track conservative sexual mores, not wealth.

So, I would predict their preservation in the south, and their disappearance in the northeast.

Weren’t there stories a few years ago about father-daughter balls in the US, replete with bizarro virginity-fetishes? That was a clear connection between a ball like a deb ball and extreme sexual conservativism + right-wing Christian ethos.
And it’s all quite affordable — no great wealth required.


Dwight L. Cramer 01.08.22 at 4:39 pm

A long ago, I went to school with the guy who directed Metropolitan and he knew that stuff. Well enough to skewer it by simply portraying it. I can also say (from personal experience) that some form of debutante type parties exist all over the United States, generally not associated with great wealth, but for the college bound young women from the more affluent preparatory schools). My sense was that those things were more for the parents (particularly the mothers) and for the more ‘fringy’ families in the social cohort sponsoring them.

In the United States, the Deb business involved a form of status qualification and group identity that has been utterly displaced by university admissions sorting. Sitting in the comfort of a university setting it’s easy to mock. Right in their with subscriptions to the hunt, country club memberships and familial military affiliations. But, the presentation of Debutantes to Society on the arms of Gentlemen Escorts is just a different system from the one that has prevailed since WWII. Oh, yeah, and ‘coming out’ has acquired an entirely different meaning.

Candidly, I think we are at ‘peak uni’ right now, and the internal contradictions of the current rites of passage are being ruthlessly exposed by all sorts of things. It’ll be interesting to see what unfolds in the PRC. They have attacked the for-profit tutoring system, as I understand it, because they don’t want to inflict a Japanese-style winnowing process on their own adolescents. But they’ll need something. And the parents of the dullards will want to make sure it isn’t too painful on their offspring to the extent that they can.


William Berry 01.08.22 at 6:31 pm

Maybe the reason we’re not seeing many “debutante balls” nowadays is because some people are calling them “coming out parties, or “quinceañeras.


Slanted Answer 01.08.22 at 7:30 pm

“For what it’s worth, I never heard people on the east coast talking about debutante balls.”

My sense, in line with other commenters, is that debutante balls are more a Southern phenomena now, rather than an East Coast one.

I actually knew someone who had had a debutante ball. (She was from the South.) I remember being rather dumbstruck when she told me, because (1) she wasn’t filthy rich (or at least gave no markers of being such), (2) she was very nonchalant about it, and (3) she, well, didn’t seem like the type of person who would be a debutante. This led to me wonder if debutante balls have morphed into more like coming-of-age rituals for Southern girls, more like a quinceanera or a bat mitzah, rather than introductions to high society.


nastywoman 01.08.22 at 9:15 pm

‘Historically, in the years prior to their 15th birthdays, girls were taught cooking, weaving, and about childbearing by the elder women in their communities in preparation for their future roles as wives and during the celebration the girl’s father would present her to potential suitors.[2]

In the past, parallel customs could be found in the Iberian Peninsula and France. Today, the custom remains strongest in Mexico, its likely country of introduction during the viceregal or Mexican imperial periods. However, it is widely celebrated in Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas. The grandest parties are comparable to British and US debutante balls. The celebrations themselves vary significantly in different countries; for example, the festivities in some have taken on more religious overtones than in others. Nowadays, the quinceañera is also celebrated by many Latino Americans in the United States, each according to their traditions’.


J-D 01.09.22 at 3:24 am

A long ago, I went to school with the guy who directed Metropolitan

Whit Stillman.

I thought the movie Metropolitan depicted them as in serious decline in New York in the early 80s or late 70s or whenever that was supposed to be set.

According to the Wikipedia article, Whit Stillman wrote the screenplay between 1984 and 1988 and it was filmed in 1990; his original desire was to make it as a period piece, but he didn’t have the budget, so he added period details like vintage Checker cabs and avoided any specific contemporary references. So the answer to the question ‘When is it supposed to be set?’ is ‘At some unspecified point in the past’ [but certainly at a time when there is a sense that the subculture represented is in decline].

It’s a long time since I saw the film, but one of the details that has stuck with me is a scene where two of the male characters show up at the home of one of the female characters as if they think the group is going to continue hanging out together indefinitely, and she explains that she’s got a date for the evening and that the group’s not going to continue hanging out now that the deb season is over. She doesn’t mean that deb seasons are over for ever, only that they are over for a year, meaning the end for the particular social group they briefly formed together, not for all future such socialising; but the thematic resonance (I now realise) is there.


nastywoman 01.09.22 at 9:10 am

and if anybody ever is looking for an expertise and Debutante Balls – I gladly will provide – as I actually have been to quite a few – with enjoying the “quinceañeras” –


F 01.09.22 at 11:10 am

@13 The point of a debutante ball for the wealthy is to make sure children don’t marry outside their class.

Here’s an example:


Ingrid Robeyns 01.09.22 at 10:09 pm

I learnt a new word! Thanks for helping out, wikipedia.


SusanC 01.10.22 at 5:37 pm

While debutante balls are, as far as I am aware, quite obsolete in the UK, certain Universities do have May Balls (which are now held in May, not June), and there are elite dining societies (Which are kind of like a British analogue of the Fraternity in National Lampoon’s Animal House, only much richer and more politically connected. The alleged incident in which our former Prime Minister, David Cameron, allegedly committed an indecent act with a boar’s head occurred while a member of such a society… See also: Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.)


SusanC 01.10.22 at 5:55 pm

Sorry .. obvious error in the above … May Balls are, of course, held in June.

… and they are at the other University from the notorious Bullingdon Club.


Doug K 01.10.22 at 8:53 pm

I’d always associated debutante balls and coming out with the aristocracy in England. It was a surprise to find the idle rich in the US slavishly imitating the rituals of inherited wealth. Of course I was very young then.

The UK season was abolished in 1958, only four years after the International Debutante Ball was started. Just another feature of globalization I guess, with rich people everywhere..

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