A Most Formal Thing

Oct 31 2013 Published by under Wackaloonacy

Yesterday a story in Jezebel about Queen Charlotte's Ball triggered some memories. I grew up in a city with two country clubs, and several of my friends were "presented" at 16. The country club dances always featured good bands. I believe Lisa Birnbach, in The Official Preppy Handbook, described the debutante ball as an excuse for a girl to dress like royalty without ending up married at the end of the day. Good times happened at these dances, and I always enjoyed attending.

When I worked at Saint Louis University, our internal grant mechanism was named for the Fleur-de-Lis Ball which generated the funds for it. One year, I attended at the table of the director of our research institute. It is the only white-tie event I have ever experienced.

Captain Von Trapp shows us White Tie.
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White tie? Remember the ball scene in The Sound of Music? Look to the right if you do not. White ties includes not just the tuxedo with tails, but also white gloves for the dudes! Women had to be in floor-length gowns with long sleeves or long gloves to cover the elbows. My husband went to the local rental place. All he had to say was the name of the ball and they had what he needed ready, including gloves. I headed to the mall and found a black and gold dress with long sleeves so I could forgo the gloves.

The night of the big event, we dressed and showed our children how well we cleaned up. My daughter loved the golden sparkles in my gown, and she asked what the party would be like. I explained the general concept of a debutante ball. Her take - "That's the silliest thing I've ever heard of."

Now, this ball had some rules. It was a good Roman Catholic party, so we literally  could wander no farther than 20 or 30 feet from a bar all night. They would also serve no food until after all the debutantes had been presented. We were lucky; only 16 young women debuted our year, so the first course came about 10 pm. A couple of years earlier more than 30 debs meant dinner started after midnight.

The balls I attended in high school involved proud fathers bringing a sweet-sixteen-year-old daughter down a runway, an announcement of the names of the girl and her parents, and then some photos while the rest of us relaxed before the band resumed. The Fleur-de-Lis Ball presented daughters during winter break of their first year of college. If the purpose of presenting the young women is to announce their availability for marriage, then I approve of the older age. Even in the Ozarks where I grew up, we were not rushing from high school graduation to the justice of the peace.

These young women were presented not just to society, but to the Bishop. Yup, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Saint Louis took to the stage with all the pomp involved in his presence. He gave a way-too-long talk about "the gift of femininity" and "feminine values".  Counting the number of times he used some variation of the word "feminine" provided a great deal of entertainment, especially among the patrons who had spent the most time close to the bar. Eyerolls flew around our table. The fathers walked their daughters down a runway where the women knelt before the Bishop and received a blessing. He did not say be fruitful and multiply, but that was the clear message. After all were presented, the band provided a fanfare, and the dates of the women ran onstage to rescue them from their fathers. The ball then proceeded like most dinner dances, other than all the men-folk wearing white gloves on the dance floor.

Yes, we literally watched the "virgins" being presented to the local head of the church and blessed for marriage or whatever.

Later I visited the facilities which included a large, luxurious lounge before you entered the actual bathroom. I giggled when I saw the debutantes lounging about with their shoes off, drinking Budweiser out of longneck bottles, and generally acting like college students.

That was my final debutante ball experience, and likely the only white tie event I will attend. Getting decked out for an evening can be fun, but the whole debutante concept seems quaint at best. Frankly, I think my daughter nailed it.

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