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Reading Kristen Richardson’s “The Season”: Is the debutante system demeaning or empowering?

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The Season: A Social History of the Debutante is Kristen Richardson’s delves into the history of the custom and examines exactly what it means and says about the lives of women.

Sustained Read


Agnes Melanie Dickson wearing British Court dress for her presentation, with ostrich feathers and long train, circa 1890

Public Domain, author unknown

It’s an enjoyable and interesting read, not too academic, and I recommend it especially if you have trouble sticking with a long work of nonfiction.  It’s also good to read if you like to read Austen or any authors, really, from the 19th into the early 20th century because it explains a lot of social customs and helps you understand the enormous social pressure faced by upper middle and upper class women.

I am a little bit skeptical of some of her research in the earliest chapters, but the citations are there, and Richardson is a journalist rather than a historian.  I would just double check some of the details of her general historical background if it is important to you. 

What I found really compelling…and had me flipping to the references pages…were her descriptions of ancient match making traditions, which consisted of a process that will make you think of slave market descriptions…and in fact, protocols were put into place to ensure the women were taken as wives, and not servants or slaves…but that doesn’t make the process seem any less humiliating. And it may well get you pondering exactly where the difference lies.

The first part of the book goes into the history and development of the debutante system in English and then American “Society”. Later in the book, there are chapters focusing on different subcategories, including the Antebellum American South, African American, New Orleans, and Texas, among others. The chapters I thought were most interesting were the ones on the Antebellum South and, ironically, African-American Debutantes. 

It’s clear from the tone of the book that the African-American community is Richardson’s favorite, and I understand why.  There seems to be a lot more emphasis on service and the total development of the person in the African-American community, at least the elite, than in other systems.  This shouldn’t surprise me too much since I figured out a long time ago that the difference between historically Black and White sororities, and indeed the whole Greek system, is that Black Greed organizations emphasize service while the White ones emphasize socializing (with a side order of service).  The Black elite also have developed themselves a system that is designed to assist Black society as a whole, not just the upper levels.

The description of the antebellum Southern system surprised me because it seems to have been a lot different than what we think as antebellum teenagers were often matched with much older men.  It would seem that the image of the Southern belle surrounded by a group of young, handsome suitors is at least in part just an image.  Starting with the women of this period, there are considerable primary resources because during this period American women were also more likely to be educated enough to write diaries, and they did frequently do so.

Another point that I find myself thinking of frequently is the contrast between debutante systems that the women ran and systems that men ran.  For some reason, it bothers me a lot more to think of men running the system.  For me, I think it tends to smack more of the prostitute/pimp relationship. It bothers me less to think of women running the system, I guess in that case at least the women are aware of all the ramifications of what they are getting their daughters into.  But that’s just my impression.  If you give this book a read, you decide.

That’s the question: was the debutante system a good thing, because it gave the young women at least some control over their future, or was it a terrible thing, that rewarded women for being as conventional as possible?

And what does “The Season” mean in 2020?

Yes, there still is one, of a sort.

While I am really glad I never had to be a debutante, the question that I’m left with at the end of this book is do we need a ritual to mark our debut as adults?  Maybe some parents, who can’t seem to get their kids to grow up, would love to be able to give their kids the hint.  But seriously, graduation is about more of a professional accomplishment, but do we need a system in place to ensure that young adults have all the tools that they need?  Or not?


Here are some books that feature Debutantes or similar courtship rituals that reading The Season will help you understand.

Most famously, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in England.

Sustained Read

The Age of Innocence set in Gilded Age New York Society….

Sustained Read

The Buccaneers is about Americans in British society….

Sustained Read

For more on Edith Wharton and The Buccaneers, read The Lois Level’s If you are a Downton Abbey fan, you must read about Edith Wharton’s exposure of the scandalous coverup involving Americans!

Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate is set in English society between the wars in 20th Century Society.

Sustained Read

For more on Nancy Mitford and her five sisters, who were part of the British aristocracy, read The Lois Level’s It’s all OK: Take it from England’s Mitford Sisters here.

 

 

Further reading from The Season

The Season has some really interesting books listed in its References. Here are some selections that I think are good for general readers and are affordable to take you deeper into the different aspects of “Society” she discusses.

Academic texts written primarily for scholars run in such small numbers that they can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to find if you don’t have borrowing privileges at a university library.

Antonia Fraser, famous for the Jemima Shore mysteries, has also a renowned historian who often writes about English women. The Weaker Vessel is about English women in the 17th century.

Sustained Read

Scarlett’s Sisters, as the title reads, is a study about Southern white women during and after the Civil War in the US.

Sustained Read

Jennie Jones was an American who married into the British aristocracy. She became the mother of Winston Churchill, who got the UK through World War 2, but that is only a small part of the story; the rest is in American Jennie.

Sustained Read

The US were not the only ones to have a Roaring Twenties…Bright Young People is about the time when the old social order began to fray.

Sustained Read

Our Kind of People describes the type of families who make up African American Society elites.

Sustained Read

Free Read

Quick Read

Jerome Taylor’s “The Return of the Debutante” from The Independent (UK)

This article has several illustrations to show you what a British Royal “Court Presentation” was like, complete with very prescriptive dress requirements.

According to Richardson, court presentations, or “Drawing Rooms” began in Queen Elizabeth I’s reign and ended with Queen Elizabeth II’s, in 1958.

“Coming Out” During the Early Victorian Era: About Debutantes

An article by Richardson article on civility that has been stuck in my head for days (I’d forgotten I read it for this article). If it gets stuck in your head, don’t say you weren’t warned:

My Problem with ‘No Problem’: It’s Destroying Civility*

*And while carrying Richardson’s ideas around in my head while going about my daily life, I’ve also concluded that we say “no problem” to people because we Americans apologize for a lot of things that everyone knows we didn’t cause, in everyday life, in the South, anyway.

So I think we’re just trying to let each other off the hook. Just saying. You read and decide.

Here are excerpts from The Season that Richardson has published online:

Free Read

Quick Read

“Marriage (Market Price): A history of using daughters as currency, from ancient Greece to the Stuart monarchy” from Lapham’s Quarterly

It’s Easy to Dismiss Debutante Balls, But Their History Can Help Us Understand Women’s Lives from Time magazine

“The Last Debutantes” from Rookie Magazine

Free Listen

“Presenting the Debutante Ball” from NPR’s “All Things Considered”, a panel discussion including Richardson



58th International Debutante Ball, 2012. Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, NYC, USA.

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