Debutantes in the Victorian Era

The debutante tradition has its roots in England. The idea that a girl should be presented to society stems from the time when a daughter of marriageable age needed to find a husband of suitable and similar social standing. The daughters of the landed aristocracy, the lords and ladies of England, married within a very small circle and often had a very large dowry that went with them.

The word, "debutante" comes from the French word, "debuter," which means "to lead off."
A debutante, (from the French language -- "female beginner") is a young lady from an aristocratic family.

The court of the kings and queens of England is known as the court of St. James. It was the center of all power. Because of the weather and the requirements of the hunt, the court was in London from April until the end of July. During this time, the aristocracy came in from their country homes and opened their city houses and the social season commenced.

Aristocracy is a form of government, in which a few of the most prominent citizens rule. This may be a hereditary elite, or it may be by a system of co-option where a council of prominent citizens add leading soldiers, merchants, land owners, priests, and lawyers to their number....

After the Industrial Revolution, as the middle class began to make large sums of money, the aristocrats were anxious to make alliances with wealthy entrepreneurs. The middle class daughters could be presented if they could find a sponsor from among the aristocracy. The Season started with the presentation to the Court during which the young lady bowed to the Queen-thus the name the St. James Bow. Parties followed this, each family giving their share. It was hoped that at the end of the season, a girl would have found a husband.

Upper class

The upper class is a concept in sociology that refers to the group of people at the top of a social hierarchyp Members of an upper class often have great power over the allocation of resources and governmental policy in their area.... who has reached the age of maturity, and as a new adult, is introduced to society at a formal presentation known as her debut.

Originally, it meant the young woman was eligible for marriage, and part of the purpose was to display her to eligible bachelors and their families with a view to marriage within a select upper class circle.

Once presented, a prospective bride could reasonably attend 50 balls, 60 parties, 30 dinners and 25 breakfasts all in one season. If she didn't marry within two or three seasons, she was considered a failure, and at 30 a hopeless spinster.

How a Young Girl is Presented

ANY one of various entertainments may be given to present a young girl to society. The favorite and most elaborate of these, but possible only to parents of considerable wealth and wide social acquaintance, is a ball. Much less elaborate, but equal in size, and second in favor to-day, is an afternoon tea with dancing. Third, and gaining in popularity, is a small dance, which presents the debutante to the younger set and a few of her mother's intimate friends. Fourth, is a small tea without music. Fifth, the mere sending out of the mother's visiting card with the daughter's name engraved below her own, announces to the world that the daughter is eligible for invitations.

A Ball for a Debutante

A ball for a debutante differs in nothing from all other balls excepting that the debutante "receives" standing beside the hostess, and furthest from the entrance, whether that happens to be on the latter's right or left. The guests as they mount the stairs or enter the ballroom and are "announced," approach the hostess first, who, as she shakes hands with each, turns to the debutante and says "Mrs. Worldly, my daughter." Or "Cynthia, I want to present you to Mrs. Worldly." ("Want to" is used on this occasion because "may I" is too formal for a mother to say to her child.) A friend would probably know the daughter; in any event the mother's introduction would be, "You remember Cynthia, don't you?"

Each arriving guest always shakes hands with the debutante as well as with the hostess, and if there is a queue of people coming at the same time, there is no need of saying anything beyond "How do you do?" and passing on as quickly as possible. If there are no others entering at the moment, each guest makes a few pleasant remarks. A stranger, for instance, would perhaps comment on how lovely, and many, the debutante's bouquets are, or express a hope that she will enjoy her winter, or talk for a moment or two about the "gaiety of the season" or "the lack of balls," or anything that shows polite interest in the young girl's first glimpse of society. A friend of her mother might perhaps say "You look too lovely, Cynthia dear, and your dress is enchanting!"

Personal compliments, however, are proper only from a close friend. No acquaintance, unless she is quite old, should ever make personal remarks. An old lady or gentleman might very forgivably say "You don't mind, my dear, if I tell you how sweet I think you look," or "What a pretty frock you have on." But it is bad taste for a young woman to say to another "What a handsome dress you have on!" and worst of all to add "Where did you get it?" The young girl's particular friends are, of course, apt to tell her that her dress is wonderful, or more likely, "simply divine."


It is customary in most cities to send a debutante a bouquet at her "coming out" party. They may be "bouquets" really, or baskets, or other decorative flowers, and are sent by relatives, friends of the family, her father's business associates, as well as by young men admirers. These "bouquets" are always banked near and if possible, around the place the debutante stands to receive. If she has great quantities, they are placed about the room wherever they look most effective. The debutante usually holds one of the bouquets while receiving, but she should remember that her choice of this particular one among the many sent her is somewhat pointed to the giver, so that unless she is willing to acknowledge one particular beau as "best" it is wiser to carry one sent by her father, or brother, especially if either send her one of the tiny 1830 bouquets that have been for a year or two in fashion, and are no weight to hold.

These bouquets are about as big around as an ordinary saucer, and just as flat on top as a saucer placed upside down. The flowers chosen are rosebuds or other compact flowers, massed tightly together, and arranged in a precise pattern; for instance, three or four pink rosebuds are put in the center, around them a row of white violets, around these a single row of the pink roses, surrounded again by violets, and so on for four or five rows. The bouquet is then set in stiff white lace paper, manufactured for the purpose, the stems wrapped in white satin ribbon, with streamers of white and pink ribbons about a quarter of an inch wide and tied to hang twenty inches or so long. The colors and patterns in which these little bouquets may be made are unlimited.

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The Debutante Receives

At a ball, where the guests begin coming about half past ten, the debutante must stand beside the hostess and "receive" until at least twelve o'clock-later if guests still continue to arrive.

At all coming-out parties, the debutante invites a few of her best girl friends to receive with her. Whether the party is in the afternoon or evening, these young girls wear evening dresses and come early and stay late. Their being asked to "receive" is a form of expression merely, as they never stand in line, and other than wearing pretty clothes and thus adding to the picture, they have no "duties" whatsoever.

At an afternoon tea the debutante wears an evening dress-a very simple evening dress, but an evening dress all the same. Usually a very pale color, and quite untrimmed, such as she might wear at home for dinner. Her mother wears an afternoon dress, not an evening one. Both mother and daughter wear long gloves, and neither they, nor the young girls receiving, wear hats.

To describe the details of clothes is futile. Almost before this page comes from the printer, the trend may quite likely change. But the tendency of the moment is toward greater simplicity-in effect at all events.


Above all, those who have been tasting for the first time the Circean cup of dissipation, the debutants and debutantes of fashionable life, are apt to be startled into sobriety, when they behold, reflected from the dull expanse of country life before them, the transformations insensibly effected in their own nature. Few people arrive in town predetermined to break bounds. Even the novice, on the eve of being launched into society, fancies herself armed with the strongest resolutions. It is only by degrees that youthful inexperience is beguiled into foolish dissipations, wild orgies, idle expenses, or perilous flirtations. The season in its onset appears endless, a day without a morrow; or rather a day with a sober evening for its close, promising abundant leisure for consideration, repentance, and atonement.

But, alas! the hurried termination of the season affords not so much as a single twilight hour; and the harassed debutante, who has been wasting her golden opportunities in inconsistency and irresolution, under the dazzling influence of the sunny beams of noon, is eventually made to understand that a single step divides the garden of Eden in which she has been rejoicing, from the wilderness of briars and thistles where she must walk barefoot and ashamed in expiation of her follies past.

The retrospect of their London dissipations might be all confusion; but before them, all was a blank!


Copyright © Angel.S 1997