Early chapters look broadly at the economy of marriage and the emergent social sphere of the ballroom in the United States before the Civil War. As Richardson explains, the formalization of social life in 18th-century British assemblies — precursors to the “deb ball” — paradoxically created a more fluid society. Governed by rigid behavioral codes, assemblies were a rare venue where class lines could blur, and where manners were so highly prized they could occasionally even stand in for wealth.
Richardson has an eye for the strange and fascinating details of historical courtship. She describes raucous afternoon teas called “kettledrums” during the Gilded Age, a peculiar and loud practice involving the clinking and exchange of spoons. She also explains the “code of flowers” young debutantes used to signal their popularity: “Debutantes would carry bouquets they received from men during their morning walks, effectively displaying their success,” Richardson writes. “Some girls would carry as many as eighteen bouquets at a time.” Upper-class bachelors had similar ways of proving their worth with collections of paintings called “miniatures” — portraits that noblemen sent of their marriageable daughters. “For a male socialite who did not marry, a collection of paintings of young women shows an achievement beyond any made by a man finding a wife.”
Richardson writes sharply and with greatest wit and enthusiasm of the debutante ritual’s importance in the society page. The rise of popular media elevates “celebutante” Brenda Frazier to fame, without whom Richardson argues there would be “no Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian.” Frazier’s reputation was tarnished after she was photographed dunking a doughnut into her coffee (Emily Post weighed in, proclaiming the act completely acceptable, but to no avail). And yet, despite being regarded by the establishment as “a particularly fast kind of nouveau riche,” her debut was a major event; among the 2,000 attendees were Condé Nast, Henry Luce, actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and “scads of Vanderbilts.”
But for all the colorful descriptions, Richardson falls short when it comes to articulating precisely why debutantes matter and what we should take away from piecemeal anecdotes of their experiences. Part of the problem is a lack of focus. Though it is loosely chronological, the book lacks the central organizing mechanism of a distinct argument. Meanwhile, Richardson’s frequent autobiographical detours account for some of the book’s uneven texture and preoccupation with frivolity.
The debutante ritual “is long dead but will never die,” Richardson writes, yet her book struggles to explain the source of its longevity. Readers are left instead with vague truisms about American social mobility. “America, with its rickety social system, is conformist but unstable,” Richardson concludes. “Everything is accessible if you have enough money.”
The elite material culture that the “The Season” so laboriously details in miniature paintings and flower codes doesn’t add up to much. Or as Richardson puts it, in what may incidentally serve as a warning to readers: “One is taught from an early age to discern difference, however meaningless it might seem outside of this group.”
Lucy Tiven is a journalist, critic and poet living in Los Angeles.
A Social History of the Debutante
By Kristen Richardson
W.W. Norton. 288 pp. $26.95