Bygone Era

The Magical World of Debutantes

A new book provides a glorious, in-depth look at the birth of the modern debutante. By Lori-Lee Emshey.

Courtesy Linda Ryan

Courtesy Linda Ryan

"The word 'debutante,' aside from its social intimations, is, and always was, an opportunity," writes David Patrick Columbia in the introduction of Diane Oswald's new book, Debutantes: When Glamour was Born. "But now it is for the experience of meeting people, of going out into the world, of gathering... What has changed is the world -- changed to suit the debutante, the young woman of tomorrow." The visually rich coffee table book (published by Rizzoli this month) provides insight into society's ultimate "right of passage" -- the Debutante Ball -- particularly as it merged with high fashion in the twentieth century. Debutantes were expected to "come out" to society through a glamourous and luxurious party, signifying that they were ready to be married. Although "coming out" ceremonies have been traced back to as early as Cleopatra XIII, it was not until the Twentieth century that fashion -- particularly, the dress -- became a vital component. Featuring a foreward by Oscar de la Renta on his first-hand debutante experience and the evolution of the "idea." As de la Renta writes, "To 'debut' [in 1956] meant that a young woman was eligible to marry; the purpose of her coming out was to present her to young men and their families. Today women are much more in control of their destinies. They know that their femininity is a tremendous asset. The modern debutante is more concerned with the perfect dress than the perfect suitor." In these luxurious pages, Oswald investigates the rise of debutante culture, the creation of the "celebutante," and the fascination of high fashion with high society.

Courtesy Mary Henderson

Mary "Mitzi" Henderson curtsies at her debut in Boston in 1959. Henderson later became the wife of chicken magnate Frank Purdue.

Courtesy Nicole du Pont

In 1984, Nicole du Pont Limbocker and husband Derek Limbocker stand on either side of their debutante daughters, Hilary Dick and Ridgley Brode, in matching white gowns and bouquets, in New York.

Debutante Victoria Leiter prepares for her Tea Dance in Washington DC in 1968.

Courtesy of Mazie Cox

Beatrice Wagstaff makes her "stately bow" in 1953 in a Ceil Chapman gown.

Courtesy Heather Whitney

Corneilius Vanderbilt "Sonny" Whitney and wife Mary-Lou pose with their daughter Heather at her "coming out" party in Saratoga, New York in 1972.

Debutantes: When Glamour was Born, published by Rizzoli, is available October 2013.