At the Bal

America’s Bridgerton

The wildly popular Bridgerton series has finally released its highly anticipated second season. The Netflix series focuses on London society during the Regency era when all the eligible and lovely ladies of the ton were presented at court and the season of balls that followed.

During the early 1900s, daughters of influential members of society in the United States lived a similar experience. They were known as debutantes, and their coming-of-age balls and seasons could be quite extravagant. Many newspapers highlighted these debutantes in their society pages. Pictures of the young ladies, calendars of events, fashion, and gossip published in these society pages were the “Lady Whistledown” of their time.

Lessons of the Debutante

“What a Debutante Must Learn” was the society headline in 1907, in the Commercial Tribune. Pictures and captions capture the look and poise of the “modern” debutante. The article highlights the crucial aspects of the debutante like “How the Debutante Must Look,” “She is Perfectly Groomed,” and “A Lesson in Tact.” Several high-profile debutantes of the season are talked about, including President Roosevelt’s daughter, Ethel. 

It seems that one of Boston’s social elite, and the mother of one of its debutantes, took it upon herself to organize a weekly “class” for the ladies coming out in 1912. Mrs. William A. Gaston hosted a weekly gathering for the season’s debutantes where the young ladies would listen to Mrs. May Alden Ward speak for an hour on “the great news issues of the day.” 

Cost of the Debutante

Philadelphia was the height of society in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s society and magazine sections were brimming with details of the debutantes of the day. “Quarter of a Million Spent on This Season’s Philadelphia Debutantes” from 1898 listed the many expenses associated with the life of a debutante and even the costs of a cotillion ball alone bordering on ten thousand dollars. That same cost in 2022 would be close to $350,000! 

The Debutante’s Wardrobe

A vital component of the debutante was her wardrobe. Society sections filled their pages with the most up-to-date attire. According to the Evening Capital News, dancing frocks were the go-to outfit in the summer of 1914. Without the advantage of color, the pictures of the dresses were sometimes captioned with descriptions like “hyacinth and lavender tones.”

“Tailleurs and Dance Frocks for the Debutante” included photos of American fashion in 1915 with captions minutely describing the outfits like “dance frock of white tulle with wing draperies over hips and adorable bodice of peach pink pussy willow silk draped in a bow below the bust. Tulle flounces are bound with peach pink velvet to match the bodice. Very wide skirt.”

The Debutante’s Calendar 

Events of the season kept the society section busy in prominent city newspapers. Along with a picture of Miss Helen L. Sewell, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a flurry of activity for the week with “Dinners and Theatre Parties Are Preludes to Subscription Balls,” “Thick and Fast Come Further Debutante Functions As Early Winter Entertainment Period Advances,” and “Strawbridge Dance Attractive Feature of Season at Height.”

The Life of a Debutante

According to the newspapers, the life of a debutante was not always easy. The “Trials and Tribulations of a Debutante” remarks on things such as being stranded at a dance, having “famous” sisters, or a youthful mother as hindrances to the young woman’s debut in society. 

In “Confessions of a Debutante,” readers get a chance to learn true stories of girls and their struggles with being a debutante in 1908. One young woman tells of the shocking way her French maid and mama had to get some color to her pale face, while another explains the tact of eating out, “Don’t be piggish, but eat as though you enjoyed it.”

Debutante Photos

Many society sections included photographs of the young women of the season. Here are several examples of debutantes in the early 1900s:

San Francisco Call, November 22, 1903

Philadelphia Inquirer, November 23, 1902

Baltimore Sun, December 10, 1907

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