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Monday, February 21, 2011

Creole Debutante in New Orleans



A débutante (from the French débutante, "female beginner") is a young lady from an aristocratic or upper class family who has reached the age of maturity, and as a new adult, is introduced to society at a formal "début" presentation. Originally, it meant the young woman was eligible to marry, 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. Debutante balls originated in Europe, but take place all over the world. Some of the most ostentatious balls can be witnessed in the United States, specifically New Orleans.

Every fall before the carnival season, custom gowns are sewn, hair appointments are made, decorations are selected, and venues are booked for the debutante balls to take place the following spring. In New Orleans, debutante courts are traditionally presented during the carnival season, and are often affiliated with Mardi Gras Krewes (i.e. Rex, Osiris, Comus, Momus, Proteus, Profits of Persia) or organizations, but mainly affluent Caucasian families of the city .


In the 19th century, middle-class Creole/African-Americans felt excluded from the Carnival spirit, so they formed their own organizations. The Original Illinois Club, one of the first African-American organizations of the city, held parties and community service projects. The Original Illinois Club was founded by Wiley J. Knight, who moved to New Orleans in 1894. He opened his own dance school at Cadiz near Camp Street where the sons and daughters of the best families attended his classes. From there, the idea for African-American debutante balls was formed.
During that time, Caucasian organizations traditionally emphasized family names and lineage, but the African-American organizations focused on accomplishment, putting emphasis on a young woman’s education and suitability for higher learning and the work force. Also, young African-American women aspiring to make their debut had to apply for the process, whereas young Caucasian women aspiring to make their debut were automatically accepted if their parents were members of the organization.


Today, African-American debutante balls are a major event in southern societies. Many young women make their debut with a National Panhellenic Council sorority, such as Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, or Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated. Often times, the queen is chosen based on the amount of money she raises, and her fellow debutantes are crowned based on the amount of money they have raised as well. There is a debutante level, maid level, princess level, and the final level of queen. The debutantes spend a good part of the year leading up to the ball participating in bonding events and community service activities. Making your debut is an unforgettable experience, and is not only a formal way to be presented to society as a woman, but also a great way to build long-term friendships.

13 comments:

  1. I remember the first debutante ball I saw. It was when my dance school was asked to be the entertainment for the night. I was younger and thought it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. The girls wearing all white, escorted by their fathers, and watching the Queen grace her presence around the room is something that I will never forget. Debutante balls are so elegant and I find it is the best excuse to wear a big white dress before getting married! Even high schools are hosting debutante balls. I debuted with my High School just last year. A few girls from my class debuted with Zulu, Illinois Club and others. Although they are not for the purpose of marriage anymore, Debutantes are still a well-respected and great way to present girls to society.

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  2. So I watched the video after I read and posted and I know the women in this video. The girl is a very close friend of mine and her mom and grandmother practical watch me grow up. I danced at their dance school from 2-16 and danced at her debutante party/ball.

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  3. I really didn't know much about this sort of thing. We still do this? I never knew, although it's not the first thing a boy would think about when thinking about New Orleans.

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  4. Although I understand the difference between Creole and other debut balls and pageants, such as with accomplishments more so than family lineage and they are a way to build friendships, what is the other driving force to compete in a debutant ball/padgeant? Is there a prize? Also, is seems as though a debutant has evolved into a pageant. Is this true or are they still seperate events?

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  5. I've never seen a debutante ball and have never known what a debutante was, so this was very eye-opening. I also liked how the African Americans would select their debutantes based on accomplishments rather than family status. Are they still based on accomplishments and have the Caucasians changed it to that?

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  6. This strikes me as a practice that would normally be out of practice in many places. I think it's pretty cool that New Orleans still holds them. Before reading this I'd never even heard of a debutante ball. I think more societies should have hung on to the traditions that used to happen regularly. New Orleans strikes me as a city that has a high rate of retaining it's traditions

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  7. It's amazing how far they came. Still til this day New Orleans still host these balls. I have attended a few of them and they are amazing. I didn't know that they came from so far back. I thought that it started in modern times.

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  8. I find this southern tradition extremely interesting, because since my family left the south I was not able to grow up around this tradition. The difference between geographic locations really impacts this topic greatly because in California the only thing that came close to these balls would be pageants, which pale in comparison. Also you mentioned that the National Panhellenic Council sororities sometimes have debuts, which exemplifies the cultural differences even in the different sororities, because the NPC sororities have nothing that can compare to that, except for the sororities deeply rooted in the south and even then its uncommon.

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  9. I think debutant balls are so cool. I have never been to one or had one, but I have heard about them. The Creole Debutant balls seem even cooler than the normal ones. I think the idea that they are associated with the different Krewes during Mardi Gras season is so fun. I wish I could have a creole debut!

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  10. My good friend from Austin is actually in the process (and has been for the past year or so) of preparing for a debutante ball that her family has attended for generations. One of the major things she has to practice and get down perfectly is the bow that all debutantes have to learn (at least for the ball she is attending). It is a very slow bow in which the young lady will slowly lower herself into a very odd position and will physically bring her entire body to the ground. It's crazy to see, and really quite impressive if I may say so myself.

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  11. I find it cool that even though the Creole/African American population felt left out of this tradition (at first), they did not mope about it. They just started their own. Not to mention, they did not base it off society class, they based it off of the accomplishments of the women. I am glad to see this tradition still carried out to this day.

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  12. I love that this is something that New Orleanians have kept up for so long in such a traditional way. I have always admired the fact that debutantes are chosen upon accomplishments that they have made and the work that they have done rather than family status.

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  13. I think the idea of debutant balls are really interesting. I think it's exciting to learn about a tradition that is so unique to New Orleans and that has survived so long. I like that it is something that seems like it would no longer exists and is still such a strong tradition.

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