Debutante by Karal Ann Marling
Rites and Regalia of American Debdom (Culture America)

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It is an institution that seems almost hopelessly out of date, a social relic of bygone times. The very word debutante evokes images of prim, poised beauty, expensive gowns, and sumptuous balls, all of which seem anachronistic in these post-women's liberation times. But as Karal Ann Marling reveals, debdom in America is alive and well and ever evolving.

For thousands of young women every year, the society debut remains a vital rite of passage, a demonstration of female power; debs continue to be viewed as the finest flowers of a distinctive American culture. The debut and its offshoots--the high school prom, the sorority presentation, assorted beauty pageants--continue to emphasize celebrity, class, and community. But why does this peculiar tradition persist? Marling has the answer, as she demystifies debdom and the long-term American hankering after the trappings of royalty.

Debutante presents a penetrating and entertaining look at American debdom from the colonial era to the present day. Debbing has always been a performance art, created by and for women. In its heyday in the nineteenth century, debut signified the formal presentation to elite society of a young woman of substance who was eligible for marriage. During the twentieth century, it evolved from the glamour girl galas of the Great Depression to the charity bashes of the 1980s after the Deb Drought of the '60s and '70s. Marling reviews this colorful history, documenting changes in debdom right up to our own day, when the sisterhood of debs includes African Americans, Latinas, and members of other ethnic groups once carefully excluded: now even economically disadvantaged young women have their coming-out, where the emphasis of the event is on community.

In these pages, aspiring debs and curious readers alike will be taken from teas and cotillions to café society and discover the rich material culture of debdom, with its flowers and favors, gowns and pearls. They'll also meet famous debs of the '30s like Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton and glamour girl Brenda Duff Frasier; experience black American high society at the debut of Nat King Cole's daughter Cookie; and attend such civic spectacles as Kansas City's Jewel Ball and St. Louis's Veiled Prophet Ball.

In sparkling prose graced by a gallery of captivating photos, Marling provides an illuminating inside look at debs and a world that continues to celebrate the spirit and diversity of American womanhood.

This book is part of the CultureAmerica series.


About Karal Ann Marling

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Karal Ann Marling is the author or co-author of more than thirty books on American topics, including three New York Times "Notable Books of the Year." A recipient of the Minnesota Humanities Commission Award and the Minnesota Book Award, she has always taken a keen interest in the culture of our state; her Looking North was published by Afton Historical Society Press in 2003. Professor Marling has taught Art History and American Studies at the University of Minnesota for 30 years.
Published April 1, 2004 by Univ Pr of Kansas. 224 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences, Gay & Lesbian. Non-fiction

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Publishers Weekly

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Although the days of the debutante may seem long past to some, cultural commentator Marling shows how the American ritual still lives in every prom dress and Miss America pageant.

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Project MUSE

Whereas presentation to society for much of the 1800s occurred in a parlor setting with afternoon tea shared among women, announcements telegraphed across society pages for all to view thrust young women into a public spotlight.

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