Cover image for The season : a social history of the debutante
The season : a social history of the debutante
First edition.
Physical Description:
276 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
"The world of debutantes opens into a revealing story of women across six centuries, their limited options, and their desires. Digging into the roots of the debutante ritual, with its ballrooms and white dresses, Kristen Richardson- herself descended from a line of debutantes- was fascinated to discover that the debutante ritual places our contemporary ideas about women and marriage in a new light. In this brilliant history of the phenomenon, Richardson shares debutantes' own words-from diaries, letters, and interviews-throughout her vivid telling, beginning in Henry VIII's era, sweeping through Queen Elizabeth I's court, crossing back and forth the Atlantic to colonial Philadelphia, African American communities, Jane Austen's England, and Mrs. Astor's parties, ultimately arriving at the contemporary New York Infirmary and International balls. Whether maligned for its archaic attitude and objectification of women or praised for raising money for charities and providing a necessary coming- of- age ritual, the debutante tradition has more to tell us in this entertaining and illuminating book"--


Material Type
Call Number
Item Available
Book 305.4821 RIC 0 1

On Order



A Smithsonian Best History Book of 2019

In this enthralling history of the debutante ritual, Kristen Richardson sheds new light on contemporary ideas about women and marriage.

Kristen Richardson, from a family of debutantes, chose not to debut. But as her curiosity drove her to research this enduring custom, she learned that it, and debutantes, are not as simple as they seem.

The story begins in England six hundred years ago when wealthy fathers needed an efficient way to find appropriate husbands for their daughters. Elizabeth I's exclusive presentations at her court expanded into London's full season of dances, dinners, and courting, extending eventually to the many corners of the British empire and beyond.

Richardson traces the social seasons of young women on both sides of the Atlantic, from Georgian England to colonial Philadelphia, from the Antebellum South and Wharton's New York back to England, where debutante daughters of Gilded Age millionaires sought to marry British aristocrats. She delves into Jazz Age debuts, carnival balls in the American South, and the reimagined ritual of elite African American communities, which offers both social polish and academic scholarships.

The Season shares the captivating stories of these young women, often through their words from diaries, letters, and interviews that Richardson conducted at contemporary balls. The debutantes give voice to an array of complex feelings about being put on display, about the young men they meet, and about what their future in society or as wives might be.

While exploring why the debutante tradition persists--and why it has spread to Russia, China, and other nations--Richardson has uncovered its extensive cultural influence on the lives of daughters in Britain and the US and how they have come to marry.

Author Notes

Kristen Richardson was born in London, and lives with her son in Brooklyn.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Richardson's immersive debut uncovers the surprisingly long history and stylized rituals of the debutante tradition. Instituted by Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century as a means "to form beneficial social and political alliances," the ceremonial presentation of aristocratic young ladies at court had morphed, by the mid-18th century, into weekly "assemblies" hosted by "lady patronesses" seeking to match their daughters and nieces with wealthy, socially connected bachelors. In America, Richardson writes, the debutante custom reached its apotheosis as the "defining ritual" of the merchant and professional classes. Drawing from the journals and letters of colonial, antebellum, and Gilded Age debutantes, Richardson portrays young women enjoying--or enduring--their "social seasons." In a diary account, Albany socialite Huybertie Pruyn recalls being "dragged" by her mother to the 1891 Patriarch Ball, where her escort was "her second cousin, at least 55 years old." Exploring 20th-century rituals, Richardson reports on Mardi Gras krewes, the relationship between debutante balls and elitism in the African-American community, and the publicity-generating International Ball, held annually at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. A few minor historical errors--Anne Boleyn wasn't pregnant when Henry VIII sought to annul his first marriage--don't distract from the fun. This entertaining, eye-opening portrait captures a tradition that is "long dead but will never die." (Nov.)

Booklist Review

Richardson's first book expands her popular 2013 Rookie article on the debutante ritual into an engaging exploration of the origins of presenting elite daughters to society and the tradition's evolution over the centuries. After England separated from the Catholic church, young women could no longer take refuge in convents, and society needed a way to handle the excess of daughters of marriageable age. To consolidate power during the tumultuous era that followed, Queen Elizabeth I began meeting with daughters of her favored courtiers in her withdrawing rooms, and such presentations soon became formal rituals. Once established in aristocratic society, debutante traditions moved to the British colonies. Richardson examines the fascinating history surrounding the coming-of-age ritual and the ways in which it reinforced family power, offered upward mobility, and entrenched class structures. She further explores the role of debutantes in African-American society and conducts in-person research on modern debutante practices in the U.S. The Season is a must for readers interested in social history, and all will appreciate Richardson's fluid, descriptive prose.--Laura Chanoux Copyright 2010 Booklist