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Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom (Cultureamerica)
Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom (Cultureamerica)
Karal Ann Marling
University Press of Kansas, 2004
230 pp., $29.95

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Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities
Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities
Alexandra Robbins
Hachette Books, 2005
408 pp., $16.00

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Lauren F. Winner


Rites of Passage

Debs and pledges

Every year, at galas like the Magnolia Debutante Ball and the Rhododendron Royal Brigade of Guards, young women from the finest families don white dresses and long white gloves and make their debut to society. If you're not on the Rhododendron Royal Brigade's invite list, you can settle for reading Debutante: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom, the newest offering by Karal Ann Marling, grande dame of American Studies.

The balls are stupendous, the dresses lovely, but the real meaning of deb teas and cotillions is rite of passage. At their debuts, young women are formally presented to society. In the crassest sense, a debut is an announcement that you are of marriageable age, that all those men from appropriate families can start making their bids. Also, after coming out—yes, I know the phrase means something different for Ellen DeGeneres, but here, think debs—you're allowed to sign your full name underneath your mother's when she sends a note or leaves a calling card. Once debuted, a woman is a grown up.

For most of American history, debuts have been the province of elites; as Marling shows, "debbing is a ritual grounded in aspiration ... and legitimization." Fathers threw expensive balls not only because they wanted to dote on their girls but also because they wanted to shore up their own class-standing. Debuting, of course, has always been as much about who is kept out as who is presented. Most cotillions present girls who boast not only a lot of money but also an old name, and white skin, to boot.

Marling traces debbing from the 18th century to the present. Her historical analysis is rich and detailed, and readers will enjoy vicariously dancing at centuries of cotillions. She explores contemporary debdom as well, arguing convincingly that proms are a modern-day, meritocratic iteration of the debut impulse. And she explores the "different kind of debuts" that have arisen in ethnic and African-American communities—quinceanera, the traditional celebration of a ...

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