It’s a patriotic scene in the Waldorf-Astoria’s grand ballroom, where the cream of Greenwich, Dallas, and Little Rock are gathered to watch their daughters’ entry into formal society at the 44th Annual International Debutante Ball. Wearing white gowns and satin gloves, 52 dewy-cheeked young women stand perfectly still in a receiving line, each girl in front of her state flag, the sheer number of the banners giving the place an air of historic import. The women stand and smile as the 800 guests – CEOs, people of leisure, orthodontists, each of whom has paid $350 to attend the momentous event – file past, up the red carpet and into the main banquet hall.
Each debutante brings at least one escort, usually two. According to tradition, one is dressed in military uniform, the other in white tie. And at the International Debutante Ball, everything is done according to tradition. “Every girl should have two men,” says Mrs. Margaret Hedberg, who has chaired the ball ever since her aunt Beatrice Dinsmore Joyce bequeathed it to her. “It’s the last time you get to do this.”
Two men: It’s enough to make a girl swoon, and soon enough Mademoiselle Astrid de Grimoüard of France exercises every debutante’s right to do just that. Amid gasps of horror, she collapses to the carpet in a faint, toppling several flags and causing general pandemonium. The first person to rush to her side is a jowly dowager in a sequined ball gown, who fans the wilted deb with her seating chart as the crowd presses in. An overzealous TV cameraman maneuvers in for the shot, but a platoon of military escorts arrives to remove him, just in time to preserve the perfect anachronism of the moment.
For though the evening’s unchanging rituals have come to seem quaint, even bizarre, to the rest of the world, their participants have no interest in ironic juxtapositions. They are interested in the weight of tradition, and to honor it, nose rings are taken out, tattoos concealed, and particular opinions left at the door. An older generation may worry that these ceremonies are going the way of the gentlemen’s duel, but the attendance at this year’s ball – the largest in years – suggests otherwise. “It’s a very prestigious honor to wear this dress and hold these flowers,” says Lauren Anne Gordon, a 20-year-old San Antonio native.
After posing for a sorority-style portrait, the girls take their seats and pick at their dinners, flirt with their dates, and surreptitiously sip wine they’ve cadged from the adults’ tables. Nineteen-year-old Hallie Houston Eads, a “legacy deb” from the Lone Star State, sits nervously fingering her pearl necklace and worrying about her curtsy. “Some girl fell on her face last year,” says Hallie, who even took a lesson. “But it’s bad luck to talk about it.”
Every debutante worries about her curtsy. The gesture, made as the young woman is formally presented, is the evening’s zenith, the transforming moment when society’s downy hatchlings become, as Mrs. Hedberg says, “little swans we push into the world.” But debutantes from Texas have the most to worry about: By tradition they do not merely bend the knees and bow the head but perform an extravagant Swan Lakemaneuver known as the Texas Dip.
At the stroke of midnight, after the chocolate-mousse cake has been consumed, the girls parade – in alphabetical order, by state – down the dance floor, escorted by their dates and accompanied by the mellow sounds of Lester Lanin’s orchestra. By the time the Texas debutantes are called, the crowd has shed its decorum, and each girl is greeted by hoots and cheers.
Despite the commotion, as Pagent Ann Presley makes her debut, she holds her audience in rapt attention. Arms held out at her sides for effect, she descends slowly into her curtsy, then goes gracefully into her contortion – leaning forward over her extended leg, she lowers her head until her brow nearly grazes the floor. Her face completely obscured in a cloud of white chiffon, she is utterly prostrate, offering herself to the crowd. As her shoulder blades quiver like wings, she holds the pose for a dramatic moment, then triumphantly rises to her full height, and to the exultant cries of the entire ballroom.
Bring on the suitors.