Here's What Being A Modern-Day Debutante Entails

Season 2 of "Bridgerton" launched on Netflix in March 2022 to smashing success. According to Forbes, the TV series inspired viewers to stream 193 million hours of the Regency drama, following the exploits of their favorite debutantes.

Produced by Shonda Rhimes of "Grey's Anatomy" fame, "Bridgerton's" diverse cast provides a revamped and updated look at British history and its many possibilities. But the fun and fresh contemporary touches don't end there. The show also features the Vitamin String Quartet playing an admixture of legit classical music and pop songs ranging from Maroon 5 to Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift.

Based on the wildly popular books by Julia Quinn, the show's main focus remains the drama surrounding the lives of debutantes presented at Queen Charlotte's court at the start of the 19th century. Although the characters are fictional, the history of debutantes proves quite real and persists into the present, and looks both very different and in some ways surprisingly similar to the fictional ones. Keep reading to find out what it's like to be a modern-day debutante.

Debutantes must meet the requirements

While debutantes no longer get presented before Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom, they still participate in events worldwide, including the International Debutante Ball, hosted every two years in New York City. That said, the competition isn't open to just anybody. Debutantes must adhere to rigorous requirements, as reported by ABC News. The list of criteria debutantes must check off include boasting a well-connected, upper-crust lineage. 

Debs must fall between 16 and 25 years old and go through a year's worth of selection protocols. Margaret Hedberg, the chair and director of the International Debutante Ball, notes that participating in such events starts with knowing the right people.

Even before the year-long selection process begins, potential debs must receive a recommendation from their family, a past debutante, or a committee member for the ball. For this reason, the regions represented in the ball change from year to year. Hedberg notes, "Some years it's got a lot of Texans, some years a lot more Connecticut. It's just the way it is" (via ABC News).

They must keep up financially

Although you'd assume it's free sailing after getting selected to be a debutante, that's where the hard work and financial contributions really kick in (via ABC News). To get an idea of how much it costs to participate in one of these events, consider the International Debutante Ball. Reserving one table at the ball cost $17,000 in 2015. And by 2016, that price had jumped to $22,000, as reported by Town and Country

But these figures are just the tip of the iceberg. They don't include fees, hotel stays, travel parties, etiquette classes, or the dress. And the International Debutante Ball is far from the most expensive event on a debutante's calendar. The L.A. Thursday Club charges a minimum membership fee of $10,000 for each mother and potential debutante, and the price to be a duchess at the Texas Rose Festival in 2008 came in at a whopping $30,000. 

For a deb to get presented at the Corpus Christi King's Ball in 2007, the price tag ranged from $75,000 to $100,000, and that has nothing on the New Orleans Mardi Gras season. Families of debutantes should plan on spending roughly $200,000 to attend the season. Keeping up with the Joneses gets expensive very quickly when it comes to the deb lifestyle.

Debutantes must find a date

About a month before many debutante balls, the organizers host a "bachelor brunch," which lets the selected debutantes mingle with potential dates, as reported by ABC News. They range from military school cadets to students at Ivy League universities.

According to Margaret Hedburg, the chairman and director of the International Debutante Ball, there's always a Plan B for finding an escort: "If you don't have a brother or cousin you want to take, I can put you together with a young man. It's a date, not a mate." In other words, the International Debutante Ball committee is always ready and willing to play matchmaker.

But they don't do this matchmaking with the intent of marrying pretty, affluent girls off to the most eligible bachelors of the day. Nowadays, debutantes want to meet and mingle with other elite progeny, form beneficial career and educational connections, and enjoy rubbing elbows with other people from similar backgrounds.

They should prepare for a week's worth of activities

In the lead-up to the International Debutante Ball, participants must plan on days packed with activities, per ABC News. These "warm-up" events include smaller gatherings where people can network and get to know each other better. Although debs don't generally go through a six-month season as they once did when presented to the British monarch, they still get many opportunities to meet and greet affluent members of society.

Families usually stay for roughly a week at the hotel where the ball takes place to enjoy the lead-up events. They include a Father's Luncheon, a Mother/Daughter Luncheon, and a Pre-Ball Cocktail Party, per the International Debutante Ball. The girls and their families use these events to network and find potential dates for the main ball.

Not only do these events permit the debs to savor their time in the limelight, but they allow affluent families to rub elbows. In other words, they're networking events for the entire family. This includes the brothers and cousins who often accompany the women to the dance. It's an excellent way for the nation's elite to get in and stay in touch.

Debutantes must follow a strict dress code

While debutante balls take place worldwide today, the most traditional include strict rules about everything from etiquette to the wardrobe color palette debs get to choose from, per ABC News. For example, the participants of events like the International Debutante Ball must wear white ballroom gowns with full skirts. White kid-leather gloves reaching to the middle of the upper arm are often a required accessory, per NOLA. Male escorts wearing tails and white ties accompany the ladies.

According to Margaret Hedberg, chair and director of the International Debutante Ball, white remains an artifact from the Gilded Age when only the wealthiest families wore the hue. After all, white attracts stains, making it impractical for working-class women. Today, donning white represents a way for the elite to flaunt their status rather than a declaration of purity or virginity, as is associated with the white of most wedding gowns.

Whatever the case when it comes to the color scheme, girls must also wear spectacular gowns for their big reveal, along with plenty of fantastic ensembles for the smaller events, per Town and Country. Designer gowns abound on the night of festivities, including big names like Oscar de la Renta and Caroline Herrera. Ballroom gowns may cost upwards of $30,000 or more. Of course, this figure doesn't cover accessories, makeup, hair, and ensembles for the warm-up events.

They focus on accomplishments and networking

In the not-too-distant past, the debutante's primary role was snagging a husband before the end of the season, per ABC News. The immense pressure women felt to please the monarch and find a husband pervades the storytelling of "Bridgerton," making for many unforgettable moments. But today's participants focus on much more than pleasing their families by fostering beneficial connections. 

They focus on accomplishments, charity work, education, and networking. Most participants express more interest in forging potential business and educational connections than locking in a possible future mate. After all, Americans are in no rush to the altar. The average woman gets married at 33, and the average man is 35 as of 2021, per The Knot. Considering debutantes may come out as young as 16 in some cases, they've got more than a decade to go when it comes to thinking about settling down. 

For this reason, the week-long events preceding dances like the International Debutante Ball fill a variety of roles. They, along with "the Ball, [provide] a friendly social context where young men and women from all over the world meet one another, have a wonderful time, and form lasting friendships." Many families consider the debutante experience a rite of passage, introducing their daughters to adulthood. 

Debutantes may face public scorn

Today's debutantes represent the last of a vanishing class. As a result, they sometimes face guff for elitism and antifeminism, according to Town and Country. Many people see such events as meat markets or dressed-up human trafficking, and the color white as an emblem of virginity especially piques the scorn of many.

But as one deb put it, "It's a dying tradition, so I may as well enjoy it before it's gone" (via Town and Country). The year-long preparation for debutante festivities can leave girls feeling alienated from their friends. For example, many debs report their peers acting mystified when they learn about the etiquette and dance classes they take. The archaic nature of these events often leads to negative sentiments. The author of "Primates of Park Avenue," Wednesday Martin argues, "You have them dressed up in the color symbolizing virginity. It seems like human trafficking to me." 

As one debutante remembered, "[My friends] asked if my parents were offering me up with a dowry along with some land." These individuals don't understand that debutante organizations now prioritize networking over matchmaking. As for the girls involved, they're more interested in getting a leg up in business or making new social connections than partaking in any activities that put women down or run counter to the incredible progress women have made in the career and educational spheres since the 1960s. 

Debutante balls are international affairs

Once upon a time, debutantes were presented at the court of King George III and Queen Charlotte. But today's debutantes may attend events worldwide, as reported by Town and Country. While many focus on New York City's International Debutante Ball, other debutante events occur in Paris, New Orleans, and many other locations worldwide. 

The International Debutante Ball reports that approximately one-fourth of participants come from outside the United States. All told, 75 different nations have sent debs to the ball at one time or another. In a fun nod to the event's international nature, the girls walk in accompanied by orchestral music representative of their state or country. But, of course, the International Debutante Ball isn't the be-all-end-all for presenting young, accomplished bachelorettes to the world. 

Many other options abound, although they don't all have the same media impact (if that's what families are looking for). Similar events on a less grand scale include the Idlewild Club's debutante ball, which has been going strong for more than 130 years and allows historically wealthy families to mingle with the nouveau riche. New Orleans also boats an entire debutante ball season, and St. Louis hosts the Veiled Prophet Ball, organized by a mysterious secret society.

They indulge in silly displays of wealth

With so much money getting shelled out by families to introduce their daughters to the world of elites, there are great expectations for the activities and ballroom events that their daughters get to experience, per Town and Country. Nowhere is this better exemplified than New Orleans, known for its audacious, expensive debutante balls. Since participating in the season often comes with a price tag of upwards of $200,000, families expect plenty of expensive entertainment and special treatment in return. 

It's no surprise that money flows like water at these parties, which take place from summer through Mardi Gras season. During these events, party-goers enjoy insane displays of affluence. As one employee who worked the balls reports, "These events are like senior proms turned up to 11, but with grandparents and prancing stallions invited along for the ride," according to Atlas Obscura

As with the International Debutante Ball, debs generally wear all white, but their gowns get downright audacious. It's not unusual to see women dripping with jewels and sporting gowns encrusted with crystals. But the lavish spending doesn't stop there. Posh themes for ballroom events have included a re-creation of Versailles' original royal hunting lodge and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," featuring whimsical nods to William Shakespeare's iconic play. The most moneyed Southerners look forward to these events all year and relish the chance to show off their wealth and influence (along with their daughters and sons). 

Debutantes may get highlighted in local newspapers

For those debutantes who come out in New Orleans, local newspapers like the Times-Picayune cover these events with gusto, according to Atlas Obscura. So, participants must be ready to make an impression and deal with gossip. Part of the enthusiasm associated with deb season is its shout-outs to the Old South's glory days. And these new Scarlett O'Haras get billing in local papers. For example, the Times-Picayune publishes photos and profiles of the women participating each season. 

The families of some of these girls go to great lengths to help their daughters steal the spotlight. This often includes over-the-top dresses, some requiring multiple individuals to help carry the heavy trains dragging behind. Before events, families also work feverishly to set up elaborate thrones for their daughters to sit on. According to Atlas Obscura, these thrones alone may cost more than everything associated with the debutante experience!

Louisiana remains so caught up with the debutante fever that they also host beautillion balls, the male versions of cotillions or debutante balls. While fewer and far between, they attest to a thirst among the affluent to celebrate their heirs. 

They must deal with drunks

Despite the glitz and glamor associated with debutante balls (as well as the underage status of many of the girls), booze predominates at these events (via Atlas Obscura). This leads to many unfortunate and less-than-elegant situations fueled by cocktails and wine, especially at balls in New Orleans. 

Employees working debutante balls often deal with 18-hour-long shifts to realize these events. And they all have plenty of drunken stories to tell. While these often implicate the families of debs, they may also involve escorts and eligible bachelors who wheel their way into these events. Stories abound of tuxedo-clad men lingering at 4 am, long after the fun of the evening has dissipated. Some may end up clamoring over broken chairs and making a less-than-gallant impression.

But the blame can't all be shouldered by the family and friends of debutantes, as after imbibing too much the women sometimes also end up getting into trouble. As a result, the debutante experience in the South can ...go south, rapidly. It's not pretty, and we're guessing it's the last thing Queen Charlotte would want to be associated with her legacy.

Elitism and lineage still rule at debutante balls

Although there are regional variations on the same theme, elitism and lineage still play critical roles in debutante life. For example, in New Orleans, there are the "old-line krewes," which refer to families incorporated into debutante culture before 1950, according to My New Orleans

There are also rankings among debutante participants, from maids to princesses and other titles. In New York, women who can trace their heritage back to the pilgrims still get special invites to the Mayflower Ball, per Mayflower New York. Besides the storied families of Louisiana and Puritan New York, you'll also find a healthy admixture of heiresses to Hollywood royalty and daughters of highly successful businessmen and women. 

According to Town and Country, debutantes who have come out in recent years include Ana Phillippe, daughter of Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillipe. Ana found herself in good company, partying with individuals such as Lori Harvey, stepdaughter of Steve Harvey, and Laila Blavatnik, daughter of the New York and London-based mogul Len Blavatnik.