Debutantes Coming of Modern Age : They Work Hard in Charity and Tend to Shun Spotlight

Times Staff Writer

Debutantes have entered the modern age. No longer considered spoiled dilettantes who go to parties and drink champagne, girls are treating debdom with a little more respect.

The image of the quintessential deb was cemented four years ago when superdeb Cornelia Guest, a New York socialite, made her debut. She sashayed onto the social scene with a vengeance, and her coming-out party and hectic life on the party circuit were recorded in minute detail.

But the deb scene in Southern California is different from what Guest experienced. There is less pressure to be seen with the “right” people, attend the “right” schools, parties and posh nightclubs. A Los Angeles deb is more likely to shun the spotlight than seek it, save for that brief moment when she curtsies alone in a long white dress in view of her family and friends.

Steady Number of Presentees


That there are debutantes in 1986 surprises some people who thought they went out with taffy pulls. Like college fraternities and sororities, debs are no longer a thing of the past. Steady numbers of girls are coming out every year at balls that feature 20 to 30 debutantes. Their numbers have remained fairly constant in recent years, up considerably from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when girls demonstrated instead of debuted.

What is a debutante? As Cornelia Guest put it in her new book, “The Debutante’s Guide to Life,” “A debutante is a girl who is 18 years old who is presented to society. . . . You’re 18, you’re young and pretty, and you get to dress up in beautiful clothes, handsome men make a fuss about you, you go to party after party after party, you dance your feet off, you drink champagne.”

And by making her bow into society, a girl is also signaling that she is available for marriage.

That antiquated notion of being “presented to society” seems ludicrous to some of today’s debs. As one deb-to-be put it, “The ball is a nice way to celebrate the end of all the hard (charity) work we’ve been doing for the past six years. And this is sort of the last party till you hit the real world.”


Times Are Different

But deb cotillions don’t necessary mean the end of women’s rights, Dawn Fraser believes. “It’s kind of archaic and kind of sexist to think of it as, ‘Now my daughter can get married,’ ” said Fraser, who will be coming out at the Links Cotillion for young black women in November. “Times are so much different, and now everything in a female’s life is not centering around getting married and having children. The whole idea of the cotillion has changed with the times, even though it’s kept some of its quaintness.”

Fraser, a 17-year-old student at Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills, got her first taste of the deb life when she attended her cousin’s coming-out ball a few years ago. “I saw all the dancing and decided it was something I wanted to do. But I didn’t know (the charity work) would take this much.”

Debs-to-be in Links are required to do 50 hours of community service work for Links-supported groups, including local hospitals and senior citizen programs, and take a cardiopulmonary resuscitation class. Fraser is rushing to finish her hours in time for the ball in November by working at a convalescent home. Some of her friends thought the deb idea “neat,” others “too snobby.”

“I don’t think it’s snobby,” Fraser said. “It’s just another part of life. It’s very important to my parents, especially my father. He likes to show me and my older brother off. It really makes him proud. Most of my friends (who are debs) are doing it because their parents wanted them to. But as the process goes on, they find more and more that they like it. It’s nice to get closer to people that you wouldn’t necessarily be friends with if it wasn’t for this.”

Said Cheryl Gubler of Villa Park who came out at the Orange County Las Campanas ball in July: “I thought being a debutante would be a fun way to meet a bunch of people. I met a lot of nice girls who are also going to USC next year. And my family had a really good time.

“I don’t go around telling people I was a debutante,” said Gubler, 18, who is spending the summer working part time in a tuxedo rental shop. “Then they think, ‘Does your dad own this big corporation, or what?’ ”

Carie Thomas, 18, also a July Las Campanas deb, said her mother was initially more excited about the prospect of debdom than she was. “She always said it would be a good chance to meet people. I had a friend who came out, but I really didn’t understand what it was. I thought it was just a ball, I didn’t know money went to different organizations. (Las Campanas raises money for the Orange County Youth Symphony and other young performing-arts groups.) And I knew it would be fun for my family. They have such a huge party and it’s really, really fun.”


Patricia Galanis saw her coming-out party at the Philoptohos Society of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral ball in February as a way to gain some needed recognition. “It wasn’t on my mind that I was ‘being presented,’ ” she said. “It was a good feeling being on stage, everybody looking at me, being the center of attention.”

Some say the California-style debutante ball has evolved because of the state’s casual life style and progressive citizenry.

“The West Coast has a different attitude about this particular type of affair,” said Fred Gibbons, president of Flower Fashions in Beverly Hills, who has done floral decorations for countless debutante balls. “We have never had what you’d call a real social blue-book culture like you have in the East. Appreciation of so-called ‘social status’ is not necessarily handed down from generation to generation. This is the progressive new frontier; people are appreciated for what they do on their own merit, not for what grandpa did.”

Girls must earn the privilege of coming out through charity work. The amount varies from group to group, but most specify 20 hours a year.

Mothers’ Role

The National Charity League requires that mothers and daughters join together. In the seventh grade, girls begin their work as Ticktockers (so named for providing “service around the clock,” one member said) and continue through high school when they become Coronet debs their senior year.

Often, it’s the mother who pushes her reluctant daughter into the organization. “At first it’s like that,” said 16-year-old Colleen Storey, a Valley Deb Assisteen who attends Louisville High School in Woodland Hills. “But then when you do it, you find it’s a lot of fun. You feel very rewarded afterward. I learned a lot working at the hospital. And at the (Assistance League’s) Day Nursery you learn another aspect of relating with kids, learning to deal with all their little anxieties. They look up to you.”

Other groups require that a girl have a sponsor, someone connected with the organization, who will tout her as upstanding, responsible and well-mannered. It helps, of course, if one’s parents belong to the charity the ball benefits, or some other prestigious charity. It’s considered a coup to be asked to two or more balls.


A Practical Side

Marilyn Halamandaris, this year’s Las Campanas ball director, sees a practical side to the debutante process. “I get letters from girls after the ball who say they thought it was a great chance to meet other young people throughout the county they never would have met otherwise. I think it’s sort of an introduction to the way things are going to be in college, where they are thrust among large numbers of strangers. They learn how to converse and get along with people. They also learn how to handle themselves at formal affairs. Many of them also mention they become closer with their parents. The ball itself is a family affair.”

Nanci Coleman, a bridal consultant with Mary Me, a bridal gown shop in Anaheim Hills, said ‘80s debs are “much more career-oriented than they were 10 years ago. At one time deb balls were considered an introduction to matrimony. Now they’re an introduction to the future. They’re not thinking about marriage right away, but college and careers.

“They’re nice, wholesome girls from nice homes. None are terribly worldly, but they have nice manners. They look forward to the future, and it’s so refreshing to see that. This is one time in their life they can feel really special. They have to work very hard to become a deb, and that teaches them to think about someone besides themselves. Also it teaches the girls poise and how to think on their feet.”

‘They Think for Themselves’

Paula Sacks is also in the deb dress business; she makes custom gowns in her Beverly Hills studio. “My clients are very, very individualistic,” she said. “They are exciting women. They think for themselves and have definite ideas of what they want. Mommy is not holding her hand, although she is most likely paying for it. The girls’ taste level is developed.”

She also said that half of her clients are from new money, a change from years ago when only old money was allowed into the deb ranks.

Those with new money, and the middle class, are indeed infiltrating the debutante circuit.

“It doesn’t matter at all (if they’re from old money or new),” said Claire Storm, liaison for the Assisteens, the junior support group of the Assistance League that has an annual Medallion deb ball in April. “I wish there was a lot of old money left, but those old ladies are dying off.” Still, most families that present daughters are well-off. To allow a girl to be presented, parents are often asked to make a sizable donation to the charity group, which can run several hundred dollars. Add the cost of a girl’s gown to that (they can run as much as $2,000) and the figures start to climb.

‘Things to Share’

The Assisteens ball is “more a recognition of service,” Storm said. “It’s not something where mother and daddy give a big donation and the girl has done nothing to earn this, and she puts on a beautiful dress and it’s meaningless. It’s something you go through for four years with friends, and have things to share. When the girls are presented, the emcee reads their backgrounds, what they’ve been involved with. It’s really special to hear what they’ve been doing. All the girls look so beautiful, and it’s just thrilling that they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them. I get goose bumps just thinking about it.”

Ethnic balls add yet another dimension to debuts: a reacquaintance with cultural heritage that sometimes brings religion into the picture. “I’m really into my heritage,” Patricia Galanis said. “Seeing the other girls there, knowing our families came from the same country, knowing we believe the same way, it makes it easier to be together. You don’t have to sit and explain everything.”

Parents, naturally, are happy to see their children interested in their roots. “I think what (the non-ethnic balls) don’t have is the added tie-in that is our upbringing,” said Lynette Amerian, treasurer of the local Ladies Auxiliary of the Western Diocese of the Armenian Church of North America, which sponsors a yearly Armenian deb ball. I think the girls feel something more from this, especially the second-generation Americans. You tend to lose (the heritage).”

Said Jessie Mae Brown-Beavers, president of the L.A. Links chapter and executive editor of the family section of the Los Angeles Sentinel: “I don’t think the girls see it as being presented to society per se. It’s a very outstanding event in their life. Graduation, marriage, making her debut, all those things fall in together. I think they want to be part of this Links event, rather than being presented to society. The cotillion has always been a strong family happening. We’ve tried to make it a family event, since there is so much emphasis now on the black family.”

Her daughter, Deborah Beavers Ross, was a 1967 Links deb, and is this year’s cotillionette chairwoman. She is aware that many debutante balls exclude minorities altogether. “It’s their loss,” she said. “We don’t live in an all-black or an all-white world. I’m sure there will come a time when they will be mixed. You lose out on the richness of things when you don’t have an opportunity to share. In the black community we’ve always had our own cotillions; it’s not a reaction to being kept out of others. It’s a very fine, high-quality organization.”

Longstanding Tradition

She views the Links ball as “the top. There are many lovely cotillions, but this is such a longstanding tradition. The pillars of the community were involved.”

Although the debutante ball has changed, deb rituals have been untouched by time and social trends. A girl doesn’t become a deb overnight; there are teas and dress fittings and parent-hosted parties and the all-important curtsy rehearsal. These occur throughout the girl’s senior year because, as Storm explained it, “If the program wasn’t fun, girls are of a mind these days not to stick with it. There are so many choices out there, and these are very busy, active girls.”

Preparations can also include lessons on modeling and poise; abbreviated versions of finishing schools.

Almost all deb balls require dresses to be white; the rest are pastel. There are various bans--on strapless gowns and gowns with spaghetti straps (too racy), hoop skirts (too “Gone With the Wind”), rhinestones (“They photograph black,” one deb organizer warned), sequins (too flashy) and a lot of jewelry (too tacky). Some debs are required to wear 18-button gloves. The intended result is to have the deb look as radiant as a bride, but still innocent and sweet.

Quaintness was the order of the day at a recent luncheon to officially announce the 1986 Coronet debs, who will come out in October. The color scheme for the lunch was pink, and in a large room of the Bel-Air Country Club tables were set with pink napkins and a centerpiece of pink carnations. Mothers and daughters wore pretty day dresses, dined on cold stuffed artichokes and watched a fashion show of deb gowns modeled by former Coronet debs.

Walked Hand-in-Hand

After lunch the girls were called to the front of the room with their mothers to receive their Coronet charms. They are not to be worn before the night of the ball, and then only on a white velvet ribbon.

The girls held their mothers’ chairs in a well-rehearsed way and walked hand-in-hand up to the front. Mothers beamed with pride as they put the boxed charm into their daughters’ hands.

“Once a Coronet always a Coronet,” a former ball chairwoman said as she surveyed the proceedings. “No matter where you are in the world, if you know someone is also a Coronet deb you can call her up and say, ‘I’m a Coronet, too. Can we have lunch?’ ”