Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Etiquette for 3 Centuries of Australian Debutantes

Australian Etiquette for Debutantes of the 19th Century, 20th Century and Now


Debutantes Readying to Meet Royalty; To make one's “debut,” or to enter into society, has its roots in the Royal Court of France. By the reign of Britain's King George III (1760-1820), Queen Charlotte started a tradition of introducing and presenting the young aristocratic women of court to society. Known as "debutantes" from Queen Victoria's reign in 1837 and on, there was strict etiquette to follow regarding proper costume for court presentations; Fashionable evening dresses with head-dresses of veiling, feathers and a train trailing the dress from the waist. Long, white kid gloves, pretty fans or fragrant bouquets added to the look and offered a bit of diversity in look for the young debutantes. Since final constitutional ties between Australia and Great Britain were terminated with the passing of the Australia Act 1986, ending any kind of British role in the governing of the Australian States, closing the option of judicial appeals to the Privy Council in London, I am including British debutante history as well, up until that time period.
Debutante Agnes Melanie Dickson, circa 1890. By the end of the 19th century, the main occasions at which Court dresses were worn were those at which debutantes were presented to the Queen.

Debutantes, Circa 1930s, at the Roman Catholic Ball in Mareeba, a town on the Atherton Tableland in Far North Queensland, Australia


from Emily Post in 1922

Don’t think that because you have a pretty face, you need neither brains nor manners. Don’t think that you can be rude to anyone and escape being disliked for it.

Whispering is always rude. Whispering and giggling at the same time have no place in good society. Everything that shows lack of courtesy toward others is rude.

If you would be thought a person of refinement, don’t nudge or pat or finger people. Don’t hold hands or walk arm-about-waist in public. Never put your hand on a man, except in dancing and in taking his arm if he is usher at a wedding or your partner for dinner or supper. Don’t allow anyone to paw you. Don’t hang on anyone for support, and don’t stand or walk with your chest held in, and your hips forward, in imitation of a reversed letter S.

Don’t walk across a ballroom floor swinging your arms. Don’t talk or laugh loud enough to attract attention, and on no account force yourself to laugh. Nothing is flatter than laughter that is lacking in mirth. If you only laugh because something is irresistibly funny, the chances are your laugh will be irresistible too. In the same way a smile should be spontaneous, because you feel happy and pleasant; nothing has less allure than a mechanical grimace, as though you were trying to imitate a tooth-paste advertisement.

In the twentieth century (especially following the First World War), occasions for full Court dress diminished. It was still required wear for ladies attending the 1937 Coronation (albeit without trains and veils - and Peeresses were expected to wear tiaras rather than feathers).  The following video, "Debutantes" was produced by the BBC is well worth the watch. This is a fascinating look at the last Debutante Ball, prior to WWII.

It includes the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, the Duke of Wellington and Lady Macmillan, among many others, as they recall the debutante season of 1939. They reveal how the upper classes' diaries were packed with invitations to luncheon parties, dances and social occasions such as Ascot, Henley and the Chelsea Flower Show, as women desperately sought wealthy husbands, all while Europe was steeling itself in the face of fascist aggression. The upper-class marriage market was in full swing, and here the participants talk vividly about the parties, ballgowns and, of course, broken hearts.

Debutante Etiquette 1940s-1950s

By 1953, ladies attending the Coronation were directed to wear 'evening dresses or afternoon dresses, with a light veiling falling from the back of the head. Tiaras may be worn ... no hats'. Court presentations continued, except during wartime, but they gradually became less opulent. In the post-war 1940s evening Courts were replaced with afternoon presentations (for which afternoon dresses were worn); and with that, the donning of full Court dress ceased to be a rite of passage for young women taking their place in society.

Preparation of a Debutante

When debutantes are to be presented, the married lady who undertakes the responsibility of presenting them is called the Matron of Honour. Her duties include those of chaperone until after the presentation, and advising the ball committee regarding such matters as arrangements of the dais and floral decorations. In order that each debutante will know the correct procedure for the evening, their asked to attend tuition classes prior to the ball.


Debutantes must be punctual so that all is in readiness before the official party arrive.

When the Matron of Honour makes the presentations, each debutante is expected to make a graceful full courtsey (sic).

This presentation marks the official entry of a young lady into society, therefore she is expected to remain dignified throughout the evening and not indulge in smoking.

“Lebanese-Australian” Debutantes of 1945 who worked at Lebanese businesses

Conventions states that a debutante should wear either white or cream. However, pale pastel shades of pink or blue are sometimes worn. The style of frocks are not elaborate, and jewelry is not considered correct.

The bouquet and flowers worn in the hair are white with perhaps a hint of pink. Gloves are essential, and shoes should be of white satin.

Flowers are generously employed for the decoration of the dais, and the lady who received the debutante and the Matron of Honour, each receive a bouquet.
From "Etiquette: A comprehensive handbook for all occasions, setting out the general procedure and formality expected of a well mannered person. Specially compiled to see the average Australian's way of life and for formal occasions."

Debutantes 1960s-1970s

"On a winter evening in 1968, the then Prime Minister, the Rt Hon John Gorton, made history by dancing with a young Aboriginal girl at the first national Aboriginal debutante ball. The ball was held at the Sydney Town Hall to celebrate the symbolic ‘coming of age’ of Aboriginal Australians in the referendum held a year earlier. Twenty-five debutantes were presented to the Prime Minister, and Mr Gorton chose to dance with one of the young women, Miss Pearl Anderson. The event unsettled the prevailing attitude to racial segregation of the time and coincided with the period when the growth in Commonwealth powers was starting to change the administration of Aboriginal affairs."
Prime Minister John Gorton dancing with a young debutante, Pearl Anderson, at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs Debutantes Ball, 1968 (Image courtesy of the State Library of New South Wales

Australian Debutantes of Today

Aboriginal people in Australia have now been celebrating over 60 years of debutantes' balls. In 2011, twelve teenage girls took part in the ceremony in what is been seen as symbolic first step into adulthood.

Aborigines celebrate debutantes' ball 60th anniversary

The organisers say it gives the girls an experience they would not have in their own often troubled communities and makes them feel more comfortable with who they are.

Another 2011 Debutante Ball, Australia

Casuarina Uniting Church, 2011 Debutante Ball ~
"It was a very enjoyable evening, which included a dinner and the presentation of 12 young ladies and their partners to a large crowd of family and friends. The young people looked stunning and surprised us with their dancing, which they had worked on for many hours during the preceding weeks."

Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J Graber, is the Site Editor for the Etiquipedia©️ Etiquette Encyclopedia 

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