Fifty-six years after Buckingham Palace announced the end of ‘coming out’ presentations at the royal court, a small number of local communities across Australia continue to cling to this tradition.
These debutante balls represent the remnants of an era in which young women marked their coming of age in an elaborate ceremony used to signify their marriage eligibility. So in a society where marriage and childbirth are no longer the determinants of a woman’s success in life, the modern relevancy of this tradition to local Australian communities is questionable.
Various high schools and local councils in Australia have long since put an end to debutante balls. But for some, such as the Broken Hill City Council, the decision to end the annual debutante ball as a cost cutting measure in 2012 was reversed after prolific public outcry. The decision to have the debutante ball be funded by sponsors has meant that the community has been able to continue on with the tradition, without the council incurring any large expense.
According to the Mayor of Broken Hill, Wincen Guy, the annual Broken Hill debutante ball is about “keeping alive a long standing tradition in a world that changes so fast.”
“For the majority of the girls participating in the Debut, it is not just about being able to dress up like a princess for a night, but it is about being part of a family where, for many of them, they are 3rd, 4th and in some cases 5th generation girls to complete their Debut.”
Typically, girls from Year 11 (and very rarely, boys), will undertake a two to three month program with their school or local club before the ceremony. On the night, the girls are expected to wear long, white dresses (resembling wedding dresses), long white gloves, and are expected to ask a partner of the opposite sex (known as a squire and who must be dressed in a tuxedo) to accompany them to their ‘coming out’ ball.
According to Peta Magee, the President of the Santa-Sabina Dominican Ex-Student Association and organiser of the Debutante Enrichment Program at Santa Sabina, Strathfield, her “association [has] revolutionised the ball to help educate students and prepare them for the modern world.”
As part of the Debutante Enrichment Program, students from Santa Sabina not only learn to dance, but are also taught correct make-up application, table etiquette, and proper social media use.
Though, as beautiful as this tradition may be in its emphasis on family ties and social celebration, one can’t help notice the stereotypical notions of femininity that some aspects of the debutante program seem to perpetuate. These include the necessity of wearing make-up, knowing how to act elegantly both at the table and on the dance floor, being attracted to the male sex, and wanting to wear long flowing white dresses that, whether you like it or not, heavily resemble the wedding dresses these girls might don in the future.
The debutante program could be a great thing for helping to develop our future female leaders – if it recognised that a girl’s transition to womanhood isn’t predicated just on her success in mastering the art of make-up or dancing.