How Debutante Culture Became Part of Black Life in L.A.

Presenting teen girls at balls and cotillions has been a high-society tradition since the 18th century, but in the African American community, the ritual is about so much more

On November 18, 1961, the fall of the year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, Nat King Cole sang for the president and other Democrats at the Hollywood Palladium. After his performance, the singer rushed over to the Beverly Hilton hotel where his daughter Carol was making her debut at a debutante ball hosted by the local chapter of the Links, Incorporated. JFK arrived uninvited and greeted not only the 17-year-old Carol, who was wearing a white gown and long, white gloves, but all the 28 young ladies there that night.

“It was the first time a sitting president came to greet a minority social organization in California,” says Taylor Bythewood-Porter, curator of the California African American Museum’s new exhibit, Rights and Rituals: The Making of African American Debutante Culture, which is on display now through February 27, 2022.

The display features photographs from the 1950s and ’60s culled from libraries and collections, in addition to gowns, souvenirs, oral interviews, and other objects that trace the evolution and significance of debutante balls—originated by British nobility, later popularized by American WASPs—in the Black community, especially in L.A.

Nat King Cole and former United States President John F. Kennedy greeting an African-American debutante during a cotillion, Beverly Hills, California, November 18, 1961. Courtesy Getty Images

Debutante is French for female beginner, and the first debutante ball in the world was Queen Charlotte’s Ball in Britain, founded in 1780 by King George III in honor of his wife’s birthday. The heyday of British balls lasted until the onset of WWI, but these celebrations had spread to American colonies in Northern and especially Southern states, where they would eventually become rites of passage for girls usually between the ages of 15 to 18.

Back then, young women from well-to-do families had few economic or career prospects. A ball was a place where they could be introduced to high society and, more importantly, find a husband. They spent months learning proper etiquette and manners. They wore white dresses and opera gloves as symbols of purity and gentility, they curtseyed and dipped, and they danced to the “The Blue Danube” and other waltzes with their fathers and escorts.

“It’s changed over the decades since its development in the 1700s in Europe,” says Bythewood-Porter. “That’s when well-off young ladies used being a debutante as a way to secure marriage proposals. If she was 17 or 18 and had her hair up, that meant she was a debutante and was eligible for marriage and courtship. And then over time, rather than having individual families throw parties for their daughters, you started to see organizations and groups come together and have everything happen all at the same time. That’s when it became more of a season. In the late-1800s and early-1900s, that’s when you start seeing formal clubs being created, mostly focusing in the South and on the Eastern Seaboard, and then eventually those traditions migrated over to California and the Western states.”

These rituals might seem archaic now, but there’s always been a mystique to debutante balls, especially in pop culture, whether it’s in Jane Austen movies, Gossip Girl, Bridgerton, or even last year’s Borat sequel. And no doubt you’ve heard of world-famous balls like the 200-year-old Vienna Opera Ball or New York’s biannual International Debutante Ball, where daughters of Vanberbilts, Rockefellers, U.S. presidents, European royalty, and other aristocrats have all made their debuts, and a table costs as much as $25,000.

But it’s not just one-percenters who throw lavish, formal dances. Over the years, many cultures have adopted and interpreted these traditions. For example, every year the border town of Laredo, Texas, organizes one of the largest George Washington celebrations, including a Colonial Ball, hosted by the Society of Martha Washington, where debutantes—called Las Marthas, most of whom are from working-class Hispanic families—wear colorful, colonial-style gowns and take part in reenactments.

According to Bythewood-Porter, the first Black debutante ball recorded in a newspaper took place in New York in 1778. They were known as “Ethiopian Balls,” where wives of free Black men serving in the Royal Ethiopian Regiment mingled with wives of British soldiers. The first official Black debutante ball was held in New Orleans in 1895.

McLain’s Photo Service. Warner R. Wright introducing his daughter, Brenda, at Cotillion at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, October 19, 1957. Courtesy the USC Digital Library, Library Exhibits Collection

By the early-20th century, African American families were becoming upwardly mobile and achieving middle-class status. By 1920, L.A. had the fastest-growing Black population in the country. More women were pursuing a higher education, which led to the rise of women’s clubs, including sororities, nonprofits, and social organizations.

The exhibit highlights two such local organizations, the 20th Century Onyx Club, started in Ventura County in 1961, and the Links, Incorporated, founded in Philadelphia in 1946, followed by hundreds of chapters in 41 states. (Rosa Parks, Leontyne Price, Condoleezza Rice, and Kamala Harris are all honorary members.) The Links hosted the first Black cotillion in L.A. in 1952 at Ciro’s on Sunset Boulevard, now the Comedy Store. The museum displays a gown from that first event, as well as one from 2019.

But Bythewood-Porter argues that unlike their white counterparts, the purpose of Black debutante balls was never the pursuit of marriage. “With African-American debutante culture, the goal was always to get these young ladies educated and to prepare them for what lies beyond high school, especially around the ‘40s and ‘50s, when Black debutante organizations and social clubs were being formed. The focus was always on education, giving back to the community, raising money, and forming a network. What they’re learning is not necessarily just beauty and etiquette. They’re learning so much more than that and they’re really giving back. They’ve definitely changed and adjusted the information they’re providing young ladies.”

Being a debutante also changed the negative stereotypes of Black women after the abolition of slavery and emphasized the importance of the father in the family. But in our current fight for racial and social justice, and efforts to redefine traditional standards of beauty in contemporary feminism, how relevant are debutante balls today?

“Oh, I think they’re very relevant,” says Bythewood-Porter. “The ball is just the party at the end of the season. For me, the focus is on the organization, what they’re teaching these young ladies, how they’re incorporating those into their daily lives and impacting society in a meaningful way. How can they connect with the right people so they can go to that next level and diversify these places? The cotillion or the ball, and the curtsy and the dance, that’s the party at the end. That’s the pageantry of it, the shiny-ness. But it’s really all the work that they’re doing behind the scenes that’s often under recognized.”

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