Society's Daughters

 

Every once in a while you’ll stumble across an obituary in the Savannah Morning News that lists “debutante” as one of the deceased’s most

esteemed and cherished accomplishments, like a military rank with which a valiant serviceman is buried, gleaming medallion in pocket.

For many people the word itself—debutante— invokes a storybook image of prim and privileged youth: Impossibly shiny flaxen hair draped across delicate shoulders, spindly arms sheathed with white gloves, a snow-white gown with more tiers than a nine-layer angel food cake, a dainty, diamond- encrusted heart pendant or a simple string of pearls resting gracefully on a razorblade clavicle. This image has been both built up and torn down, exalted and perverted, since the inception of the society debut in 18th century England.

Society and Cotillion balls have been an American tradition since the mid-1700s, at which time
colonists apparently decided some Continental
habits were worth holding onto. The first debutante
ball held in the United States was in Philadelphia in 1748; today, Philadelphia and nearly every major city
in the country has a cotillion society and correspon
ding debutante ball, but nowhere is the tradition as venerated and revered as it is south of the Mason- Dixon. From the Ball of Roses in Birmingham and
the Magnolia Ball in Jacksonville, to Savannah’s own, the Southern debutante

season—typically November through January (although New Orleans’ sea- son hits its fever pitch during Mardi Gras)—is a grand whirlwind of waltzes and a cacophony of clinking glasses, all raised in a toast to society’s most privileged daughters.

But deviate a little and the paradigm shifts to expose an emerging re-definition of deb culture in Savannah and across the South. This club is isn’t exclusively for the Landed Gentry anymore, and the fairy tale of coming out to society is no longer destined solely for Southern Belles in glass slippers.

 

The Southern Belle in popular culture is intricately woven with the arrival of “debdom” from Europe. As a spokesmodel for a gloved and refined South far removed from the region’s hardscrabble cotton fields and rice paddies, the Southern Belle— with her corseted waist, rotund hoop skirt, billowing gown and swollen cadence—has always represented the perpetuation of a pure and genteel aristocracy, a self-appointed substitute for nobility in a country deprived of princesses and queens. In literature, she was Scarlet O’Hara; in Savannah, she’s

that grand dame with the dirty face and secrets beneath her bustle so often described by Southern chroniclers like Tennessee Williams.

According to the Georgia Historical Society archives, the Savannah Cotillion Club, or Savannah Cotillion Society, first began publishing social notices for society balls in the Savannah Republican newspaper in 1817. The city’s elite would gather in its fineries and dance the antebellum nights away, and it was from these gatherings that the debutante ball, and later the Christmas Cotillion, were born.

Each year in the days just before Christmas, a small group of well-bred, handpicked young women are presented to Savannah’s society. For the past several seasons, the ball has taken place at the Savannah Marriott Riverfront, and smiling portraits of young women aglow with pride and privilege are published in the newspaper’s social section the next day. In deb culture, the ball is the culmination of a two – three month season that includes private parties and receptions, dress fittings and

photo sessions to capture this defining moment in the young woman’s life.

For the lucky few inducted into this elite class, the eventual debut to society always was, and still is, somewhat of a birthright, representing a reserved spot in the parking lot of high society; the idea of social climbing is practically non-existent, as the keys to the jet set are handed to her at the tender age of 16, when she begins preparation—learning social graces, ballroom dancing and the techniques to perform the perfect curtsy when she is officially presented to her peers.

When the debutante tradition began 300 years ago, it was designed to present young ladies to potential husbands; in modern times, when the median age for first marriage is nearly 26 and most debutantes are presented while they’re away at college exploring their vast social, romantic and academic options. No longer is the honor of being selected as a debutante a first-class ticket to marriage; instead, it is destined to be no more than a eather in the cap of young women who, in 2007, still bear names like Grace, Marjorie and Frances.

These days, the glory and grandeur of debutante culture has curdled somewhat in Savannah. In this age of radical egalitarianism, the haut monde is no longer ide- alized to the same dramatic extent it once was, and its quiet exclusivity is increas- ingly as frowned upon as it is envied. Young debutantes are taught to avoid speak- ing to media about their club’s heavily-guarded secrets; senior and governing mem- bers rebuff all requests for basic information on their organization’s history and procedures, ferociously pro- tecting its raison d’étre like a lioness defending her cubs. “We don’t usually speak to the press…” is the usual refrain of Cotillion Club members, as they hurriedly disengage from conversation and politely hang up the telephone,

wiping their hands clean of such unnecessary meddling.

Part of this perceived need for secrecy, of course, stems from the 2005 shooting of 19- year old debutante Jennifer

Liscomb Ross on the night of her presentation to society. A flurry of local and national media coverage incited a vicious racial crossfire, and, after her death seven days later, Ross inadvertently became the poster child not only for Savannah’s crime scourge, but for the White Menace of an increasingly reviled Southern elite class. In the wake of the tragedy, outspoken advocates of black rights very publicly dismissed the court’s decision to convict the three African-American perpetrators, and Cotillion members retreated from public view.

Needless to say, the hush-hush nature of this elusive society piques the interests of those who haven’t been extended an invitation to join. But, as if in response, another club set up shop on Savannah’s anointed soil, proving the social season was big enough for more than one class of debutantes.

In the early 1940s, the Beta Phi Lambda chapter of the historically black Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity was established in Savannah, and in 1945, its brothers created the Annual Debutante Presentation and Ball—now known as the Alpha Ball. Since 1989, Robert Ray—a retiree and vice-chairman of the Metropolitan Planning Commission—has served as the fraternity’s local Society Committee Chairman, and has helped to coordinate the ball. But while the Alpha brothers might make up the endoskeleton of this unique animal, the Alphabettes—a group of women made up of the wives and widows of the Alphas—are its heart, nurturing each selected debutante through a process of refinement and social conscious- ness. Robert’s wife, Lilly, is president of the Alphabettes, and if you ask her for how long, she says, with no shortage of love and pride, “too long.”

A faded photograph from the ball’s first year sits in the Ray’s Southside home, which is filled with furniture from Ghana, prayer books from Israel and col- lectibles from Ethiopia and the U.S.S.R.—all culled from Robert’s globetrotting two-and-a-half decade service to the United States Air Force. The image shows six young ladies in white princess-style gowns and impeccably coifed hair, clutching nosegay bouquets and smiling brightly, proudly at the camera. Glancing down the lineup of the 2007 class of Alpha Debutantes, it’s clear that besides a dramatic swell in attendance, production value and a few decades, not much has changed.

“Some people have tried to get us to change it,” says Robert, politely dismissing the abstract hairstyles, low-slung britches and plunging necklines that now domi nate the youth culture. Like the Cotillion Club, with whom the Alphas have no relationship and to whom they have never spoken, some elements of the “good old days” were worth hanging onto.

Across the United States, African-American debutante balls began as a way to unite and enliven a faction of people assigned to the outside of the mainstream social structure. According to writer Annette Lynch, whose book Dress, Gender and Cultural Change addresses, in part, the evolution of African-American social mores throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, formal balls began popping up in the early-1800s, with some even serving to mock the exclusivity of their white counterparts. She writes: “ The early black balls apparently made fun of the exclusivity that characterized the white formal balls, as in jest, ball organizers in Philadelphia in 1828 told ticket distributors to ‘furnish no person with tickets who could not trace his pedigree as far back as his mother, at the least.’ ”

In Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt wrote of the Lady Chablis crashing this very ball. In both the book and movie, the group of girls was portrayed as prim, proper and exceedingly gracious; these social graces are attained through a Charm School administered by the Alphabettes. Over the course of multiple sessions, debutantes are instructed in dining do’s and don’ts, confidence-building, writing thank- you notes, wardrobe planning, hair, skin and nail care, and other areas of social etiquette. Girls are given a “costume scoreboard,” which advises them on proper attire for any and every occasion. “Some girls like to wear ten rings on their fingers and earrings the size of my head,” Lilly says, slightly exasperated. “We go over that with them, tell them how much you can wear and still be stylish, and not overdressed.”

An important segment of the charm school curriculum is the teaching of the minuet and the waltz—two dances performed upon the stage of the Civic Center during the presentation ceremony. Five years ago, a crescendo in attendance forced the social committee to move the ceremony from the cramped ballrooms of hotels like the Desoto, Hyatt and Marriott to the Johnny Mercer Theatre in the Civic Center. Now attendance numbers are estimated at 400 for the ball—an invitation-only party that occurs after the formal presentation—and “as many as are able to fit” into the seats of the theatre for the presentation itself.

As the seats fill up, the girls descend a staircase into the orchestra pit beneath the stage. They take their place on a platform—an Alphabette inspecting them to make sure every tulle ruffle, nosegay blossom and strand of hair is in place—and wait for it to rise up through the floor and onto the stage. “We wanted it to have a Broadway flair,” Robert explains—a ceremony befitting of the momentousness of the occasion for each young woman. In their first year at the Civic Center, they used a fog machine to try to achieve that Broadway flair; it irritated people’s eyes, and they’ve been using the rising platform ever since. According to Lilly, “it’s a beautiful sight.”

Once the presentation has begun, doors are not reopened until after it has completed. For years, WTOC anchor Dawn Baker, herself a former debutante, has presided over the ceremony. Each girl dances the minuet with her escort, and the waltz with both her escort and her father. Afterwards, the debutantes form a circle, and the Alpha brothers form a circle around them, serenading them with the “Alpha Sweetheart” song. They then file into the ballroom and form a receiving line. “Then the band begins and the party starts,” says Lilly.

At its peak, the Alpha Phi Alpha Debutante Ball saw as many as 40 girls in a season. Lately, numbers have dwindled, perhaps due to social trends against such practices, which some teenagers and parents view as obsolete and culturally negligible; some feminist groups even bemoan the debutante radition as archaic and inherently sexist. But the primary culprit for the Alpha’s shrinking numbers is the dwindling network of Alpha brothers in place within the school system and actively recommending candidates. Social Committee members and Alphabettes now rely on guidance counselors and instructors to recommend girls for debutantes. Standards are strict, but much different than they were when the tradition was created in 1945; in order to be considered, a young woman must have plans in place for post-secondary education, and be active in community service.

“In the early years, it was more like a social club type thing,” says Lilly. “But now, it’s more widespread and it’s not a social activity, as far as I’m con- cerned. Going back to the old days, it was the top professional’s children [as debutantes]. Now we’re looking for girls who are academically challenging themselves and who are taking that challenge seriously, and who are going to become professionals themselves. That’s why the groups got larger—because it was opened up to more people. There was a time you could not find a young lady who was not from one of the richest families who was being pre- sented as a debutant. But in Savannah you do. Now you do.”

For the Rays, that eagerness to reach outside of an elite class is just as rele- vant—if not more so—in 2007 as it was in 1945, at the height of mandated segregation. “With conditions as they are, with the crime and so much going on, these young people need to know that somebody cares about them and wants to see them succeed. Sometimes they’re just kind of pushed aside. We hardly ever hear the good stuff about the youth, we almost always just hear the bad stuff.”

Since 1996, the Alphas have awarded more than $22,000 in scholarship money to their debutantes. “We want to encourage them and let them know that yes, you are part of this community and you have a lot to offer,” Lilly says. “That’s always been the mission.”

 

Debutantes were never meant to be accessible by mainstream society. They were created three centuries ago by a patrician ruling class with the pur- pose of clinging to a hallowed lifestyle that seemed to be slipping through their fingers with the rise of the industrious middle class. But like all golden calves, the debutante has, to a certain extent, been sacrificed by the masses, stripped of her precious sanctity and subverted by popular culture. From trashy romance novels to inclusion on the Savannah Morning News’ “99 Rules for Living in Savannah” (#85: “Nothing says Savannah like a debutante with a tattoo on her ass”), the debutante, by classic definition, no longer rep- resents the preserved pedigree of the Landed Gentry.

Once upon a time, the debutantes formed an elite stratus of culture, but as the South continues to evolve, a new class of debutantes has pumped a new meaning into the tradition. “It was exclusive. Only if you were on this level could you be considered a debutante,” says Lilly Ray, holding her hand up high above her head to indicate the top of the social caste. “But you are a debutante if you’re a young lady who has presented herself well throughout her school years, who has a good head on her shoulders and has made plans for the future.” For Lilly, the experience of nurturing dozens of young women through the debutante procedure has been rewarding. Her role of president of the Alphabettes is only an official name for what she actually is—a role model and den mother for a group of girls who are, frankly, entitled by effort, rather than pedigree, to their titles. In that regard, the South’s black debu- tante balls seem in almost direct opposition to their white counterparts. While both serve to prepare an elite class of young women for the future ahead, only the Alpha Ball is uninhibited about its noble mission.