Debutante tradition continues for Darien resident
DARIEN — It’s a tradition mostly known from history books with photos of girls dressed in white and an episode of “Gilmore Girls.”
But the debutante ball, once a way for a woman to debut herself to society as ready to find a husband, has evolved into a modern way of networking for well-educated and well-connected women around the world.
“The deb of today is very different,” said Amanda’s mom, Hillary, who was a debutante herself while growing up in New Jersey. “They’re not there to meet their husband. It’s a philanthropic event. They’re all in college or right out of college; they all have career aspirations. The purpose is very different than it was 50 to 100 years ago.”
Miller participated in her first ball, the Mayflower Debutante Ball hosted by the Society of Mayflower Descendants, when she was 18.
“There’s a family history of balls,” she said. “My aunts did both and I knew from an early age I wanted to do the same thing.”
Miller did her first ball as a senior in high school so she could be escorted by her father, who later died of stomach cancer.
“I wanted to take part and do it with my dad and it meant a lot to me,” she said. “It means a lot to my family to do it, so it made sense.”
“I felt it was important to do, to carry on the legacy of his family,” added her mother. “They’ve enjoyed it in the past. She really enjoyed doing it. She embraced it and met some nice young women she’ll keep in touch with.”
The Mayflower Ball featured only a handful of other “debs.” But at the International Debutante Ball, Miller was one of 46 other girls making their debut. The International Debutante Ball occurs every other year and attracts girls from across the country and the globe. This year’s ball featured debs from China, Scotland and Texas, among other places. It also included the descendants of several U.S. presidents, including the great-granddaughter of former President Dwight Eisenhower.
Over the years, the ball has supported a variety of charities, including the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s clubs of New York City. The philanthropic aspect of the ball has a special meaning for Miller, who said Tulane puts a large emphasis on charity work. While at school, Miller volunteers by teaching French to local elementary school students.
For many of the girls, this is their second debut. The ball is considered one of the grandest of debutante balls.
“It’s the only ball you’re really going to see in New York on an international scale,” Miller said.
The preparation for the ball is not all-consuming, at least not for Miller who grew up attending cotillion classes, which teach social etiquette, and hearing stories of the balls from her mother and aunt. Other than finding a dress to wear, most of the preparation occurs in the 48 hours before the ball, which are filled with escort events, a mother-daughter luncheon and a cocktail party the evening before. There’s also a four-hour rehearsal to make sure the girls and their escorts are in tip-top shape for their debut.
Miller was escorted by Allen Knox Clark III, a friend of hers from Tulane. Many of the girls are escorted by friends or their brothers.
“You’re asking a lot of your escort because they spend the same amount of lead-up time as you do,” she said. “So you want someone’s who’s going to be a good pal.”
On the day of the dance, the girls take group photos before participating in a receiving line that lasts about an hour. Then there is a cocktail reception for socializing with guests that includes friends and family. A dinner follows before, finally, the grand presentation. After the girls are presented, the ball itself commences.
With all the time dedicated to socializing, many girls find the event to be a great source of networking and way to find lifelong friends. Miller herself met several girls from Greenwich who she knows she will keep in touch with as the ball becomes a memory.
“I think it has to be known that this is not the same deb ball it was when it started,” Miller said. “Then it was really for young women to make connections for finding a husband and that’s absolutely not what the ball is about anymore. Today you’re making connections and friends you’ll have for life.
“I think you have to keep in mind it’s very modern and they all have modern mindsets. It just has one foot in heritage and tradition,” she added.
And is the experience similar to one “Gilmore Girls” fans may have seen? Kind of, Miller said.
“I think the ‘Gilmore Girls’ episode took more of a historical meaning of what deb ball was,” she said with a laugh. “I think it’s more modern than they portrayed it.”