Emily Post (1873–1960). Etiquette. 1922.

Chapter XVIII

The Débutante


ANY one of various entertainments may be given to present a young girl to society. The favorite and most elaborate of these, but possible only to parents of considerable wealth and wide social acquaintance, is a ball. Much less elaborate, but equal in size, and second in favor to-day, is an afternoon tea with dancing. Third, and gaining in popularity, is a small dance, which presents the débutante to the younger set and a few of her mother’s intimate friends. Fourth, is a small tea without music. Fifth, the mere sending out of the mother’s visiting card with the daughter’s name engraved below her own, announces to the world that the daughter is eligible for invitations.

  A ball for a débutante differs in nothing from all other balls excepting that the débutante “receives” standing beside the hostess, and furthest from the entrance, whether that happens to be on the latter’s right or left. The guests as they mount the stairs or enter the ballroom and are “announced,” approach the hostess first, who, as she shakes hands with each, turns to the débutante and says “Mrs. Worldly, my daughter.” Or “Cynthia, I want to present you to Mrs. Worldly.” (“Want to” is used on this occasion because “may I” is too formal for a mother to say to her child.) A friend would probably know the daughter; in any event the mother’s introduction would be, “You remember Cynthia, don’t you?”
  Each arriving guest always shakes hands with the débutante as well as with the hostess, and if there is a queue of people coming at the same time, there is no need of saying anything beyond “How do you do?” and passing on as quickly as possible. If there are no others entering at the moment, each guest makes a few pleasant remarks. A stranger, for instance, would perhaps comment on how lovely, and many, the débutante’s bouquets are, or express a hope that she will enjoy her winter, or talk for a moment or two about the “gaiety of the season” or “the lack of balls,” or anything that shows polite interest in the young girl’s first glimpse of society. A friend of her mother might perhaps say “You look too lovely, Cynthia dear, and your dress is enchanting!”   3
  Personal compliments, however, are proper only from a close friend. No acquaintance, unless she is quite old, should ever make personal remarks. An old lady or gentleman might very forgivably say “You don’t mind, my dear, if I tell you how sweet I think you look,” or “What a pretty frock you have on.” But it is bad taste for a young woman to say to another “What a handsome dress you have on!” and worst of all to add “Where did you get it?” The young girl’s particular friends are, of course, apt to tell her that her dress is wonderful, or more likely, “simply divine.”   4
  It is customary in most cities to send a débutante a bouquet at her “coming out” party. They may be “bouquets” really, or baskets, or other decorative flowers, and are sent by relatives, friends of the family, her father’s business associates, as well as by young men admirers. These “bouquets” are always banked near and if possible, around the place the débutante stands to receive. If she has great quantities, they are placed about the room wherever they look most effective. The débutante usually holds one of the bouquets while receiving, but she should remember that her choice of this particular one among the many sent her is somewhat pointed to the giver, so that unless she is willing to acknowledge one particular beau as “best” it is wiser to carry one sent by her father, or brother, especially if either send her one of the tiny 1830 bouquets that have been for a year or two in fashion, and are no weight to hold.   5
  These bouquets are about as big around as an ordinary saucer, and just as flat on top as a saucer placed upside down. The flowers chosen are rosebuds or other compact flowers, massed tightly together, and arranged in a precise pattern; for instance, three or four pink rosebuds are put in the center, around them a row of white violets, around these a single row of the pink roses, surrounded again by violets, and so on for four or five rows. The bouquet is then set in stiff white lace paper, manufactured for the purpose, the stems wrapped in white satin ribbon, with streamers of white and pink ribbons about a quarter of an inch wide and tied to hang twenty inches or so long. The colors and patterns in which these little bouquets may be made are unlimited.   6

  At a ball, where the guests begin coming about half past ten, the débutante must stand beside the hostess and “receive” until at least twelve o’clock—later if guests still continue to arrive.
  At all coming-out parties, the débutante invites a few of her best girl friends to receive with her. Whether the party is in the afternoon or evening, these young girls wear evening dresses and come early and stay late. Their being asked to “receive” is a form of expression merely, as they never stand in line, and other than wearing pretty clothes and thus adding to the picture, they have no “duties” whatsoever.   8

  The débutante goes to supper with a partner who has surely spoken for the privilege weeks or even months beforehand. But the rest of her own table is always made up by herself; that is, it includes the young girls who are her most intimate friends, and their supper partners. Her table is usually in the center of the dining-room, but there is no especial decoration to distinguish it, except that it is often somewhat larger than the other tables surrounding it, and a footman or waiter is detailed to tell any who may attempt to take it, that it is “reserved.”
  After supper the débutante has no duties and is free to enjoy herself.  10
  The afternoon tea with dancing is described in the chapter on Teas and needs no further comment, since its etiquette is precisely the same as that for a ball. The débutante’s bouquets are arranged as effectively as possible, and she receives with her mother, or whoever the hostess may be, until the queue of arriving guests thins out, after which she need be occupied with nothing but her own good time, and that of her friends.  11
  Those of smaller means, or those who object to hotel rooms, ask only younger people, and give the tea in their own house. Where there are two rooms on a floor—drawing-room in front, dining-room back, and a library on the floor above, the guests are received in the drawing-room, but whether they dance in the dining-room or up in the library, depends upon which room is the larger. In either case the furniture is moved out. If possible the smallest room should be used to receive in, the largest to dance in, and the tea-table should be set in the medium one.  12

  A hostess should never try to pack her house beyond the limits of its capacity. This question of how many invitations may safely be sent out is one which each hostess must answer for herself, since beyond a few obvious generalities no one can very well advise her.
  Taking a hostess of “average” social position, who is bringing out a daughter of “average” attractiveness and popularity, it would be safe to say that every débutante and younger man asked to a party of any kind where there is dancing, will accept, but that not more than from half to one-third of the older people asked will put in an appearance.  14

  A ball, by the way, is always a general entertainment, meaning that invitations are sent to the entire dinner list—not only actual but potential—of the host and hostess, as well as to the younger people who are either themselves friends of the débutante, or daughters and sons of the friends and acquaintances of the hostess.
  A dance differs from a ball in that it is smaller, less elaborate and its invitations are limited to the contemporaries of the débutante, or at most the youngest married set.  16
  Invitations to a tea are even more general and should include a hostess’ entire visiting list, irrespective of age or even personal acquaintance. The old-fashioned visiting list of the young hostess included the entire list of her mother, plus that of her mother-in-law, to which was added all the names acquired in her own social life. It can easily be seen that this list became a formidable volume by the time her daughter was old enough to “come out,” and yet this entire list was supposed to be included in all “general” invitations!  17
  In the present day, however, at least in New York, there is a growing tendency to eliminate these general or “impersonal” invitations. In smartest society, it is not even considered necessary that a “general” entertainment be given to introduce a daughter. In New York last winter there were scarcely a dozen private balls all told. Many of the most fashionable (and richest) hostesses gave dances limited to young girls of their daughters’ ages and young dancing men. Even at many of the teas-with-dancing none but young people were asked.  18
  Anyone who likes to sit on the bank and watch the tides of fashion rise and fall, cannot fail to notice that big and lavish entertainments are dwindling, and small and informal ones increasing. It is equally apparent, contrary to popular opinion, that extravagance of expenditure is growing less and less. It is years since any one has given such a ball, for instance, as the Venetian fête the Gildings gave to bring out their eldest daughter, when the entire first floor of the Fitz-Cherry was turned into a replica of Venice—canals, gondolas, and all. Or the Persian ball of the Vanstyles where the whole house was hung, as a background for Oriental costumes, with copper-gold draperies, against which stood at intervals Maxfield Parrish cypress trees. Or the moonlight dance of the Worldlys which was not a fancy dress one, but for which the ballroom was turned into a garden scene, lighted by simulated moonlight that would have added to the renown of Belasco.  19
  Such entertainments as these seem almost “out of key” with the attitude of to-day. For although fancy-dress and elaborate parties are occasionally given, they are not usually given for débutantes, nor on the scale of those mentioned above.  20

  At a ball, the débutante wears her very prettiest ball dress. Old-fashioned sentiment prefers that it be white, and of some diaphanous material, such as net or gauze or lace. It ought not to look overelaborate, even though it is spangled with silver or crystal or is made of sheer lace. It should suggest something light and airy and gay and, above all, young. For a young girl to whom white is unbecoming, a color is perfectly suitable as long as it is a pale shade. She should not wear strong colors such as red, or Yale blue, and on no account black! Her mother, of course, wears as handsome a ball dress as possible, and “all her jewels.”
  At an afternoon tea the débutante wears an evening dress—a very simple evening dress, but an evening dress all the same. Usually a very pale color, and quite untrimmed, such as she might wear at home for dinner. Her mother wears an afternoon dress, not an evening one. Both mother and daughter wear long gloves, and neither they, nor the young girls receiving, wear hats.  22
  To describe the details of clothes is futile. Almost before this page comes from the printer, the trend may quite likely change. But the tendency of the moment is toward greater simplicity—in effect at all events.  23

  Let us pretend a worldly old godmother is speaking, and let us suppose that you are a young girl on the evening of your coming-out ball. You are excited, of course you are! It is your evening, and you are a sort of little princess! There is music, and there are lights, and there are flowers everywhere—a great ballroom massed with them, tables heaped with bouquets—all for you! You have on an especially beautiful dress—one that was selected from among many others, just because it seemed to you the prettiest. Even your mother and married sister who, “en grande tenue,” have always seemed to you dazzling figures, have for the moment become, for all their brocades and jewels, merely background; and you alone are the center of the picture. Up the wide staircase come throngs of fashionables—who mean “the world.” They are coming on purpose to bow to you! You can’t help feeling that the glittering dresses, the tiaras, the ropes of pearls and chains of diamonds of the “dowagers,” the stiff white shirt-fronts and boutonnières and perfectly fitting coats of the older gentlemen, as well as the best clothes of all the younger people, were all put on for you.
  You shake hands and smile sweetly to a number of older ladies and shake hands with an equal number of gentlemen, all very politely and properly. Then suddenly, half way up the stairs you see Betty and Anne and Fred and Ollie. Of course your attention is drawn to them. You are vaguely conscious that the butler is shouting some stupid name you never heard of—that you don’t care in the least about. Your mother’s voice is saying “Mrs. zzzzzz——,”  25
  Impatiently you give your hand to someone—you haven’t the slightest idea who it is. So far as your interest is concerned, you might as well be brushing away annoying flies. Your smiles are directed to Betty and Anne. As they reach the top of the stairs you dart forward and enter into an excited conversation, deliberately overlooking a lady and gentleman who, without trying further to attract your attention, pass on. Later in the winter you will perhaps wonder why you alone among your friends are never asked to Great Estates. The lady and gentleman of whom you are so rudely unaware, happen to be Mr. and Mrs. Worldly, and you have entirely forgotten that you are a hostess, and furthermore that you have the whole evening, beginning at supper, when you can talk to these friends of yours! You can dance with Fred and Ollie and Jimmy all the rest of the evening; you can spend most of your time with them for the rest of your life if you and they choose. But when you are out in public, above all at a party which is for you, your duty in commonest civility is to overcome your impulses, and behave as a grown-up person—and a well-bred grown-up person at that!  26
  It takes scarcely more than ten seconds to listen to the name that is said to you, to look directly and attentively at the one to whom the name belongs, to put out your hand firmly as you would take hold of something you like, (not something that you feel an aversion to), and with a smile say “How do you do.” At your ball your mother says “Mrs. Worldly, my daughter.” You look directly at Mrs. Worldly, put out your hand, say “How do you do, Mrs. Worldly.” And she passes on. It takes no longer to be cordial and attentive than to be distrait and casual and rude, yet the impression made in a few seconds of actual time may easily gain or lose a friend for life. When no other guests are arriving, you can chatter to your own friends as much as you like, but as you turn to greet another stranger, you must show pleasure, not annoyance, in giving him your attention.  27
  A happy attitude to cultivate is to think in your own mind that new people are all packages in a grab-bag, and that you can never tell what any of them may prove to be until you know what is inside the outer wrappings of casual appearances. To be sure, the old woman of the fairy tale, who turns out to be a fairy in disguise, is not often met with in real life, but neither is her approximate counterpart an impossibility.  28
  As those who have sent you flowers approach, you must thank them; you must also write later an additional note of thanks to older people. But to your family or your own intimate friends, the verbal thanks—if not too casually made—are sufficient.  29

  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.  31
  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.  32
  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.  33

  In olden days and until a comparatively short while ago, a young girl’s social success was invariably measured by her popularity in a ballroom. It was the girl who had the most partners, who least frequently sat “against the wall,” who carried home the greatest quantity of the baubles known as “favors,” who was that evening’s and usually the season’s belle.
  But to-day although ballroom popularity is still important as a test by which a young girl’s success is measured, it is by no means the beginning and end that it used to be.  35
  As repeated several times in this book, the day of the belle is past; beaux belong to the past too. To-day is the day of woman’s equality with man, and if in proving her equality she has come down from a pedestal, her pedestal was perhaps a theatrical “property” at best and not to be compared for solid satisfaction with the level ground of the entirely real position she now occupies.  36
  A girl’s popularity in a ballroom is of importance to be sure, but not greatly more so than the dancing popularity of a youth.  37
  There was a time when “wall-flowers” went to balls night after night where they either sat beside a chaperon or spent the evening in the dressing-room in tears. To-day a young girl who finds she is not a ballroom success avoids ballrooms and seeks her success otherwhere. She does not sit in a corner and hope against hope that her “luck will turn” and that Prince Charming will surely some evening discover her. She sizes up the situation exactly as a boy might size up his own chances to “make” the crew or the football team.  38

  The girl of to-day soon discovers, if she does not know it already, that to be a ballroom belle it is necessary first of all to dance really well. A girl may be as beautiful as a young Diana or as fascinating as Circe, but if she is heavy or steps on her first partner’s toes, never again will he ask her to dance. And the news spreads in an instant.
  The girl of to-day therefore knows she must learn to dance well, which is difficult, since dancers are born, not made; or she must go to balls for supper only, or not go to balls at all, unless—she plays a really good game of bridge! In which case, her chances for popularity at the bridge tables, which are at all balls to-day, are quite as good as though she were a young Pavlowa in the ballroom. Or perhaps she skates, or hunts, or plays a wonderful game of tennis or golf, each one of which opens a vista leading to popularity, and the possibilities for a “good time” which was after all the mainspring of old-fashioned ballroom success.  40
  And since the day of femininity that is purely ornamental and utterly useless is gone by, it is the girl who does things well who finds life full of interests and of friends and of happiness. The old idea also has passed that measures a girl’s popular success by the number of trousered figures around her. It is quality, not quantity, that counts; and the girl who surrounds herself with indiscriminate and possibly “cheap” youths does not excite the envy but the derision of beholders. To the highest type of young girl to-day it makes very little difference whether, in the inevitable “group” in which she is perpetually to be found, there are more men than girls or the opposite.  41
  This does not mean that human nature has changed—scarcely! There always are and doubtless always will be any number of women to whom admiration and flirtation is the very breath of their nostrils, who love to parade a beau just as they love to parade a new dress. But the tendencies of the time do not encourage the flirtatious attitude. It is not considered a triumph to have many love affairs, but rather an evidence of stupidity and bad taste.  42

  A young man playing tennis with a young girl a generation ago would have been forced patiently to toss her gentle balls and keep his boredom to himself, or he would have held her chin in his hand, while he himself stood shivering for hours in three feet of water, and tried his best to disguise his opinion as to the hopelessness of her ever learning to swim.
  To-day he would frankly tell her she had better play tennis for a year or two with a “marker” or struggle at swimming by herself, and any sensible girl would take that advice!  44

  Instead of depending upon beauty, upon sex-appeal, the young girl who is “the success of to-day” depends chiefly upon her actual character and disposition. It is not even so necessary to do something well as to refrain from doing things badly. If she is not good at sports, or games, or dancing, then she must find out what she is good at and do that! If she is good for nothing but to look in the glass and put rouge on her lips and powder her nose and pat her hair, life is going to be a pretty dreary affair. In other days beauty was worshiped for itself alone, and it has votaries of sorts to-day. But the best type of modern youth does not care for beauty, as his father did; in fact, he doesn’t care a bit for it, if it has nothing to “go with it,” any more than he cares for butter with no bread to spread it on. Beauty and wit, and heart, and other qualifications or attributes is another matter altogether.
  A gift of more value than beauty, is charm, which in a measure is another word for sympathy, or the power to put yourself in the place of others; to be interested in whatever interests them, so as to be pleasing to them, if possible, but not to occupy your thoughts in futilely wondering what they think about you.  46
  Would you know the secret of popularity? It is unconsciousness of self, altruistic interest, and inward kindliness, outwardly expressed in good manners.  47