The Consumption of Insignificant Rituals: a Look At Debutante Balls

ABSTRACT - This project examines the vitality and significance of a traditional American ritual, the debutante ball, using qualitative data gathered through participant observation and in-depth interviews. The debutante ball is a rite of passage with marked social status symbolism. This ritual is high in vitality, due to the strong presence of tangible components of ritual behavior. However, the lack of lasting behavioral change and rejection of social implications cause the debutante ball to lose significance for the participants. Thus, the modern celebration of this ritual creates dissonance for the debutantes, which they reduce by emphasizing positive motivations for participation.


Jennifer Edson Escalas (1993) ,"The Consumption of Insignificant Rituals: a Look At Debutante Balls", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, eds. Leigh McAlister and Michael L. Rothschild, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 709-716.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20, 1993      Pages 709-716


Jennifer Edson Escalas, Duke University


This project examines the vitality and significance of a traditional American ritual, the debutante ball, using qualitative data gathered through participant observation and in-depth interviews. The debutante ball is a rite of passage with marked social status symbolism. This ritual is high in vitality, due to the strong presence of tangible components of ritual behavior. However, the lack of lasting behavioral change and rejection of social implications cause the debutante ball to lose significance for the participants. Thus, the modern celebration of this ritual creates dissonance for the debutantes, which they reduce by emphasizing positive motivations for participation.


During the decade of the 1980's, participation in traditional activities that had been on the decline throughout the late 1960's and 1970's experienced a strong resurgence. A primary example of this was the sharp rise in Sorority and Fraternity membership on college campuses. Another example, and the one that will be examined in this study, is the revival of debutante balls. A variety of reasons for this cyclical participation pattern have been proposed. The increased materialism and return to conservative values in the '80's, contrasted with the rejection of social conformity popular in the '60's, have been posited as reasons for the increased participation in these traditional events.

This study was undertaken with the principle research objective of understanding the motivation to engage in and benefits received from participation in a debutante ball. The primary goal is to gain insight into the phenomenological experiences of a few young women relating to their personal involvement in the debutante events.


Both the history of the debutante ball and its modern form provide insight into the significance of this event.

Historical Evolution

Many societies have rituals to signal youths' transition to adulthood. Often, a woman's coming of age is associated with her reaching puberty and becoming able to bear children (Turner 1966). Presenting young women as debutantes is one of the few remaining Western ceremonies that formalizes coming of age and the entrance of a young woman into the matrimonial market.

The word debutante was adopted into English from French during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in England in the second half of the 16th century, when she began the custom of formally presenting eligible young women at court. Three centuries later, Queen Victoria gave the ceremony its present form with girls dressed in white and the official bow called a "curtsey." In Victorian days, young girls were kept closely guarded at home until about age 18. Their presentation to society meant that they were now formally allowed to be seen in public with a man and begin courtship.

When America began to prosper in the late 19th century, the custom of debutante presentations crossed the Atlantic. The ritual symbolized family wealth, but another dimension emerged in the impoverished post-civil war South: an emphasis on who had been well-born before the war. So in addition to ritual aspects of coming of age and entering the matrimonial market, family wealth, social status, and lineage are entrenched symbols in the debutante ball.

The Modern Ball

As part of the research for this study, I attended two debutante balls hosted by the Assistance League of Long Beach (California). I videotaped both events and wrote field notes as well. The balls I attended were in July of 1989 and 1990. The following is a description of some of what occurred at the 1990 ball.

At 6:30 p.m. hors d'oeuvres are served in the foyer outside the Hotel Ballroom. Approximately 300 guests, consisting of the debutantes' families, other members of the Assistance League accompanied by spouses, and past debutantes, are in attendance. The dress is formal, with men in tuxedos with black ties and women in dresses of sequins, silk, and taffeta. At 8:00 p.m. the guests move into the Ballroom and the formal presentation of the debutantes begins. The Presenter, Gloria Deukmejian, First Lady of California and Long Beach Assistance League member, gives a 5 minute speech, praising the Assistance League's service to the community. Ms. Deukmejian is the first women Presenter in the 30 year history of this debutante ball. She introduces the mothers and then the young men invited to be escorts and stags.

Finally, the debutantes are presented, in descending order of height. There are seven "debs" this year. Each girl is presented by her full name and title. She curtsies under a gazebo arch set up center stage. Her father is introduced, also by his full, formal name and title, and together they walk around the ballroom floor. He twirls her under his arm, then she hugs her mother sitting at a table adjacent to the dance floor. They continue walking around, she twirls again, and her father returns her to the stage. Her name is read again, she again curtsies, and then walks over to one side of the stage where she waits as all the other girls are presented and go through the same routine, each taking approximately two minutes. The dinner crowd applauds after the girl's name is read, both times. Finally all line up on stage and curtsey, while the crowd applauds for them all.

The ever important father-daughter waltz comes next. The escorts are asked to cut in after about 5 minutes by the Presenter. They dance and then return to their seats for dinner, which is served at 8:45 p.m. By 10:00 p.m. dessert is served and the Orchestra begins to play. Guests begin dancing ballroom style. The music switches into more modern Rock 'n' Roll with a Disc Jockey for the younger guests at 11:00 p.m. The dancing continues until about 1 a.m. when the music stops and the last guests depart.


As can be seen from both the historical development of the debutante ball and the events occurring at the modern ball environment, the debutante experience is highly ritualistic. Rook (1985) defines a ritual as:

. . . a type of expressive, symbolic activity constructed of multiple behaviors that occur in a fixed, episodic sequence, and that tend to be repeated over time. Ritual behavior is dramatically scripted and acted out and is performed with formality, seriousness, and inner intensity. (p. 252)

Rituals can be classified in terms of their behavioral origins. Levy (1978) elaborates a typology of rituals by identifying five sources of behavior and meaning: human biology, individual aims and emotions, group learning, cultural values, and cosmological beliefs. Debutante balls fall into what anthropologists label rites of passage (van Gennep 1960), whose meaning emanates from the fourth source: cultural values. The focus of rites of passage is the social observance of events which symbolically mark a social status change for the individual. The debutante ball is a symbolic mechanism to reflect the permanent change from adolescence to adulthood for young women.

Rook (1985) also specifies four tangible components to ritual experiences: ritual artifacts, a ritual script, ritual performance roles, and a ritual audience. The debutante ball possesses all four components. The main ritual artifact for the debutante ball is the long, white (or sometimes pastel) gown worn by the young women. Similar to the wedding dress, the deb gown symbolizes her purity as she enters the adult world and interaction with the opposite sex for the first time. The above description of the events that took place at the ball in Long Beach, California is remarkably similar to those that occur at debutante balls and presentations across the country, indicating the presence of a strong ritual script. The introduction of the girls by name, white dresses, and curtsey all originated in Victorian England and are still an integral part of the modern ceremony.

In terms of ritual performance roles, the debutantes' behavior at the ceremony is highly scripted. They enter, curtsey, promenade around the dance floor, and waltz with their fathers year after year, city after city across the country. The debutantes perform the role of protected young women being introduced to society for the first time. The audience of the debutante ball is twofold. The immediate audience consists of the people watching the ceremony, the debutante's family and friends, and the members of the sponsoring organization. But on a greater scale, the audience is society itself, for now the debutante has come of age and is entering the adult social world.

In assessing a ritual's vitality and significance, it can be seen that although the debutante experience contains all four ritual elements very extensively, it has lost significance in modern society. Erikson (1977, 1982) has developed a theory that connects large scale, public ritual expressions with the individual's development of everyday ritualized behaviors. In a rite of passage ceremony, the change in everyday rituals occurring after the event should reinforce the new social status that has been obtained. Because this is not the case for debutante balls, the ritual significance is being lost.

The debutante ball takes place during late adolescence/ early young adulthood when personal issues of identity and intimacy are most critical (Erikson 1977, 1982). Historically, the ball initiated a series of new behaviors, such as courtship and marriage. A women's identity as an adult and her relationships with men changed dramatically after the ball. In modern times, however, a young women's daily, ritualized experiences do not change after being presented to society. She has already experienced dating and her escort may in fact be a boyfriend or fiancT. Additionally, she considers herself a young women, not a child. There exist other symbols of passage for young women, including driving at the age of 16 or legally drinking at the age of 18 or 21, depending on the state.

Given this loss of ritual significance, one would expect participation in such events to stagnate. However, the number of debutantes in the 1980's actually rose quite dramatically. The purpose of this research project is to a) talk with debutantes to discover if there is still some symbolic meaning found in their experience and b) uncover some of the individual level reasons, including motivations and perceived benefits, for this upswing in participation.


In order to approach this investigation, the following a priori themes were developed. These four explanations of participation in debutante balls were formulated before interviewing informants in order to guide the initial data gathering process. The a priori themes are built on my past exposure to debutante balls, where I had seen lavish displays of conspicuous consumption. My notion of the event was that only the social elite and/or those wishing to elevate their social status participated in debutante balls. It was based on these impressions that I myself rejected an offer to be formally presented while in High School.

Theme #1: Young women may be motivated to participate in debutante balls in order to receive both emotional and material attention from their parents.

Theme #2: Young women may be motivated to participate in debutante balls in order to gain social status and/or acceptance.

The first two a priori themes point to the fact that the debutante ball is a social experience that influences the young women participants' self concepts through their formal presentation to society. Social psychological theory has demonstrated that people use many strategies to create favorable images of themselves (Lippa 1990). These self presentation strategies have the goal of gaining rewards and power while avoiding negative occurrences in social relationships.

These a priori themes are also based on the idea that young women participate in debutante balls in order to conform to their parents and society. Conformity has been well documented in social psychology (Lippa 1990). People often conform to the opinions of others in order to manage impressions of similarity and likableness (Schlenker 1980). Meta-analyses also show support for the hypothesis that women conform more than men on average (Lippa 1990).

Theme #3: Young women may be motivated to participate in debutante balls in order to attend a fun party.

Theme #4: From a historical perspective, young women were motivated to participate in order to meet eligible men, leading to marriage.

Consumer behavior until recently has ignored many phenomena that are important aspects of consumption. Such phenomena include leisure activities, hedonic responses, variety seeking, sensory pleasure, emotional responses, and play, to name just some (Holbrook & Hirschman 1982). An important determinant in making a decision to participate in a particular activity is the amount of enjoyment one will receive.


Because participation experiences are highly sensitive to social contexts, this study required a research method capable of in-depth phenomenological inquiry into the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of informants, accounting for the situational contexts of those phenomena (Heisley & Levy 1991). Therefore, ethnographic interviews were conducted, using both the photoelicitation technique of autodriving and in-depth, conversational interviewing techniques.

Five initial interviews were conducted with the young women shown in the following table (Table 1). The informants were recruited by networking through family, friends, and the graduate students at a large, state run graduate school of management on the West Coast. Each informant had participated in a debutante ball in her late teens. The initial interviews lasted about an hour. In the majority of cases, strong rapport was established between the interviewer and informant, evidenced by their willingness to share personal and intimate thoughts, feelings, and memories, enriching the qualitative data for the research project. I took notes of the interview and used them to produce more complete field notes immediately afterward. As themes were supported and emerged over the course of the study, follow up questions were directed at some of the five participants to gain both feedback on the relevance of the themes and additional experiential information.



Autodriving is a projective interviewing technique where informants are given external stimuli drawn directly from their experience, such as photos of their families or audio recordings of themselves, that drive the interview process. The use of projective techniques is based on the logic that people's behavior is invariably meaningful and expressive of personality and cultural values (Heisley and Levy 1991). In terms of photoelicitation techniques, how a person tells a story about a picture reflects how s/he "structures and interprets life situations and reacts to them" (Levy 1963a). As a part of their debutante activities, Julie and Leslie (the first two informants interviewed) had made scrap books of their entire experience. At this exploratory stage of the research process, autodriving was especially useful. In both interviews, the photographs elicited strong memories and prompted in-depth follow-up questions.

In-depth Interviews

The interview has been referred to as the most powerful means for attaining an in-depth understanding of another person's experiences (Thompson et. al. 1989). Descriptive questions are utilized, flowing from the conversation rather than a predetermined path. As with autodriving, this loosely structured format allows the informants to discuss those aspects of their debutante experience that they felt were most important and relevant. The final three interviews utilized this conversational technique. Beginning with broad, phenomenological questions, I opened dialogues with Sue, Meg, and Kim about their debutante experiences. As the interview progressed I probed more deeply on those issues that appeared most important to the informant as well as those issues that had emerged as critical to the previous debutantes.

Analysis and Interpretation

After transcribing each interview, I began to interpret the qualitative data. As new interviews were conducted, the additional data were analyzed in the context of the previously examined information, with an emphasis on common patterns, or themes, that transcended individual experiences, as well as on those aspects that varied from one informant to another (Schouten forthcoming). The analysis procedure was an iterative system of coding, categorizing, and abstracting the data (McCracken 1988). The final analysis attempted to integrate the a priori themes supported by the interviews with the additional emergent themes into a model which provides insight into the debutante experience. I also gained valuable assistance through the help of two colleagues to whom I submitted my interview analyses for review.


This study gave support to the a priori themes generated above. Furthermore, additional detailed elaboration emerged from the interview and analysis process.

Theme #1: Young women may be motivated to participate in debutante balls in order to receive both emotional and material attention from their parents.

Both emotional and material aspects of this theme were touched upon by all the informants. In terms of attention, the audience included one's parents, friends, and other ball guests. As Leslie describes, being center stage was very important:

L: We had it at the Grand Ballroom of the Disneyland Hotel. It was good because it had a lowered dance floor that highlighted the girls as they walked around and did the father-daughter waltz.

Julie enjoyed the attention she received from her entire family, including her older sister who helped her with her makeup. She also describes the attention she received at a tea prior to the actual ball:

J: This is the Medallion Tea. This was a mother/daughter thing . . . Sisters and grandmothers went too, and all the Assistance League members. There were about 50 people there. They called our names in alphabetical order and showed slides of when we were babies. They talked about our hobbies and interests. We sat center stage.

Family friends also lavished attention on the debutantes. As Julie recounts, "People sent cards and flowers. . . to say congratulations on being a deb."

Particularly important was the opportunity to participate in an activity with one's father. Julie, when asked what the debutante ball meant to her, replied "something you do with your father." The father-daughter waltz and father's feelings of pride were highlighted by Leslie:

L: It was weird, but the fathers really got into it and were proud. . . I figure we all do more things with our mothers and so its neat to spend time with your dad. Some girls weren't as close to their dads and they had problems talking to them, so it was really nice for them.

The debutante experience was also perceived as an opportunity to receive material gifts from parents. Objects such as bouquets, clothing for the pre-ball events, a gold medallion necklace, and of course, the long dress were mentioned by many informants. For example, Meg talked about the expense of the experience:

M: My dad paid the symphony fee. My mom paid for the dress. They split the cost of the preparty [which she hosted]. . . For every preparty you had to buy a new outfit. You wanted to look nice. So it was indirectly expensive along the way.

An additional aspect to the theme of parental attention emerged from the interviews. The girls desired to please and obey their parents, to make them happy. The only reason that Sue participated in the debutante experience at all was at her mother's insistence: "Oh, there was no decision. My mother wanted me to do it so I did it. The only decision I ever made at that age was the clothes I wore on my back!" Kim, whose relationship with her parents was strained during the time of the debutante ball, vehemently denied any desire to act out their wishes: "I wasn't pushed into it by my parents [in contrast to Assisteens, which her mother forced her to join]. I don't do things for them. I do them because I want to."

Theme #2: Young women may be motivated to participate in debutante balls in order to gain social status and/or acceptance.

Two aspects of this theme emerged from the interviews. The ball represented an opportunity to both gain social status and/or acceptance into society and be honored by the community for individual achievements.

The main aspect of attention from society was found in the inclusion of the debutante activities in local newspapers. As Leslie describes a tea prior to the ball, "It also presented us to the press for the first time. There were a lot of media people there. There was lots of publicity, with our pictures in the paper and magazines." One article she had saved was very unbecoming in its portrayal of the debutantes and their parents. It criticizes the event for its conspicuous consumption and celebration of social status:

. . . The event, meant to celebrate their daughters' emergence into society, doubled as a chance for the parents to recelebrate their own roles as upstanding members of that society. (Tim Grobaty, staff writer for the Long Beach Press Telegram, July 1980).

Thus the debutante ball is perceived to be a status symbol through which material wealth is expressed. As social mobility theory explains, in stratified societies, members aspire to move to higher social strata (Goffman 1959). Along these lines, many debutantes mentioned the important people who attended the event. For example, at the Assistance League of Long Beach events, the Governor & First Lady, a City Councilwoman, a Supreme Court Justice, and a U.S. Assemblyman (now State Attorney General) all attended the debutante ball.

An important contrast arose in some of the interviews. Although none of the debutantes I interviewed discussed their own participation in terms of gaining social status, the motivation emerges as the informants project this motivation onto others. As Meg explains:

M: But other people thought it was a formal presentation to society. . . Those are more the old Sacramento family types with lots of money. Some girls' parents were hung up on the community's perception of them. They were into their social image. Very status conscious.

Furthermore, some girls indirectly referenced the social status aspect of their participation. For example, Kim stated that part of her attraction to the deb ball was that "I thought that a lot of people wouldn't get to do this. People aren't wealthy enough to put on debutante balls of their own [hence they put them on through organizations such as the Assistance League]." Thus elements of conspicuous consumption, where social status is obtained through a product that is visible and exclusive, are associated with the "product" of the debutante ball. Leslie also admitted that "Sometimes I do say 'I was a deb' in a snobby sense, but that is silly."

The debutante ball gave parents the opportunity to instruct their daughters in formal social behavior. This socialization was found throughout the debutantes' descriptions of the events. They were taught how to waltz and curtsey. The social gatherings had finger sandwiches, and most balls had full course, formal meals, and the young women were expected to eat politely. Thank you cards were required to be sent after each party to the hostesses and parents as well. Thus the debutantes were being prepared for their future roles as sorority members, hostesses, and wives.

Finally, the ball attended by the black informant, Sue, honored the debutantes for their individual achievements. This exception highlights the role of blacks in our society, where a lineage-based model of prestige fails due to multiple generation suppression and exploitation. Thus a debutante is honored based on individual merit, rather than celebrating family heritage. Sue was chosen by a women's sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, to be honored by the community:

S: [After the debutantes were introduced and had curtseyed. . .] they listed our achievements, those things that warranted our being a debutante . . . I was in the National Honor Society and in a Math Honor Society. I received lots of academic awards.

Thus it appears that while for white participants the ball was preparation for their adult social lives, for the black debutante the ball was an honor and achievement in and of itself.

Theme #3: Young women may be motivated to participate in debutante balls in order to attend a fun party.

Fun was the most significant memory of the debutante ball to emerge from the five interviews. The word was used 27 times in reference to the pre-ball and ball events. When asked about their recollections about being a debutante, four of the five mentioned fun as a primary factor. The debutantes considered the following things to be fun:

- Dressing up in formal clothing

- Attending the thematic preparties

- Receiving attention/being honored

- Dancing

- Meeting young people, girls and guys

- Being with existing friends

- Participating in activities: bowling, boating, playing cards, swimming, etc.

- Having a large ratio of men to women present

Meg's descriptions of the fun at the ball are full of energy:

M: The dancing at the ball was really fun. We were on the dance floor having a blast dancing and everything. . . It was like celebrating the end of six months of parties with all your new friends.

On the other hand, Sue, the black debutante who, although she was honored by her ball, was compelled to participate by her mother, had the least fun. Some of the things that her debutante event lacked in comparison with the other girls include dancing after the formal waltz, developing friendships with other girls, a full course meal, a familiar date, more young men than young women, and an overall party atmosphere.

Theme #4: From a historical perspective, young women were motivated to participate in order to meet eligible men, leading to marriage.

The opportunity to meet young men was cited in many of the interviews as contributing to the appeal of the debutante experience. In many of the balls, men were invited to be stags in addition to the official escorts for the debutantes. Usually the girls got to choose the young men invited as stags in addition to choosing their escorts. As Leslie recalls:

L: There were 5 guys for each girl. What great odds! . . . I figured with so many guys there it would be really fun.

Some dating outside the debutante activities with these young men did occur over the course of the preparties and ball. Julie explains her personal experience:

J: I got to be friends with my escort at this party. I never dated him outside the deb activities — he had a girlfriend. I dated another stag and another girl's escort, but she didn't care.

For those for whom meeting guys was less important, the debutante ball was less enjoyable. One girl who had a fiancT was considered by an informant to be "less social." Kim explains her dilemma:

K: My escort was, hmmm, interesting. . . He was a math major so he saw everything in terms of fractions. He didn't dance with me that much. He liked another debutante and so went chasing after her . . . [but that] was no problem. It's not like I had any strings over him. There's no implied relationship with your escort.


The following themes emerged from the iterative interview and analysis process.

The Opportunity to Make Girlfriends

The need for socialization was important. Young women were drawn to the ball by the opportunity to make friends with other young women. There were three ways this emerged in the data. First, the debutantes displayed an interest in developing new friendships with previously unknown individuals, particularly those girls who attended different high schools or were not close in high school. Second, the girls also desired to be with existing friends. And third, several informants mention snobbery and cliquishness among the girls, particularly at the more informal activities. The young men participated in this cliquishness as well.

All the informants mentioned the idea of making new friends. This was considered part of the fun offered by the debutante experience. For example, meeting new people was a strong motivating factor for Meg:

M: I met a lot of people. Socially it was great. I made lots of new friends. I'd say that was really fun, meeting people outside of the groups you usually associate with in your high school.

On the other hand, the inability to make new friends detracted from Sue's experience:

S: I didn't feel like I was friends with the other girls. That would have been a nice by-product of the whole thing. This may have been my fault. . . I probably just kept to myself.

The informants were also motivated by the opportunity to have fun with existing friends. Two of the informants, Kim and Julie, had participated in philanthropic activity groups in high school that were precursors to becoming a debutante. Therefore they had developed strong friendships with the other girls slated to become debs. Meg mentioned she was friends with girls from her public high school. Furthermore, a convincing factor in her decision to participate came when her best friend decided to join in the debutante activities. For Sue, again, the lack of existing friends among the debutantes detracted from her debut.

Although the idea of snobbery was touched on by all the informants, some discounted the problem. In response to the derogatory newspaper article quoted above, which also accused the young people of being cliquey, Leslie claimed, "It's natural with 18 year olds, you talk to the people you know." For two informants, Julie and Meg, however, the problem could not be minimized as easily as it could for others. For example, Julie felt left out by the girls who had become good friends in Assisteens, the precursor philanthropic organization for high school girls. For Meg, the snobbery problem almost led to her not participating as a debutante. She worried about the girls who might fit the "stereotypical rich, snobby, social role associated with debutantes." Meg found that there were some girls who did, while others did not:

M: The private catholic school girls had the more status conscious moms and families. . . [I] felt a barrier with these girls. I couldn't get too close, even though we were friends of a sort. I guess you'd call them shallow friendships, all on the surface. . . The girls from the public high schools were more eager to meet other people.

Support of a Good Cause

For some, but not all of the debutantes, the fact that the ball raised money for a charitable purpose was mentioned as important. The sponsoring organizations of the debutante balls attended by the informants were either a symphony or a philanthropic organization such as the Assistance League or a Sorority. Meg spoke out the most about the good cause being an important motivation for participation: "The ball raised money for the Symphony . . . I liked the fact that it was a good cause. That was one of the main reasons why I did it." Kim, on the other hand, actually denied the fact that the charitable aspect of the ball had anything to do with her decision:

K: . . . the debutante thing was just a fun party and a place to meet people. There were no personal fund raising efforts. The party raised money for the League, but that didn't really have anything to do with my being a debutante.

The charitable aspect was mentioned by the other informants as a positive influence despite the fact that not much was known about the Assistance League of Long Beach or Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and their sponsorship of the events. For example, Julie described the Assistance League as "a group of women who have luncheons and fashion shows." Perhaps the charitable angle is the social salve for what would otherwise be a purely hedonic event.

The Ritual Dimension

The vitality and tangible ritualistic elements of the debutante ball were acknowledged by all the informants. The young women's recounting of the event included ritual artifacts, performance roles, audience, and script. The long ball gown is the primary ritual artifact for the debutantes. As such, it was treated with respect and considered a very positive aspect of the debutante experience by all five young women. Four of the five wore a white dress. In many cultures, white's flawless and unspoiled aspects are associated with virgins and deities. The western culture of wearing a white wedding dress has classical origins: virgins in Rome wore white to symbolize their innocence, wisdom and purity (Osman 1973).

Sue, the one black debutante I interviewed, was the only person who didn't wear a white dress. Nevertheless, some symbolic significance of dress color remained: "My dress was a pastel color. But it was a long gown. We had to wear soft pastel colors. You couldn't come dressed in red or black." An interpretation may be that in black society, the color symbolism of white=purity and black=sin found in Western cultures is less pervasive.

In the realm of white debutantes, the purity of the young women as they are presented to society is symbolically represented by the long, white gown. Every sponsoring organization had strict guidelines about the dress, as Meg illustrates:

M: Everyone's had to be white. . . They preferred tasteful dresses, no strapless, no cleavage hanging out. . . I think the white dress represents a purity kind of thing.

All the white debutantes associated their gown with weddings. Julie actually wore her sister's wedding dress. Leslie compared the entire evening to a wedding: "A wedding without a groom. You get all the attention, you get to wear a long white dress and dance, and then you go home and you're not married." Meg said, "I felt like a princess. You're in a dress you only wear once. The only other time you do that is when you get married."

The ritual performance roles and audience were also identified and treated with dignity. Most of the informants mentioned being nervous about receiving the attention of so many people. Another reason for their anxiety may come from participating in an unfamiliar, yet involving ritual (Rook 1985). Julie stated that what she remembered most was "Being nervous about being on stage and having to follow instructions." Meg also worried about her actions:

M: I was nervous. I mean, you are introduced and there are 300 to 400 people there. All the eyes are on you. It was exciting and intimidating. . . I thought I was going to fall and mess up or trip! . . . I wore flat shoes to be safer.

Furthermore, traditions and formalized rules that make up the ritual script were often referred to by the interviewees. Particularly interesting was the fact that many of the debutante ball activities referred to by the informants were identical over a ten year time span and across the country. All five referred to the formality of the occasion. Sue stated that the ball was "very traditional. Ritualistic even." The curtsey was a particularly vital scripted behavior. As Leslie explains:

L: Then we curtsied. I still remember, an 8 count curtsey. Down on 2, wait 2, head bowed for 2, then up on 2. We all had to do it the same way.

Finally, Kim actually referred to her tightly scripted behavior at the ball as a "performance." The debutante ball fits Goffman's (1959) theoretical description of an institutionalized social front, with its expected abstract stereotyped interpretation of meaning by the audience.

Nevertheless, despite all the ritual vitality present in the debutante experience, the significance of the ritual was disturbing to the informants. The girls did not like the stereotypical snobbery, social status implications of the debutante ball, although they referred to others who did, as mentioned in the discussion of a priori theme #2 above. As Meg put it "Only some people said things like 'I'm from X family and you aren't.'"

All argued that the "coming out" aspect of the debutante ball had been lost. Many referenced the fact that times had changed. As Meg explained:

M: It used to be a coming of age, I guess. I think of Scarlet O'Hara in Gone with the Wind. You are supposed to meet eligible young men and courting can begin afterwards. But that's a negative stereotype of women. Times have changed. Women go to college now. I was at Berkeley at the time.

Nonetheless, Meg did admit that part of the reason she was chosen to be a debutante was the fact that "We come from an old Sacramento family." Kim explained that although "the ball symbolizes coming out into society . . . It really doesn't mean that much today." Julie felt the deb ball was more tied into celebrating one's high school graduation. Leslie also explained why the debutante ball was "not one of the most important events in my life" by stating that:

L: I suppose if it was what it really is supposed to be, if we had to wait to go out in public with men until after the party, then it would be important. But we're too old to be "coming out;" society has changed. To us it was a fun party.

Some felt disappointed that there were no long term changes resulting from the event. This supports the claim of Erikson that rituals are significant only when they result in changes in the subsequent everyday behavior of the participants. Sue felt the most strongly about this point: "There were no consequences, though. Nothing came as a result of this whole event. I didn't belong to the sorority afterwards or anything."

There is an undercurrent of conflict in terms of the ritual element of the debutante ball. While the young women recognize the historical significance of the event, and refer quite readily to the artifacts and scripts associated with the ritual, they are unwilling to accept either the coming of age or social status significance of the debutante ball.


The informants' memories of their debutante experience were for the most part positive. Their principle motivations for participating in the events were to meet people and make friends, receive attention, please their parents, and have fun. The traditional and ritual elements of the debutante ball were well-recognized and treated with respect and dignity. The significance of the experience, however, was almost completely ignored or denied. Neither the rite of passage symbolism nor the attainment of social status significance of the ball were accepted as motivations for participation.

Of particular interest is the fact that the informants realized the implications of their involvement in this event but were unwilling to accept them. The debutantes referred to other people as being interested in the social status aspects of the ball, but would not confess to any similar motivation. The young women were unwilling to subscribe to the traditional importance of family, wealth, and society. They were willing to participate, but convinced themselves that this negatively perceived element of the ritual did not apply to them.

There are various theoretical research explanations for this conflict. The first comes from sociological theory regarding conflicting self conceptions. Sociologists distinguish between two opposite ways in which people come to have status. The first is via ascription, where a person is assigned a role by others on the basis of biological considerations or birth into a particular family. Other roles are achieved and are thus voluntary or dependent on the attainment of a specific set of qualifications (Hewitt 1976). The contrast between ascription and achievement is important because it emphasizes the fact that a person's choice of identity in a specific situation is not entirely free.

Often the roles associated with the achieved self concept are in conflict with those of the ascribed self concept. In the case of the debutantes, their achieved self concepts are a function of such things as their success or failure in school and their social relationships. Their ascribed self concepts relate to their family and their sex. The social status symbolism of the debutante ball falls under the roles associated with ascribed self concepts. By rejecting the ball's ritual significance, they are withdrawing the recognition of others who would be more inclined to judge them on the basis of their ascribed selves. In this way they are asserting their independence and giving increased importance to their achieved self concepts, over which they have more control.

People arrange their presentations of self in various situations so as to manifest the qualities and characteristics they value. Goffman (1959) proposes that there needs to be coherence between what he defines as one's appearance, which provides the cues to social status, and manner, which confers interaction role expectations. By downplaying the status significance of the ball, the debutantes separate themselves from the appearance derived from their participation in order to better reflect their own concept of their manner. Goffman (1959) mentions this dilemma of participating in an unsuitable social front:

. . . a performer tends to conceal or underplay those activities, facts, and motives which are incompatible with an idealized version of himself. . . (p. 48)

Thus the informants experience tension between the symbolic interpretation of their roles as debutantes and their own idealized self concept.

An additional theoretical explanation proceeds from social psychology. Consistency theory asserts that people find inconsistency unpleasant and are motivated to reduce this negative arousal state by attempting to restore consistence. Leon Festinger's cognitive dissonance theory proposes that two elements (for example, beliefs, cognitions, or behavior) are inconsistent or dissonant when knowledge of one suggests the opposite of the other (Petty and Cacioppo 1981). This dissonance can be resolved by modifying attitudes and beliefs to fit behavior, or vice versa.

In this study, the debutantes showed a great deal of dissonance between their knowledge of the ritual significance of the debutante ball, particularly the social status implications, and their personal attitudes and beliefs. Evidence of this can be found by the informants' continual discussion of the ball being for a good cause while little was actually known about the sponsoring organizations and their activities. Furthermore, in order to create consistency between their participation in the event and their disdain for the ritual significance, they developed elaborate explanations for why their motivations to participate in the event were not related to gaining social status. Part of these explanations included contrasting themselves with other people whose social ambitions were a stronger motivation.

The other aspect of the ritual significance of the debutante ball was the rite of passage into adulthood. This too created inconsistency for the debutantes because their daily rituals did not change after the debutante ball occurred. Thus the crossing from childhood to womanhood was not cemented by the event. Again, the informants dealt with this dissonance by downplaying the importance of this ritual significance and emphasizing other, more positive aspects of the ball, such as having fun and making friends.

Finally, this conflict does enable one to understand some of the cyclical fluctuation in the participation levels of debutante balls. As Meg succinctly explained: "Maybe it's due to rebellion against social grouping." During those eras where social consciousness is relatively high, young women are unable to reconcile their desire to receive attention, make friends, and have fun with their disdain for the symbolic social significance of the debutante ritual.


In conclusion, this paper has taken an in-depth look at the modern ritual of the debutante ball from the perspective of five young women participants. The research has revealed the motivations for and conflicts resulting from being involved in the debutante experience. The analysis has pointed to some of the reasons for the fluctuating popularity of this ritual event. While the conclusions drawn from this study appear credible within the context of the informants' experiences, their broad applicability to other persons or other contexts should not be presumed. The goal of this research project was to arrive at a better understanding of the symbolic consumption of the debutante ritual.

Future directions for research arising from this study include examination of other rites of passage present in modern society (e.g. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, Quinzea┬▒eras, "Sweet 16" parties, high school proms) which may have also experienced evolutions in symbolic significance. Additional research directions might include a historical content analysis directed at studying contrasting attitudes from periods of strong participation in traditional activities with those of lower levels, and an in-depth study of the socialization aspect of modern rituals by looking at the present societal roles of past participants. Finally, many goods today are socially frowned-upon, such as cigarettes and gas-guzzling automobiles. An extension of this study of debutante balls, which also receive mixed reviews from various societal groups, would be to examine how consumers deal with dissonance created from their consumption of socially unacceptable products.


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Jennifer Edson Escalas, Duke University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 20 | 1993

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