The annual North Carolina Debutante Ball, which presents the state's prominent debs, continues its tradition Friday at the Meymandi Concert Hall in Raleigh. Since 1927, the daughters of prominent North Carolina families have been presented at the Raleigh ball.
In 1950, society families of Charlotte seceded from the Terpsichorean event to host their own ball. The Charlotte Debutante Club's annual ball, now called Charlotte's oldest ball, benefits Charlotte's Mint Museum. The July 9, 1951 cover story in Life Magazine featured Charlotte deb Fay Mitchell as she participated in the festivities designed to "give the Terpsichorean a real race for prestige."
Twenty years ago, former N&O writer Sharon Overton took a look at how this coming of age tradition fit into the modern world of 1991.
In many ways, today's debutantes are very different from their mothers.
For starters, they party more and spend more money.
But they also wear blue jeans and Bermuda shorts to pool parties and backyard barbecues, attire unheard of in their mothers' day, when only white gloves and hats would do.
In general, today's debs appear to take the whole thing far less seriously than past generations. Which is not to say that they have chucked tradition entirely.
"The white dresses, the red roses, the long gloves -- all those things are still very much a part of it, " says Louise Talley.
Mrs. Talley made her debut in 1954. Her daughter, Mary Louise Wooten Talley, will be presented to society in an identical ceremony tonight at the Raleigh Civic and Convention Center, along with 204 young women from across the state.
Since 1927, young women from the oldest and wealthiest North Carolina families have been invited to make their debut in Raleigh, usually during the summer of their 19th year.
To become a debutante takes more than money. Family standing is of the utmost importance. A "legacy" -- a mother or an aunt who made her debut, or a father or an uncle who was a member of the Terpsichorean Club, which sponsors the ball -- practically guarantees an invitation.
Once one is in, however, having money certainly helps.
Asked to estimate what it would cost to get her daughter, Elizabeth, through the season, Mary Maud Cockman of Burlington politely declines to add it all up. "Oooh, that's frightening, " says Mrs. Cockman, who made her own debut in 1965. "Heavens no. You don't want to do that. You don't want to ruin your summer."
For most debutantes, the excitement starts in mid-May, when the invitations -- or "bids" -- arrive. The season gets into full swing around the first of July and culminates with the Debutante Ball the weekend after Labor Day. In between, there are numerous brunches, barbecues, buffets, cocktail parties, mother-daughter teas and father-daughter cookouts to attend. A young woman who accepts every invitation may go to 30 parties or more in a season.
Deb parties of an earlier era tended to be more stilted, formal affairs, recalls Mrs. Cockman. "It was come and sit down at the dining table with the place cards and the silver."
Another former deb recalls that a fun party for her generation featured little green bottles of Coca-Cola served on ice -- in a silver punch bowl.
"We did everything with gloves and pocketbooks and hats, " Mrs. Cockman says. "And hose. Good heavens. In the hot summertime, we were wearing those hot hose everywhere."
Mrs. [Lou] Mitchell, who grew up in Raleigh, was never a debutante herself. But she has been a deb-watcher from way back, she confesses.
"The Friday night after Labor Day everyone turned out and parked on Fayetteville Street. They rolled down their car windows and watched the girls parade from the Sir Walter Hotel to Memorial Auditorium and back in their beautiful gowns, " she recalls.
"I remember sitting with my chin barely resting on the back of the seat, never knowing I'd be fortunate enough to have a daughter participate."
The debutante ball may not convey the magic and mystery that it once did. The ceremony itself takes place in the civic center. Spectators sit on metal bleachers. And the after-debut dance is held at the North Raleigh Hilton, rather than the once-elegant but now-vacant Virginia Dare ballroom.
However, certain traditions still prevail.
And debutantes, after all, still wear white. They still carry roses. And for at least one breathtaking moment, when they descend the staircase and extend a long white glove to reach for their fathers' hand, all the money it took to get them there must seem worthwhile. -- The News & Observer 9/6/1991
Debutantes Betsy Pittman, Woody Bobbitt, Penny Hicks, Betty Troutman, Gloria Hernandez and Marsh Pully enjoy the Inmen Combo at Rocky Mount's Benvenue Country Club in 1969. N&O file photo.