I Was a Black-Sheep Southern Debutante

My grandmother was a debutante, my mom was a debutante, and now the Lilly Pulitzer–patterned torch was being passed on to me.
Publish date:
February 10, 2015
childhood, family, debutante, tradition, South, Southern Belle

I am not a stereotypical debutante — but let me back up.

If you’re not from the South (or you missed that one Gilmore Girls episode), you may not know that a debutante is traditionally a "young lady" who is formally introduced to society through a ball that celebrates the fact that she's eligible to get married. Debutante is a French word that means, no kidding, "female beginner." All of that is true. And I know that because I experienced it, firsthand, when I was 19.

It all started that previous fall, just as I’d moved four hours away to Atlanta from my hometown of Savannah, Georgia, for my first year of college. I'm visiting home and my parents ask if we can all sit down. My mind races trying to figure out what I'm in trouble for and how to talk myself out of it, naturally. Then they drop the bomb and alert me to their sinister plan. Their news that I was going to be “making my debut” — getting a white dress, going to parties, participating in a ball that would require me to learn choreography — was met with disbelief shortly followed by a series of groans and whines and refusal to comply.

But then, just like parents are wont to do, they pulled the grandma card. You know the one: the "Do it for Grandma, we don't know how much longer she's gonna be around" card. Nothing beats that card. Thus, my fate was sealed.

Now that I’ve explained what a debutante is in traditional terms, let's fast-forward. The modern-day debutante stereotype is, from my experience, a Southern gal with a stockpile of pearls and polos who can't wait to don her fancy white dress and have two men escort her around a room like a fresh little peach, ripe for marryin’. Again, I was not a stereotypical debutante.

This was on the tail end of my rebellion-for-rebellion’s-sake period, and I was much more into getting my lip pierced, kissing tattooed boys much older than me, and getting far as hell away from any scenario that involved my wearing elbow-length gloves made out of baby goat skin. Which, incidentally, was another thing I had to do.

As I was reminded time and again, getting to be a debutante is supposed to be something you want to do and are actually excited about. This was not the case for me.

I learned I would be debuting with around 11 other girls in the tiny, tiny town in South Carolina where my grandmother lives. She was the one who insisted I take part in this sacred ceremony. Picture an 80-year-old mix between Emily Post and Scarlett O’Hara who constantly tells you to quit playing with your hair, visibly recoils at the sight of your black fingernail polish, and strongly believes gum is to only be chewed in the “privacy of one’s own boudoir.” (That's a direct quote.)

She was a debutante, my mom was a debutante, and now the Lilly Pulitzer–patterned torch was being passed on to me.

The realization that I was actually going to go through with this didn't come until the dress my mother ordered for me to wear to the ball came in the mail. She bought it from eBay and it was an actual, honest-to-God wedding dress. I know this because it came with a veil and was covered in lace and bead embellishments that Liberace himself would have deemed to be a tad much.

I soon found myself standing as straight as I could in what was now my used wedding dress atop a stepping stool, having it hemmed and fitted by my aunt’s friend from church as I stuffed my mouth with Saltines to keep from screaming in protest at the absurdity surrounding me.

With the date of the ball approaching, it was time to pick two escorts. The guy I was seeing at the time was not escort material due to the aforementioned tattoos and the fact that he was terrible, so it was decided that I’d be accompanied by Patrick, my best gay guy friend, and a boy named Sprat, who was the son of my mom’s friend and whom I’d never met before the rehearsal dinner (of course there was a rehearsal dinner), whereupon I introduced them as “Patrick, my old friend, and Sprat, my new friend.” Everyone laughed. Sprat did not end up being my new friend, but he fooled around with one of the other debutantes in the bathroom later that night I found out, so, win-win.

I drove up with Patrick and my parents the weekend of the ball. My cousin was enrolled in beauty school and was more than happy to give me a half-updo coated in the fine mist of two-to-three cans of hairspray.

I had a mild panic attack upon seeing myself in the mirror in a wedding dress, so I took some selfies while snarling my lip and flipping the bird, downed a mini bottle of Jack Daniels I’d brilliantly stashed in my purse, and pulled myself together.

The ball was at a nice venue with a live band and an A-plus buffet. We all did the walk we practiced, and I discovered that my parents can cut a pretty mean rug to “Brick House.” I had an awkward waltz with my father, who looked uncomfortable in his tux and kept calling himself Pavarotti, but the highlight of the evening was definitely seeing my grandmother’s face as she watched the friend of Sprat’s future make-out partner drunkenly grind up on people’s male relatives, both young and old, on the dance floor. Dear reader, that’s a gift that keeps on giving.

What remains of my debutante experience are professional portraits of myself that will never see the light of day, the debutante announcement clipped from the town’s newspaper, a wedding dress that my mom refuses to let me burn in effigy, and a slew of nearly unbelievable anecdotes to tell during lulls at parties.

I didn’t find the seersuckered husband of my grandmother’s Southern belle dreams, but if you want to look like a Loretta Lynn or a Madame Alexander doll on the impending day of your nuptials, I’ve got the perfect dress for you to borrow. Actually, you can have it.