DEBUTANTE: Rites and Regalia of American Debdom

Karal Ann Marling, Author . Univ. Press of Kansas $24.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7006-1317-5

Although the days of the debutante may seem long past to some, cultural commentator Marling shows how the American ritual still lives in every prom dress and Miss America pageant. As with Merry Christmas! , her exploration of America's most visible holiday, Marling investigates the history of a phenomenon and displays fresh insight about its repercussions. She writes that debdom's chronology is "sometimes serpentine, if not circular... today's prom queens are every bit the equal of the No. 1 Deb of 1938." Before dallying with the present, however, she examines the past. In the late 1700s, the rules for introducing a daughter into society became increasingly elaborate, with parents jockeying for better social standing through their rouged and white-dressed offspring. Cultural changes kept society matrons and daughters on their toes, as teas came in and out of fashion and dress requirements changed at a breakneck pace. Through sharing details of how debdom has changed, Marling is able to delve into different shades of American society during various eras, and how the country's notions of class and gender have been reflected in the attitudes toward debutantes and "high society." Although there are currently few deb cotillions, Marling believes debdom is a circular route and still burgeons today in somewhat altered form. For example, a wave of deb worship in the 1950s, in which magazines described every facet of dresses, jewels and parties, feels awfully similar to the actress worship of today. Marling shows off her scholarly research skills and still maintains a lively, almost coquettish tone. Her style matches her subject matter, and the effect is charming and enlightening. 60 photos. (Apr.)

Reviewed on: 02/23/2004
Release date: 04/01/2004
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