Black Debutantes Were Waltzing Long Before ‘Bridgerton’

It’s cotillion season

An archival photo of young African American women waiting to go downstairs for their debutante cotillion.
Photo: Cornelle Capa/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Poised and graceful, the young woman glides toward the gathered crowd, a who’s who of her community’s most influential personages. Her purposeful strides belie the butterflies in her stomach. She pauses intermittently to curtsy. With each demure bend, her diaphanous gown settles around her like a cloud, its pristine whiteness setting off her deep chestnut complexion. Finally, she arrives at the waiting arms of her escort and begins to waltz.

Long before Netflix’s Bridgerton series captured our collective imagination, Black Americans were engaged in their own displays of privilege and pageantry. Debutante balls, also called cotillions, have been a social rite of passage for generations, says Miya Carey, a postdoctoral fellow at Binghamton University in New York.

Cotillions, a term Carey uses interchangeably with “debutante balls,” have roots in European traditions like the ones we see in period dramas like Bridgerton or read about in the pages of Jane Austen’s beloved novels.

Starting soon after emancipation, “Black people during freedom were modeling something similar where you get dressed up and it was more like a gala,” says Carey, whose research focuses primarily on cotillions in Washington, D.C. “The way we understand the debutante ball today, where we’re presenting this young woman to society, in the Black community, you kind of see that a little bit more in the earlier decades of the 20th century.”

Cultures around the world have rich coming-of-age traditions, from Latinidad’s quinceañera to South Africa’s Umemulo, that tell society when young women have mastered the skills and behaviors necessary for social success as an adult. They also signal the kind of upstanding family she comes from.

“[T]his presentation is about the family as a whole,” says Carey, referring to cotillions, which often took place in family homes or intimate settings until the 1940s. “Their parents can say, ‘Look at the type of daughter we raised.’ Although the debutantes really are the centerpiece, I do think that it was meant to be a celebration of the Black elite family as a whole.”

Marriage prospects were definitely on Black parents’ minds, but the historical record shows there was a lot more to being a deb. For example, society page announcements would also note when debutantes planned to attend HBCUs, like Howard University, says Carey.

“It was like, ‘This is the daughter of such and such, but she actually has plans after this,’ which I think is important to think about,” says Carey, who sees this as a key distinction between White and Black cotillion culture of the early 20th century. “Even these elite Black women, a lot of times they did hold these professional positions.”

The focus on education continues today, with groups like the Ivy Endowment and the local chapters of sororities like Alpha Kappa Alpha awarding college scholarships to debutantes who successfully complete their programs. Education is also baked into the Black debutante experience itself — and there’s a lot to learn, says Naima Cochrane, who organizes the Renaissance Debutante Program at Convent Avenue Baptist Church in New York City.

“The enrichment program is a huge part of my cotillion program,” writes Cochrane, a former debutante and music industry veteran, in an email. “We have six to eight weeks of workshops and classes [about] healthy relationships and boundary setting, including recognizing signs of domestic abuse, digital etiquette and traditional etiquette, and a finance and credit primer appropriate for young folks getting ready to come of age for credit card apps. Some years we’ve also done combined workshops with debs and escorts.”

Heather Joy Thompson’s debut took place in the late 1990s in her hometown of Detroit. So many of Thompson’s babysitters, godsisters, and cousins took part in cotillions that participating felt “natural and normal,” she says. Detroit cotillions began with an “extensive vetting and whittling process,” followed by months of weekend classes dedicated to dancing, deportment, and etiquette.

“The time was split on Saturdays… between sort of edification and enrichment [and] practicing our dancing and curtsying and walking in preparation for the cotillion ball,” she remembers. During that time, Thompson, now in her 40s, built relationships with other women that she maintained through her time at Spelman College and well into her adult life. Cotillions are still ongoing through many Black Greek organizations, though in the past year many were cancelled due to Covid.

Despite the positives, cotillion culture is not exempt from criticism. These significant outlays of cash mean that not everyone can afford to participate.

“There are some administrative fees just to be in the program. Then you have to buy ads in the program book… And then you have to buy a table at the ball. So it’s quite an investment for the parents, or at least for my parents,” says Thompson.

Then there are the gowns, which Thompson remembers being around $1,000 and having to fit rigid requirements. Hers “had to have a hoop and a crinoline” and straps. Many debutantes bought their cotillion couture in department store bridal departments. It may seem elitist, but once upon a time in Detroit, attaining the kind of wealth that makes dropping a grand on a gown possible used to be much easier for Black families.

“Many people’s parents worked in the car industry,” Thompson says. “At that time, blue-collar workers who worked in the manufacturing facilities for Ford and GM and Chrysler were easily making into the six figures without question.”

Some cotillions are more egalitarian. Cochrane says she knows the expenditure “can be daunting” for some families, so she helps them make other arrangements to facilitate their participation.

“We’ve had dresses donated before, [and] people buy sponsored tickets we can give to those who can’t afford them. We just ask families to come talk to us and be transparent,” Cochrane says.

Still, from the white dresses to the male escorts, debutante balls echo the cisgendered heteronormativity and traditional gender roles of Western wedding ceremonies, another criticism levied at cotillions.

Historically, debutante balls were also likely to reflect and perpetuate colorist tendencies within the Black community.

“If you look at pictures from like 1942… from D.C. and New York as well, it’s a lot of light-skinned girls,” says Carey. “You don’t see a ton of brown-skinned girls.” By the 1970s, debutantes had become more color (and hair) diverse. Some Black magazines like Ebony — whose February 1962 cover featured debutante Cookie Cole with doting dad Nat King Cole — continued to cover the balls. But as the 2000s approached, they and others eventually moved on.

“With the rise of Black Power, Black people are starting to question these types of rituals, which they believe are Eurocentric,” explains Carey. “It’s not as much of a staple in the media, or at least [not in] Black media.”

Clubs like Jack and Jill and Delta Sigma Theta have posted YouTube videos of cotillions, but content by debutantes themselves is harder to find on social media. This could be a result of dwindling interest in cotillions — “Every year it’s harder to recruit for the cotillion,” says Cochrane — or that so many balls in the past year were canceled due to the pandemic. A search for #BlackDebutante and related hashtags only turn up a handful of images on Instagram — many of them are historical — or videos on TikTok.

Teen girls today essentially introduce themselves to society via social media, a performative and documentary exercise that Thompson believes may be even more critique-worthy than cotillions’ alleged classism.

“This sort of sensibility that everything needs to be shown, that everything needs to be demonstrative, that there shouldn’t be any standards about presentation or deportment, I just don’t agree with that,” says Thompson. “There’s this level of casualness and ‘I can do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it,’ that seems to have infected a lot of our society.”

In contrast, old-fashioned cotillion classes prescribe boundaries between public and private personae and instill a “respect for the commons,” that we all coexist in — lessons that have proven invaluable to her own career as a U.S. State Department diplomat.

“I work in a space where kindness matters universally, [and] I could not do my job without understanding and respecting protocol,” says Thomspon. Essentially, cotillion classes are a way to “codify kindness through a certain set of manners.”

And with that I believe Lady Danbury, a Black dignitary in the Netflix version of Bridgerton, would agree.

American freelancer in Istanbul writing about culture, mental health, race & travel. Bylines everywhere from Al Jazeera to Zora. Tw: @Ruth_Terry | IG: @ruth.ist

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