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Debutantes Coming of Modern Age : They Work Hard in Charity and Tend to Shun Spotlight

August 31, 1986|JEANNINE STEIN | Times Staff Writer

Debutantes have entered the modern age. No longer considered spoiled dilettantes who go to parties and drink champagne, girls are treating debdom with a little more respect.

The image of the quintessential deb was cemented four years ago when superdeb Cornelia Guest, a New York socialite, made her debut. She sashayed onto the social scene with a vengeance, and her coming-out party and hectic life on the party circuit were recorded in minute detail.

But the deb scene in Southern California is different from what Guest experienced. There is less pressure to be seen with the "right" people, attend the "right" schools, parties and posh nightclubs. A Los Angeles deb is more likely to shun the spotlight than seek it, save for that brief moment when she curtsies alone in a long white dress in view of her family and friends.

Steady Number of Presentees

That there are debutantes in 1986 surprises some people who thought they went out with taffy pulls. Like college fraternities and sororities, debs are no longer a thing of the past. Steady numbers of girls are coming out every year at balls that feature 20 to 30 debutantes. Their numbers have remained fairly constant in recent years, up considerably from the late '60s and early '70s when girls demonstrated instead of debuted.

What is a debutante? As Cornelia Guest put it in her new book, "The Debutante's Guide to Life," "A debutante is a girl who is 18 years old who is presented to society. . . . You're 18, you're young and pretty, and you get to dress up in beautiful clothes, handsome men make a fuss about you, you go to party after party after party, you dance your feet off, you drink champagne."

And by making her bow into society, a girl is also signaling that she is available for marriage.

That antiquated notion of being "presented to society" seems ludicrous to some of today's debs. As one deb-to-be put it, "The ball is a nice way to celebrate the end of all the hard (charity) work we've been doing for the past six years. And this is sort of the last party till you hit the real world."

Times Are Different

But deb cotillions don't necessary mean the end of women's rights, Dawn Fraser believes. "It's kind of archaic and kind of sexist to think of it as, 'Now my daughter can get married,' " said Fraser, who will be coming out at the Links Cotillion for young black women in November. "Times are so much different, and now everything in a female's life is not centering around getting married and having children. The whole idea of the cotillion has changed with the times, even though it's kept some of its quaintness."

Fraser, a 17-year-old student at Westlake School for Girls in Holmby Hills, got her first taste of the deb life when she attended her cousin's coming-out ball a few years ago. "I saw all the dancing and decided it was something I wanted to do. But I didn't know (the charity work) would take this much."

Debs-to-be in Links are required to do 50 hours of community service work for Links-supported groups, including local hospitals and senior citizen programs, and take a cardiopulmonary resuscitation class. Fraser is rushing to finish her hours in time for the ball in November by working at a convalescent home. Some of her friends thought the deb idea "neat," others "too snobby."

"I don't think it's snobby," Fraser said. "It's just another part of life. It's very important to my parents, especially my father. He likes to show me and my older brother off. It really makes him proud. Most of my friends (who are debs) are doing it because their parents wanted them to. But as the process goes on, they find more and more that they like it. It's nice to get closer to people that you wouldn't necessarily be friends with if it wasn't for this."

Said Cheryl Gubler of Villa Park who came out at the Orange County Las Campanas ball in July: "I thought being a debutante would be a fun way to meet a bunch of people. I met a lot of nice girls who are also going to USC next year. And my family had a really good time.

"I don't go around telling people I was a debutante," said Gubler, 18, who is spending the summer working part time in a tuxedo rental shop. "Then they think, 'Does your dad own this big corporation, or what?' "

Carie Thomas, 18, also a July Las Campanas deb, said her mother was initially more excited about the prospect of debdom than she was. "She always said it would be a good chance to meet people. I had a friend who came out, but I really didn't understand what it was. I thought it was just a ball, I didn't know money went to different organizations. (Las Campanas raises money for the Orange County Youth Symphony and other young performing-arts groups.) And I knew it would be fun for my family. They have such a huge party and it's really, really fun."

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