The Debutante Ball in the Age of Instagram – The New York Times

A ritual of the 1 percent endures in Manhattan.
Supported by

Christiane McCabe has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology. She has been a research fellow in the Arctic. She has taught math and science in Micronesia.
“Not your stereotypical debutante,” she said.
But there she was, waltzing the night away, one of 14 women in their 20s who took part in a debutante ball, a ritual of the 1 percent from long before the term existed.
They swirled across the dance floor in long gowns at the Viennese Opera Ball. The least-expensive ticket cost $1,100. Tables for 10 to 12 were priced as high as $25,000.
In an age of Facebook and Instagram and dating apps, a ball created by, and for, the wealthy — back when formal dances were a way to meet potential mates and be introduced to “polite society” — seems like a quaint tradition.
And the lavish galas and the largely homogeneous circle of the well-to-do who frequent them may seem incongruous in a diverse city that is wrestling with income inequality.
But the debutante-party circuit, a staple of New York high society for generations, endures in the city’s new era of extreme affluence.
The formality remains — long gowns, long gloves and bouquets for the women; white tie and tails for their escorts. The crowd is predominantly white. One of the women at last week’s Viennese Ball has an aristocratic title that has been in her family since the 1800s. Another is the daughter of the Austrian ambassador to Portugal. Another is an accomplished pianist and was Miss New York’s Outstanding Teen in 2017.
But there were twists that would have made Mrs. Astor grimace back in the days of her “400,’’ the famously secret list of the most elite members of New York society. An Austrian photographer at the ball had his hair cut in the back to spell “Vienna.”
And the reasons for attending a debutante ball are different than they once were.
“You think of it as a way of being brought into society to find your man, to be married off,” said Ms. McCabe, 26. “But that’s no longer what it is. That is a very antiquated interpretation of the event. In this day and age, it’s almost a way for young women to show themselves and what they’ve accomplished.”
There was, of course, a sense of exclusivity: The debutantes were interviewed and chosen on the basis of education, accomplishment and background. Fifty applied, according to Silvia Frieser, the president and executive director of the ball. Some had been invited to do so, but they too had to be interviewed as organizers whittled down the number to 14 accepted debutantes.
The women can bring their own escorts, or if they do not, one is assigned to them based on height and dancing ability. No inquiries are made about sexual orientation.
The organizers said that would-be participants cannot buy their way in; many parents do buy tables. (The organizers said they expect to donate more than $50,000 to a music therapy program at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center through Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research, a charity started by the socialite Denise Rich.)
Fewer debutantes are chosen than in the past, mostly because of space. The organizers said they were limited to 14 couples at Cipriani 42nd Street, across from Grand Central Terminal. That is about half the number that attended when the ball was held at the Waldorf Astoria, now closed for renovations.
The ball used to open with a sleigh gliding across the ballroom floor. One year, a carriage and live horses made an entrance. Another year, the centerpiece was a World War II-era Jeep, symbolizing the signing of a treaty ending the postwar occupation of Austria.
This time, the women and their escorts led the way. The organizers said Cipriani 42nd Street was not large enough for a sleigh and did not have a freight elevator for a carriage or a Jeep. This time, the orchestra musicians were not flown in from Vienna. The organizers said the savings would boost the amount they could donate.
But the gowns were fitted and the hair carefully styled. One of the two chairwomen, Jean Shafiroff, wore not one but two gowns. She changed from an Oscar de la Renta to a Carolina Herrera.
The Viennese ball is the last of the debutante galas on the winter social calendar in New York. The International Debutante Ball, held every other December, has been the event at which generations of debutantes were presented — Astors, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, princesses, daughters of presidents.
D. Colgate Rumbough, who was listed in the Viennese ball’s program as a chairman of the Junior Committee, called it “more authentic and more elegant” than other stops on the social circuit.
“It isn’t just another party with Peter Duchin or Alex Donner,” he said, referring to two society bandleaders. “It’s the full experience as it is done in Vienna, with a full string section, lush and romantic.”
Mr. Rumbough is a 29-year-old descendant of the founder of Colgate-Palmolive and of Marjorie Merriweather Post, who inherited a cereal company and parlayed it into the General Foods Corporation. One of her daughters was Mr. Rumbough’s grandmother, the actress Dina Merrill.
Debutante balls are not for everyone. “Utter agony” was how Eleanor Roosevelt described one that she attended in New York (after a debut at the White House, when the president was her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt). And Edith Wharton famously wrote that she endured her debutante ball “in speechless misery.”
The writer Kristen Richardson, the author of “The Season: A Social History of the Debutante,” said that the balls in New York “are less significant each year” but had become “unkillable.”
“You can track the waning and waxing,” Ms. Richardson said. “In the ’60s and ’70s, this was unpopular, and the organizers thought their balls would die out. There were demonstrations at certain debutante balls. In the ’80s, with the Reagan revolution, gratuitous displays of wealth became popular again, and balls did, too.”
“In the ’90s, when it was offered to me as an option” as a teenager, she said, “there was no way me and my friends were going to do it.”
Recently, thanks to social media, debutante balls have reached a new audience and gained popularity “as a way for people to show photos that look fancy,” Ms. Richardson said.
“They can use this ritual to promote themselves,” she said.
But only if they can make it. Aimée Auguin, who works at an art gallery and attended the Viennese Opera Ball, said she was invited three years ago, but could not go because of a scheduling conflict.
She said she had finals at Columbia University, where she was a junior at the time.