Remembering the debutante ball 115



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A fond memory of mine from childhood is my older cousin sashaying up her street with plum in mouth and a gait to rival any catwalk model on her way home from deportment school.

So when my own child recently tried to walk and balance books on his head at the same time, it really took me back to thinking about a time when ‘Finishing School’ and the debutante ball was ‘the done thing’.


It must have been the timing of my era, but I didn’t get the chance to go to finishing school or make my debut at the debutante ball. Plenty of young ladies did over the generations though and it seems plenty still do.

A quick Google search of deportment and modelling classes brings up a myriad of possibilities, most famous among them would be the classes offered by June-Dally Watkins. Australia’s 1949 ‘Model of the Year’ opened the first school of personal and professional development in the Southern hemisphere. According to the June-Dally Watkins website, “our mission is unlocking their potential to be the best they can be and gain the confidence required to succeed in today’s world. Established in 1950, June Dally-Watkins has invested over 64 successful years in ladies and gentlemen of Australia, China, India, Vietnam and Papua New Guinea”.

And then there’s the international custom of the debutante ball. Historically the debutante ball stems from a time when a girl of marriageable age was presented to society to find a husband of suitable social standing.  ‘Debutante’ comes from the French word ‘debuter,’ which means ‘to lead’.

A regular fixture of London’s social calendar until the late 1950s, the debutante ball wasn’t abolished but steadily lost significance as social barriers eroded and society gradually became more suspicious of the idea of an event formalising the readiness of young women for marriage. In 1958, the Queen called time on the anachronistic practice and Prince Philip reportedly quipped the whole concept of the debutante ball was “bloody daft”.


More recently, there’s been a resurgence with women aged between 17 and 20 selected from London’s wealthiest families to take part once again in the prestigious Queen Charlotte’s Debutante Ball.

56 years after Buckingham Palace announced the end of ‘coming out’ presentations at the royal court, some local communities across Australia continue to cling to the tradition. When Broken Hill City Council moved to end the annual debutante ball to save costs in 2012 there was a public outcry and the Council reversed its decision.

According to Mayor of Broken Hill, Wincen Guy, the annual Broken Hill debutante ball is about “keeping alive a long standing tradition in a world that changes so fast”.

“For the majority of the girls participating in the Debut, it is not just about being able to dress up like a princess for a night, but it is about being part of a family where, for many of them, they are 3rd, 4th and in some cases 5th generation girls to complete their Debut”.


As a young lady, did you make your debut at the local debutante ball? Share your memories with us. And tell us, is the debutante ball an out-dated tradition now or an important social custom you’d like to see reinstated?

Starts at 60 Writers

The Starts at 60 writers team seek out interesting topics and write them especially for you.

  1. When I was growing up in NZ (1950’s early 1960’s), the Debutantes’ Ball for young women was an annual event in many parts of the country. I never attended one of those occasions but I can remember the hype for families preparing for the ball. Photos after the event were splashed across the newspapers and specific magazines. It seemed to be a big deal back then. It sounded as if it was a very formal and a significant occasion and a milestone for young women to be “presented” to society.

    2 REPLY
    • I’m from invercargill and I remember them well..usually the catholic and Anglican churches held was a really big event

    • Exactly Carol. The photos showed the young women being presented to a bishop or some high profile cleric. I think there could have been Lodge Deb. Balls. I lived in Cambridge a small Waikato satellite town of Hamilton and there was Hunt Club Ball, The Golf Club Ball and all appeared to be quite “upper class!!! affairs. I can remember the following week after a ball, the small black and white photographic proof sheets being displayed in the pharmacist’s or photographer’s windows. People could go in and order their prints. My father was a photogrpaher and there were many formal deb. portraits taken. No coloured photos then. It was my mother’s job to tint/colour the photographs, quite a skill to capture the correct soft colouring. Often, she had to colour aerial photographs of the many farmers’ properties who wanted a photo of their farm including the homestead. That was the flavour of the day for many farmers. At least these days, many of those photos would be archived.

  2. No, don’t know anyone that did.

    2 REPLY
    • It really went “out” here in the 1960’s in Aust, but it was wonderful in its day, it was a huge event for some girls (and guys) it meant they could “date” and were ready for the social scene…. but usually those who moved in the higher circles did this, not the more middle class and lower class of coure.

    • Yes, it was a very middle-class and, of course, upper-class event. I was upwardly mobile and craved those symbols but my mother thought little of those “pretensions”. Many of my Williamstown High School classmates did attend our post-Matriculation ‘Coming Out’ ball. At that time, the area was not the fashionable, expensive place it is now. Though working-class, many of the European migrant parents were very proud to provide this middle-class, Australian rite of passage for their sons and daughters.

  3. I made my debut in 1963 and loved it now am enjoying seeing my granddaughters making theirs

  4. The Debutants Ball was an annual event and the gowns were beautiful and they were photographed and then the photos were published in thepapers it was mostly “the elite”

  5. yes I made my debut at the Fitzroy Mayoral
    ball. Made my own dress on mum!s treadle
    machine. such energy. A lovely night

  6. I was a debutante partner at the Trocadero in Sydney in 1968 I think it was. We all danced to The Blue Danube. And there were about 15 debutantes that night. I think Jeanette and I had lessons for about 3 months as part of the 30. Great time as I reminisce. The Dragon Ball was held annually.

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