Debutantes: Being Unveiled to Society or Being Veiled by Society?

Harlem Debutante Ball

This picture of a Harlem Debutante Ball portrays the coming out of several African American women into their society.  The purpose of a cotillion is to allow a woman to be presented to her society; however, in some circumstances one can argue that the purpose of a cotillion is not properly met.

In this picture, we see two lines of people. A line of women and a line of men; each line appears to be orderly and very put together.  The men are dressed in suits with tails and the women are dressed in white gowns, white gloves, pearls, and fancy up-dos.  We also notice that everyone is dressed similarly; there is no one person who stands out among the rest.  These lines of people are the centerpiece of attention in this photo, as several onlookers appear to be watching them.  While there are a few smirks on some of the faces in this photo, several of the participants appear to be uneasy or unhappy.

From this picture and the expressions of the faces captured, we can interpret that these women are not portrayed, from the outside, who they really are on the inside.  Interestingly enough, cotillions were developed in the south as a way to present young, white, southern women to their community.  However, this picture was taken in the northeast, in Harlem, and captures the African American community.  This could explain why the picture creates a feeling of tension or dissonance.  The women in this photo do not appear to be happy.  Are they really being unveiled to their society or are they being veiled by the demands and expectations of their society?

In John Oliver Killens’ The Cotillion: Or One Good Bull is Half the Herd this tension between class and society appears again.  Women of both white and African American descent feel the pressure to meet the demands of their society and the expectations of their parents to appear perfect before their community.  Just as Yoruba was forced to wear her hair straight instead of natural and to wear a white gown instead of her cultural garb, the women in this photo also appear to be “made over perfectly” in order to be presented to their society.

If the initial focus of a cotillion is to allow women to come out to their society, why is the pressure so high for women to conform to a specific standard?  The women in this photo are lined up to perform the traditional, formal cotillion dance.  A dance which they were forced to learn, not a traditional dance that is part of their culture.  The women are also all wearing white, a blank, clean slate that does not indicate any character about the women.  Each woman also has a straightened and curled perm, nothing appears to be natural.  After looking at debutantes and cotillions from this perspective, one notices that a cotillion does not always achieve its initial purpose.  In order for a woman to be presented to her society, she should be able to do so in a non-conformist, natural way.

This picture portrays the politics of appearance, sexism, and people as machines; it shows how women, rather than being unveiled before their society, are actually veiled by the demands and pressure from their society to blend in.


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