What About the Debs?: The Evolution of Cotillion Ceremonies

Chicago Chapter Links Cotillion, 2012.

This image taken by Juliana Stratton at the 2012 Chicago Chapter Links Cotillion depicts the true beauty of cotillion celebrations that at one point was overlooked.

A group of young women (the debutantes participating in the cotillion) are interlocking their arms with one another creating a circle on a hardwood, dance floor. Surrounding the dance floor there are people, who seem to be guests of the debutantes, watching the young women perform. The debutantes are all wearing long white gloves to match their white dresses with full skirt frames, and are clearly the focus of this image, both in the actual image frame itself and the mounted video screen display behind them. It can be assumed that the young women are in a middle of a dance routine; part of the routine being to create this circle. The positioning of the camera allows one to see a few of the debutantes’ smiling faces while their heads are tilted back. Although debutantes typically have escorts, there are no men featured in this image.

Although the concept of a cotillion began in France during the early 1700s, many African-American social clubs and community organizations, mainly ran by women, embodied the ceremonies. In John Oliver Killens‘ novel, The Cotillion: or One Good Bull Is Half the Herd, a group by the name of Femmes Fatales hosts a cotillion ceremony. Mrs. Prissy Patterson, the woman in charge of the Femmes Fatales cotillion mentions the many social organizations that host cotillions saying, “‘Our club is in the tradition of the Girl Friends, and the Links, and Jack and Jills” (127). Members of these organizations are typically a part of the middle class, and the novel describes cotillions to be an opportunity for one to climb up the social ladder. Based on the image above, the organization Links continues to host cotillions in which many young women, whose mother’s are a part of Jack and Jill, participate in.

Cotillion ceremonies also brought together the African-American middle class to help raise funds and support specific causes, specifically because the tradition of promoting scholarship and charity has always been important within the African-American community. The ceremonies were also valued for its networking opportunity that connected “elite” African-Americans to one another. Primarily men were able to make business connections. Cotillions at one point solely praised young men, similar to what was mention in the novel about the escorts and men playing one of the most important roles in the actual cotillion ceremony.

However, the photograph shows the debutantes as the primary subject. The lack of male presence in the image shows the new focus on the coming-of-age experience of the debutantes. There has been a clear focus shift from male to female. Now in cotillons, the debutantes are being presented and awarded for their accomplishments. The white dresses being worn by the debutantes resemble wedding gowns. Although the two dresses are worn for different occasions, the similarity is in the white color, symbolizing purity. This is a way for the debutantes to begin their transformation into womanhood, and present their innocence and grace to the world.

Stratton’s ability to capture this image shows the change of spotlight from men to women in the traditional cotillion ceremony.

Juliana, Stratton. “Chicago Chapter Links Cotillion.” 2012. JPEG.

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