Kristen Richardson comes from a long line of debutantes but she chose not to debut.
Kristen Richardson, from a family of debutantes, chose not to debut. But as her curiosity drove her to research this enduring custom, she learned that it, and debutantes, are not as simple as they seem.
The Season shares the captivating stories of these young women, often through their words from diaries, letters, and interviews that Richardson conducted at contemporary balls. The debutantes give voice to an array of complex feelings about being put on display, about the young men they meet, and about what their future in society or as wives might be.
Kristen was born in London, England, and lives with her son in Brooklyn, New York.
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TOPICS DISCUSSED IN THIS EPISODE:
- Kristen’s upbringing and why she chose not to debut and her family’s influence on this decision.
- Why Kristen decided to research debutante and these coming of age rituals and what she quickly discovered.
- The politics behind the debutante balls and the form of power it did give some women.
- The journals Kristen came across in her research of the debutante records and how she got access to them.
- The differences between the black and white debutante balls.
- Why are parts of women’s history not recorded?
- The debutantes in her book give voice to an array of complex feelings about being put on display.
- The secrecy component of the debuts.
- Why some women debut from a visibility standpoint for their own personal brand.
- Why debutante ritual works so well in authoritarian societies.
- What can be other girls’ rights of passage rituals?
- The investigative quality of Kristen’s work sheds light on the darker sides of this tradition.
- How did Kristen respond to the heightened visibility after her book went public and the haters.
- The Season is a Smithsonian Best History Book of 2019.
- Feminine leadership is feminist leadership.
(7:38) One of the things that I quickly learned when I started to research is that no one had ever pinpointed why this happens and how it evolved. It’s the kind of thing where it’s like entering a story in the middle where everyone’s doing it, it’s going and yet no one knows why they’re doing it except that the previous generation had done it.
(12:57) When I think of women’s power a lot of times we were not permitted to have traditional power, right? So there were avenues for women to have a softer power or a power in a sphere. And this would’ve been that sphere. But it was very important because they’re presiding over marriages and they’re presiding over what society looks like and who’s allowed in it. And of course the ramifications of that for politics are huge. So it was definitely very political and the women knew that and they wielded that power.
(23:05) I think this is something that people talked about. One of the attractions of the debut is that it does mark the passage of time and it does mark the sort of liminal space between childhood and adulthood that we don’t sufficiently honor and that’s something that I thought was really interesting. But what I also wondered about was, well, there are none of these rituals for men, right? So that’s how you get a clue into is this the patriarchy or is this not the patriarchy? There’s no debut for men.
(24:05) We have lost ritual in a secular sense and I think it is problematic and I think people would really enjoy some kind of passage of time or marker of the passage of time that’s relevant to them.
(34:14) Even though I have a lot of compassion for the experiences of a lot of the women in that system that does not negate the fact that they were themselves in many ways, violent. They were violent towards women who had less than them. If they were white they were violent towards women who were not white. The structure is one of patriarchy. It is one of violence. My goal was not to make it seem elegant and fabulous. My goal was to show how elegant and fabulous things can be destructive agents of culture and pit women against each other to the advantage of men. One of the main aims of the book was to convince all women that this is their history too. It’s not just rich women. It’s not just white women, it’s all women. It made an impact on all women.
(31:50) I’m a rich white lady from a supportive family so I don’t really feel like there’s much risk for me in this at all. I feel like that’s kind of the bare minimum of what I can give. So if someone like me isn’t gonna take risks, then I could not look at myself in the mirror. My goal for this book was to show people their history and try to make it better. If we know how divisive this thing has been and how these sort of elegant events can cover over the way the patriarchy functions, then maybe we have more weapons in our arsenal to stop this.
(41:40) I don’t have a problem with the idea of feminine leadership as long as everyone’s in the room and taking care of one another and supporting one another, then feminine leadership comes from ideally comes from a place of having an understanding of one’s history.
(43:50) We are good leaders because of having seen the alternative. Of having worked really hard to get to a certain place and then being cut down or just being ignored and seeing man after man climb a ladder and you’re just like, what is happening? Anyone in any kind of marginalized position is going to have greater knowledge of what it’s like to experience being stepped on or ignored or any of that. So the more you are aware of those things, I think the better leader you are and I think women are better at seeing when those kinds of things are happening and addressing them.
In this enthralling history of the debutante ritual, Kristen Richardson sheds new light on contemporary ideas about women and marriage. Kristen Richardson, from a family of debutantes, chose not to debut. But as her curiosity drove her to research this enduring custom, she learned that it, and debutantes, are not as simple as they seem.
At first glance, the 22 girls, resembling swan-like fairy princesses under the bright photo studio lights, did not seem like trailblazers in the demure world of debutanting. They were stereotypically deb down to every ruffle and bow in their billowy white gowns, no different from all the other girls who have prepared for this “coming out” rite of high society from New York and Philadelphia to Los Angeles and Newport Beach.
The decadent Tatler Russia Debutante Ball took place in Moscow on Monday evening. One of the most prestigious events in the Russian calendar, this year’s ball was bigger and more dazzling than ever to mark it’s tenth anniversary.
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Show music: Get over it by Iightboys Side road by Jenny Penkin