The Debutante Diaries: How a Feminist Learned to Curtsy in a Tiara

November 5, 2015 | Yahoo Beauty

At 22 years old, after earning a college degree, declaring myself a radical feminist, and learning to dance on bar tops in the East Village, I was learning to curtsy, a crucial “skill” that social-climbing teenage girls in the Western Hemisphere once perfected. According to the women’s liberation movement, I was a century too late.

My legs were cramping because I had been practicing my curtsies in a pair of nude pumps and a white wedding dress for two hours. One month before, I had moved to England to begin working toward my master’s degree in women’s studies at Oxford, where I was excited to study feminist theory. But I took a detour for the weekend to make my entrance into British society as a debutante at Queen Charlotte’s Ball, a debutante gala that has existed since 1870. In the month leading up to the ball, I tried to hide the event from my friends, especially my new classmates, as we were still learning about one another. Getting invited to wear a fancy gown and tiara is potentially fun. Making new friends and inviting them to your debutante ball is potentially disastrous.

For an entire year, you’re supposed to participate in classes on how to drink your tea, attend sporting occasions like Royal Ascot while wearing a giant fascinator, and raise money for charity. Kate Middleton was never a debutante, but she did attend Royal Ascot and Henley. “Noël, close your legs slightly,” nudged Lauren, the head debutante and chair of the junior committee, with nervous giggles. Instead of daintily making a small bend in my legs, I went for a full calisthenic plié, spreading my legs far wider than social appropriateness. The vice chairwoman of the ball — the one who thought it would be a good idea to invite me — stared at me in glum disapproval but did not say anything.

At the debutante ball, I was one of two American girls — the other attended high school in London and was tall, thin, and blond — and I was one of three Asian girls, one being half English and owning a beautiful country home and the other owning her own Vera Wang gown with a train. The rest of us borrowed wedding gowns from British designer Caroline Castigliano. I got fitted for my tight-laced strapless wedding dress only one week before the ball — and against all odds, my gown no longer zipped up on the day of the ball. I may have been drinking too much at the pubs back at Oxford. Castigliano — another well-mannered British woman who pretended that going up a dress size in one week was normal — took an extra 10 minutes, along with the help of her seamstresses, to tuck me into my dress. She finally sewed it up herself.

While the 19 other debutantes and I got ready backstage for our ball, a German film crew swept through the room, asking some of the debs about our family backgrounds and what we enjoyed doing on the weekends. Most of the girls were busy taking selfies to show their friends, but I was behind on my paper about the history of women’s higher education in Britain. So I hid in the corner, false lashes still drying, silently reading an essay by Virginia Woolf.

“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.”

Why do we denigrate femininity and the performance of femininity? Because it appears soft and frivolous — the opposite of masculinity — and softness is seen as a weakness in a patriarchal society. We are told to “man up” when we are to be brave. But I’ve had friends who have been debutantes in the Crillon Ball in Paris, the Shanghai International Debutante Ball, and the International Debutante Ball in Paris who have gone on to documentary film careers, attained MBAs, and even boldly declared themselves “intersectional feminists” in their Twitter bios. For one night, these young women, still figuring out what the rest of life has in store for them, wore a fancy gown to celebrate themselves. It is a very lucky situation to be in, to be able to celebrate yourself not necessarily for your prior accomplishments but for what you have the potential to do someday. If only all young men and women had the opportunity to celebrate themselves unabashedly, instead of being told that they, because of their youth, are innately insecure.

A tall, blond German woman, wearing a stern blue skirt suit and definitely hoping one of us would have a nip slip or something marginally television-worthy, stuck a microphone in my face, while her camera crew surrounded Virginia Woolf and me.

“What is your name, and where are you from?”

“My name is Noël Duan, and I am from the United States.”

“What is your family background, and what do you like to do for fun?”

I knew what she was hoping I’d say. She was hoping I’d be some Thai princess from one of the smaller islands off the Gulf Coast and that I enjoyed horseback riding and tête-à-tête-ing with Prince Harry wannabes at Boujis. But I am the daughter of a country boy who came to America with $200 borrowed from his PhD supervisor and a city girl who gave up her illustrious medical career in China to give her daughter a better chance at success. Both of them were the first in their families to attend college. Both of them had high social aspirations for me, but I was still not a Thai princess. Also, this answer was too long for TV.

“My parents are Chinese, and they work in Silicon Valley. I’m a graduate student at Oxford, but when I’m not studying, I like reading poetry and running.”

“Why did you decide to become a debutante?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t want to be Kate Middleton, who was never a debutante in the first place. I think there is a rich tapestry of history and memories and emotions and thought involved in all female experiences. These are all valid experiences that should not be marked off as ‘frivolous’ due to a pretty dress. If anything, I think these experiences should open up opportunities for critical dialogue on femininity, coming-of-age, and tradition in the modern age.”

“That’s too long for television. Why don’t you say, ‘I became a debutante because I wanted to meet accomplished girls from all over the world and participate in charity fundraising.’”

“I became a debutante because I wanted to meet accomplished girls from all over the world and participate in charity fundraising.”

“Excellent. Thank you!”

The next few hours whirled by — a makeup retouch, an inexperienced hairstylist who burned my hair with a curling iron (“Why do you smell like smoke?” a fellow deb asked me), and picking out a crystal tiara, options strewn across the table like cheap New Year’s Eve party favors.

At 8 p.m., guests at £250 a head came to dinner inside the hollowed halls of the Royal Courts of Justice. The debs lined up, waiting to make our entrance. One by one, we walked across the great hall while an opera singer warbled from a balcony above us. We curtsied — in sync because we had practiced for two hours! — to a cake taller than me and to a real duke and duchess. No one smiled. The “deb of the year” was announced, and she got the honor of cutting the cake with a sword.

After the procession, we all changed into our own ball gowns for dinner and dancing, except for the girl who owned her own Vera Wang gown. She was the only one who actually paid thousands of dollars for a white wedding gown without any intent to get married in it. I wore a loose sweatshirt over my iridescent Missoni ball gown skirt, which I bought on for $2 during a lecture in college, but I kept my tiara on. I had a sneaking suspicion that this would be the only night I will wear a real tiara ever again.

The man sitting to my left added me on Facebook while we were still at the dinner table. My French friend, sitting to my right, snuck off for a cigarette after every course — I don’t smoke, but I thought it would be glamorous to puff a cigarette in a ball gown too. “My mother is a countess and not even she was a deb,” my friend told me while we stood outside. The 16-year-old debs had gathered in front of the microphone to sing along with the live band. I began to relax once I started pretending it was another overly elaborate bat mitzvah planned by parents on the Upper West Side — this was just like home!

Mirroring Cinderella’s mad dash at the stroke of midnight (although I didn’t meet my Prince Charming that night — the guests of the opposite sex were all 16 or 60), I changed back into my own crop top and miniskirt and hailed a taxi to take me home to Oxford.

A month afterward, I was reading the archives of a Victorian society publication called The Gentlewoman. On June 13, 1891, an anonymous debutante had published a gossip column:

Only presented in February, I was told there was little or no chance of being invited [to the State Ball at Buckingham Palace] this year; but my aunt’s position entitled her to go to at least one State Ball each year, and having presented me, I was made happy by the invitation arriving. So superior, too, did I feel when other girls were talking of some stupid party for Wednesday, and I could drop out in sweetest tones that we were going to the Palace.

In this column, the young debutante described her personal experience of attending one of the most exclusive social events of the season — and, more important to her, how she was superior to her peers by doing so. In first-person narrative, she described the details of the ball, from Princess Christian’s simple frock of white brocade to the smart red uniforms of the band. She wrote in a self-satisfied tone of voice, noting that she “knew” someone would send her a bouquet of flowers and that she was “proud” to be attending with a soldier with the “glorious” distinction of the Victoria Cross.

“Noël! You’re missing the afterparty,” my friend texted me while I stared out the window of the black cab. Oh, so this was where the age-appropriate men were. I rummaged around my bag for my book and felt something sharp and cold instead. In my haste, I had left Virginia Woolf at the ball and taken the tiara instead.