Debutante Dress

AKA: Deb Dress, Cotillion Dress

How to say it:  debyoo-tahnt  dress

Traditional Features: 

Debutante Dress


  • traditionally white, ivory or a very pale pastel colour
  • full length
  • formal
  • worn with elbow length white gloves
  • traditionally accessorised with pearls
  • styling usually mirrors the current trends, often with a nod towards modesty

21st Century Debutante Dresses

Rules on what a Debutante is expected to wear varies depending on the organisers of the ball, but basically as long as it is a formal, white (ish) dress, the lady on debut is good to go. Luckily, the abundance of wedding dresses on the market and the popularity of white as a fashion colour means the modern debutante should be able to find a dress that meets all the requirements and looks a little different to the other girls she is debuting with. And don’t forget the gloves.

Alexander McQueen Lanvin

Alexander McQueen, Lanvin

Marchesa Reem Acra

Marchesa, Reem Acra


…of the style: The Debutante Dress is a long, formal white dress that is worn by a young woman when she debuts in society; usually at a debutante ball, cotillion or coming out party.

The idea of a woman having a society debut has French origins, but the term ‘debutantes’ took on the meaning as we know it today when Queen Charlotte began the practice of presenting aristocratic young women to court in the late 1700s/early 1800s.

It was a great honour to be presented at court, opening social doors and allowing young women of marriageable age to circulate with the ‘correct people’. However, a young woman could not just decide she would debut, she had to be sponsored by a woman who had already been presented to court (a mother or older friend); this woman would make an application on behalf of the hopeful debutante and vouch for her suitability for court (i.e. her family had enough money and or status). Following their presentation to court, the young debutantes would then attend the social season in London, circulating with rich, single men in hopes of snaring an appropriate husband.

From its inception, there were strict rules pertaining to what the debutantes must wear when they appeared at court. During Queen Charlotte’s time, debutantes wore a hoop skirt under a fashionable white evening gown, (although ivory and eggshell were also allowed) along with a veil and a single ostrich feather worn on the head. Debutantes of King George IV‘s era did not wear a hoop skirt and their debutante gown was usually inspired by the evening wear fashions of the time.

In the Victorian era, the gowns were short sleeves and had to have a low neckline. Queen Victoria didn’t like small feathers, so large feathers adorned the debutantes head, and in Edward VII‘s court, the required headdress was a three feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume, worn slightly to the left side of the head.

Gloves and pearls were also usually a part of the dress code.

The presentation of debutantes to court was abolished by Queen Elizabeth in 1958, but the principle of the event had already begun to spread and the tradition of ‘debuting’ continued on a lesser scale despite the lack of Royal Patronage.

In the 21st century, the Debutante Ball has less to do with elite, young girls finding a husband and more to do with promoting a young woman’s academic and community based achievements and raising money. Many debutante events still happen (particularly in the USA) but they are often organised by social clubs or charitable organisations as a means of raising money. The young women who participate in these events must still be approved by a committee (at many events, the debutantes must be invited to attend) and adhere to strict dress codes (some Balls have a Registrar of Dresses who has to approve every gown before it is worn, often months in advance of the event). However, attending a  Debutante Ball is no longer restricted to the upper-eschalons of society (although some most certainly still are – it can cost upwards of $14,000 to ‘come out’ at some of the major Balls in Paris or New York) and many young women all over the world still enjoy the experience despite the often unpleasant press coverage these events often recieve.

As for modern Debutante fashion, the rules vary depending on who is organising the event, but most of the dress traditions still apply – the dress should be full-length and formal, in white or a very light pastel. White gloves should be worn, and pearls are a nice touch.

…of the name:  The word debutante comes from the French word débutante meaning “female beginner”.

Random Facts

  • Married women were also presented to the Royal Court back in the day, but instead of wearing a veil and feathers, they were required to wear a tiara.
  • If a debutante was in mourning at the time of her debut in Court, she was permitted to wear black, but the style rules still applied.
  • Despite Court presentations occurring in the Winter month of March debutantes were not allowed to wear cloaks, wraps or shawls as part of their ensemble. They had to be left in their carriages and NOT worn into court.

For more info on Debutante Balls and Debutante Dresses try Wikipedia, Fashion History, The Telegraph or Rookie Magazine

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