Turning 18 and Loving It: Understanding the Symbols of Debut Celebrations

Julia MontesOriginally, a debut was intended to introduce a young woman into society as a marriage prospect. This event was orchestrated as a formal banquet to attract bachelors from prominent and rich families. In the modern day, many still celebrate this event. As a girl nears 18, her family begins to plan the momentous occasion months in advance by selecting the ideal venue, debut catering package, designer, and events planners.

However, the difference between then and now is that women have more options open to them than just marriage—continued education and a professional career among them. Thus, on her special day, it’s important that a debutante is reminded that she is so much more than what the world may be telling her to be. The typical debut programs are more than just entertainment, pomp, and blare—they are meant to teach, encourage, and inspire.

The Cotillion

One of the most prominent parts of a girl’s debut is the cotillion, which often involves 9 pairs of dancers performing either a formal waltz or dance number. This part of the program can take place either at the beginning or at the end of the event. The members of the “cotillion court” must choreograph and practice a dance months prior the event. Following the dance, members of the cotillion court may then serve as the debutante’s escorts, thus representing those who will help guide the debutante in her life journey.

A debutante does not just sneak into the venue or walk about unseen. She must “come out” on her own with a grand entrance and a killer dress to boot. The debutante is often escorted to a seat of honor by members of the cotillion court to symbolize her entrance into breaking out into as a grown woman.


The 18 Roses

For a lot of girls, the 18 roses is a highlight of the debut program. It represents a girl’s readiness in the area of romance, as was the original purpose of the debut. The first rose is usually given by the debutante’s father to symbolize something that is both beautiful and “thorny”. He is then followed by the other male members of the family, as the protectors of the girl. The remaining men in the 18 Roses lineup are friends of the debutante, and the person selected as either the second-to-the-last rose or the last rose is the girl’s special someone.


The 18 Candles

After the 18 Roses, the 18 Candles program transitions from the romance aspect to the girl as an independent member of society. It involves the women who are important to the debutante—as advisors, teachers, and trusted peers. These women give speeches and advice, and state their well-wishes for the debutante. They then each light a candle that symbolizes light—light that will guide the girl on her life journey. Once all 18 candles have been lit, they are placed on the debutante’s birthday cake and blown out.

The 18 Treasure

As the debutante celebrates the beginning of womanhood, she will need tools that either help her in the future, encourage her in the present, or give her something fond to look back on. In the 18 Treasures program, friends and family members are tasked to give the debutante special gifts or “tokens”, and explain how they will become inspirations for her. These “treasures” represent the friendship between the giver and the debutante, because they indicate how well they know each other.

A debut is an event that is once-in-a-lifetime for many girls. It’s more than just an extravagant birthday party—it’s a celebration of life, and of what’s to come.


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