Ava Phillippe, the 18-year-old lookalike daughter of Oscar-winning actress Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillippe, is set to follow in the footsteps of thousands of privileged women before her by making her societal ‘debut’ later this month at the Bal des Debutantes in Paris. She will be escorted by the 19-year-old Maharaja Padmanabh Singh of Jaipur, a British-educated polo player and member of the ruling family of Jaipur in Rajasthan.
In the absence of a royal family or aristocratic houses, America has celebrity and political dynasties, with the younger branches of the family tree often benefitting nepotistically from their famous forebears. So, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this year’s roll-call of debs reads more like a who’s who of Hollywood, rather than The Peerage. Others joining Ava at this year’s festivities include Slyvestor Stallone’s daughter Sophie Rose, Stella Tennant’s daughter Cecily Lasnet, Steve Harvey’s stepdaughter Lori Harvey, filmmaker Louis Malle’s granddaughter Jeanne Malle and Warner Music Group executive Len Blavatnik’s daughter Laila Blavatnik. In the past attendees have included Kyra Lemoyne Kennedy, granddaughter of Bobby Kennedy, Lady Amelia Windsor and Romy David, the daughter of comedian Larry David.
Historically, the debutante ball was an event that saw the most eligible aristocratic women introduced to society when they have ‘come of age’, making their ‘debut’ on the arm of an equally eligible bachelor. In the past, it was a sign that a woman was ready to be married, letting other suitable families know that she was on the market by wearing a bridal white dress. In the UK, the frankly outdated practice was abolished in 1958 by Queen Elizabeth II, although some smaller deb balls do take place still today. With no reason to advertise a young woman’s availability in the 21st century, the Bal des Debutantes instead focuses on introducing debutantes to high fashion and helps raise money for charitable causes through its donations.
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America’s fascination with the wealth and traditions of the ‘Old World’ – namely Europe – has been well-documented since the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, whose protagonists often travelled to Europe to meet aristocratic husbands or do a ‘Grand Tour’ to refine themselves in high society. Deb balls were one of the traditions transplanted across the Atlantic and still take place today, with the most expensive being the International Debutante Ball in New York, which regularly attracts foreign royalty and the daughters of dignitaries and ambassadors. In popular culture cotillions (as they’re often called) were the focal point of standout episodes of hit TV shows The OC and Gossip Girl, bringing the tradition to a whole new generation.
So, why the continued obsession? Well, old-fashioned ideas about marriage aside, it’s a great excuse for a lavish, OTT party, with the Bal des Debutantes named by Forbes as one of the world’s hottest 10 parties in 2005. Plus, who doesn’t like getting dressed up in haute couture aged 18? Now that the cotillion is less about finding a husband and more about celebrating becoming an adult, it’s less problematic, too, and is a great opportunity to mingle with people you might not otherwise meet – and hey, if you do end up marrying a Maharaja afterwards, that’s kinda cool, too.