I wore them once. I still remember how they felt. They were long gloves – past my elbow. And they made me hot. The kind of hot you feel when it is June in the South and everything sticks to your body. The gloves were white and silk, tight on my skin. Looking back at pictures from that night, I can see the veins in my hand trying to breathe inside the silk. They were a nuisance. But I could not have taken them off for anything in the world.
I kept them on, loved them even, because my gloves made me feel like royalty. Everything about that night made me feel like royalty. It was my debutante ball, the night my father showed me off to the guests and we celebrated my entrance into society. I wore a long white ball gown and my hair and makeup were done earlier that day. All the women at the event were dressed up and all the men wore tuxedos. As I dressed, I realized that this was more than an introduction to society; it was an introduction into this social circle that I so badly wanted – needed – to be a part of. Because, you see, there is new money and there is old money and in Sanford old money matters.
I wore them once. When I remember them I think of how nervous I was on that day. The Sanford Cotillion Club Debutante Ball is a big deal in Sanford, North Carolina. We had rehearsals and teachers for this thing. And believe me – you did not want to be the one to mess up. If you tripped walking down the stairs you would be mortified; everyone is watching. If your escort dropped the sacred red ribbon while taking from your silk-covered hands to attach it to the maypole all hell would break loose. It happened once and I can still hear the little old ladies in the back of the room gasping with disapproval as the ribbon fell into disgrace. Lord help them; they could have had a heart attack on the spot. You see, being a debutante is not just about being fancy or looking pretty. It is about respecting the tradition that those before you put into place. Do I think that dancing around the maypole to “Dixie” is a little bit silly in the 21st century? Sure. Would I ever let the Cotillion Club members know that? Heavens, no!
You respect the tradition because it takes a lot of work to be accepted into this group. My mother had to network with club members to get me an invitation to be a debutante. She called other moms and asked if there was anyone she needed to talk to or any parties she needed to host. They all assured her that I would be fine. We were well-known. My parents had “done a lot for the community.” But still, the process is a bit nerve-wracking. Here is how it works: daughters of club members (a club into which you must receive an invitation to join) are automatically invited to participate in the debutante season. After that, club members nominate chosen girls from the community to be invited, but there cannot be more than fifteen. It is sort of like a petition. A certain number of women have to sign off on a girl and once enough signatures are collected, the club members talk about each one. Someone stands up and says something along the lines of, “Suzie May would reflect well on the Cotillion Club as a debutante because…” even though everyone already knows who will be asked and who will not. Everybody knows because personal business is not private in my small town. Your past is not a secret and your past matters. And despite this public knowledge there is still a vote by secret ballot.
I wore them once. Just talking about the process makes me recall the danger they offer. I lost friends over those gloves. Not everyone makes the cut. I remember receiving my invitation in the mail and not being allowed to call my friends to see if we would be enjoying this wonderful experience together. “Not everyone is asked. You wouldn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” my mother cautioned. I got a phone call a few days later from a mother of a friend wondering if I had received the all-important letter. When I said it had arrived in the mail over a week ago I could hear the drop of her heart. Her daughter – my close friend – was not invited. She was devastated.
You might think that who is and is not invited is not a big deal. But it is. Sanford is a little industrial town in the Sandhills of North Carolina where scandal is never far off. That was the word on the street all throughout the debutante season. “Did you hear Sally isn’t a debutante?” “Her momma said she would never throw a party for the cotillion club again!” My friendships suffered because there was a growing divide between those who were in and those who were not. I invited my friend to one of our debutante parties; I wanted her to feel included – and she didn’t come. It seems trivial, but we were never the same after that. And though we don’t say it, we both know why.
The gloves have rules. Not just the etiquette kinds of rules, but unspoken social rules too. Rules you can know but not ever say. We all know why some girls are not debutantes but we don’t talk about it, at least not outside of the comfort of our homes – and definitely not to people who wouldn’t understand. Because it isn’t just about the girl or the things that she did or didn’t do. It is about her family and their standing in our small little town. Who did her momma offend? What was that girl’s scandal in high school? Those things matter more than you could imagine and it is an embarrassment to the family to bring them up.
I wore them once but I know some people wish they could wear them every day. They cover up a lot of things. The gloves are like a second skin that you cannot really take off even if you try. After you put them on they are forever a part of who you are. And let me tell you, they work wonders. I am thinking of families who live in beautiful houses, with perfectly manicured lawns, and the staple chocolate Labrador in the front yard. They look perfect; just like the gloves. But behind those doors there are problems. Probably more intense problems than most families entertain. I could probably tell you things you wouldn’t believe. But I can’t. I won’t. I know better. It matters, sure. But it doesn’t change much. Dad in rehab; brother paroled; flawed lives engloved; appearances maintained. Your daughter will still be invited to be a debutante because you were a debutante. Those are the rules.
And you should go to church every Sunday – in your best Sunday dress, of course – to thank God for those gloves. Thank Him for that night when you danced with your daddy to “The Way You Look Tonight” and thank Him for how proud of you he felt, how perfect everything seemed and was. And thank Him for all the people you met on that journey and be thankful for all the resources and friendships you have gained because of your position as a debutante. And thank Him for giving you the strength to wear those perfect gloves and for all the responsibilities you have the privilege of having because of them. Thank Him that you are a Southern woman.
I wore them once. My gloves now sit in my Mema’s attic; they might not ever come down. But that doesn’t matter. I will never forget all of the things that they taught me. The gloves are still a part of who I am. The gloves are the reason that I know a lot of what I do, the reason that I can fit in. I wrote over 150 thank you notes for gifts and parties, and I should have the niceties of that down to perfection. My posture should be an engrained position in my memory since my mother lectured me about it before I went to every luncheon. They taught me how to handle awkward situations and how to make hard decisions about what I wanted and what was best for me. Wearing those gloves resulted in a yearning to present myself as a lady, to put effort into how I looked and how I acted. They reminded me to appreciate being Southern and they taught me what that was all about.
And I only wore them once.