Debutante: a young woman, typically from a wealthy or aristocratic family, who is making her formal entrance into society.
It is an old fashioned tradition, dating from late 18th century England, and at its inception was a tool to marry off daughters. Even today, the young women are dressed in almost formal bridal attire, usually white but with no veil, and presented to a select segment of society in which an available and appropriate bachelor might espy the lovely young lass and take her off her father’s hands. That sounds mighty sexist. And in fact it is, or it was. I don’t know. But I think most young debutantes today might think of the affair more like a huge party that celebrates their passage into adulthood. (Do men do that?) In all truthfulness, I too was a debutante in 1969 or ’70. I grew up in the South in Knoxville, Tennessee, and my mother made me do it, and she made my two younger sisters do it as well. My mother was Jessie’s daughter after all.
Jessie had mixed feelings about becoming a ‘Deb’ thinking that it was too expensive, or silly and trivial. After going to all the debutante parties and balls for the previous few years, and seeing most of her close friends become debutantes, she decided to do it. On October 22, 1916 her announcement came out in the newspaper. The picture above was the photograph in the announcement. The caption under the photograph read Miss Jessie Latham. Miss Latham is one of the loveliest of the debutantes who will be formally introduced to society this season at the Chickasaw Guards’ ball on Thursday evening, Nov. 9. She is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. F.S. Latham and will be the recipient of many social affairs previous to the ball, the first of which will be given Wednesday, Nov. 1, by Mrs. L.Y. Kerr at her home on Overton Park Avenue. From her diaries I get the impression that Jessie loved being a debutante after all. She was a very social person and rarely tired of going out, so all the luncheons, card parties, dances, and the final ball were completely delightful to Jessie.At the debutante ball. Jessie is in the second row, third from right. Dr. Coppedge, Jessie’s date for the ball, is in front of her on the floor, second from right.
Just the girls, Jessie is seated on the first row, second from right.
On March 11, 1911, Jessie wrote in her diary, “Went to the Orpheum with Douglas. It was the best bill that’s been there this year — ‘Twas grand. Antoinette (sic) Kellerman the ‘perfect woman’ was there. She sure was a beaut. Did some classy diving too.” Jessie misspelled her name, probably because she had some very dear family friends named Antoinette. Annette Kellerman was named the “Perfect Woman” reportedly by a Harvard professor who compared the measurements of the Venus de Milo with those of 3000 women, and proclaimed her to be that perfect woman.
She was an amazing woman in many ways. Kellerman (1887-1975) made her name as a swimmer and diver in her home country of Australia. Her parents, both musicians and teachers, were having financial problems, so Annette and her father set off for London. She began to do swimming exhibitions, swimming several miles in the oily Thames, swimming along the English coast from town to town. She went to Europe and did the same, racing 17 men in the Seine and coming in third. In 1905 she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel. She tried and failed 3 times, reportedly saying that she had the endurance but not the strength.
Nevertheless, these attempts brought her great publicity, and she soon came to the States to perform in a giant glass tank in White City, Chicago (a huge amusement park) and the Hippodrome in New York. She performed underwater ballet, something totally new, and became a sensation. Her grace and skill in the water combined with her beauty and personal charisma, as well as the fantasy themes of her productions, eventually made her the highest paid vaudeville star in the U.S.
She also was a pioneer in her silent film career, becoming the first major film star to appear totally nude on screen in A Daughter of the Gods. In one of her films, she choreographed a scene with a large number of actors to perform with her underwater, thus creating the art/sport of synchronized swimming. In 1911 she starred in The Mermaid and became the first screen siren/mermaid with a mermaid costume that she actually swam in. Kellerman made quite a few movies after that with an aquatic theme. She became one of the most powerful women in the silent film industry in the control she exerted over almost every aspect of the films she was in, from script to location to lighting and costumes.
Kellerman also wrote several books on physical fitness and health, but she felt that the most important contribution she made to the world was her invention of the one-piece form-fitting swim suit for women. For hundreds of years women had effectively been banned from swimming because of the bulky and cumbersome attire they were expected to wear. Swimming is very difficult in woolen skirts and pantaloons. At the turn of the 20th century competitive swimming was just becoming popular in Australia, and it was not unusual for women swimmers there to wear the men’s swimming attire – a one-piece jumper with shorts to the mid-thigh and a tank top. This is what Kellerman wore for her swimming and diving exhibitions, and it was shocking to most of the rest of the world. In fact, on a U.S. beach she was arrested for public indecency for wearing such attire. To make her swimsuit more ‘respectable,’ she took a pair of black tights and sewed them to the bottom of the shorts, making the first unitard. This was her famous one-piece swimsuit. Pretty soon all women wanted a form fitting bathing suit. Seeing the demand, and ever an astute business woman, she designed a line of bathing suits with the close fitting short unitard underneath and a close fitting tank top that went to mid-thigh or the knee. These suits became known as Annette Kellermans.
Annette Kellerman was truly an amazing women. An athlete, actress, author, life-long vegetarian, inventor, business woman and visionary, she was an important part of the women’s revolution that was going on at the time – getting the right to vote and freedom from restrictive clothing. Through her career and life, she pushed all women forward toward greater personal responsibility and freedom of choice in all aspects of their lives. There has been much written about Annette Kellerman. For a good introduction to her life, check out the Australian official website page dedicated to Annette Kellerman.
On March 10, 1911, Jessie and her mother went shopping. Jessie got a tan spring hat, a tan silk pongee coat and a tan silk dress. Of course, I was curious as to what kinds of dresses and hats Jessie might be looking at, and it turns out that this is right at the beginning of a revolution in women’s fashion that is still in effect today. In freeing women from the very restrictive undergarments that had been worn during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, some fashion designers, and especially Paul Poiret (1879-1944), went in the opposite direction. “Requiring less restrictive undergarments and conforming more to the natural shape of the body, Poiret’s designs of 1908–11 are regarded as pivotal in the transition from the rigidly corseted silhouettes of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to styles providing greater freedom and comfort in dress that would characterize twentieth-century fashion.” This from the Metropolitan Museum of Art‘s online exposition on Paul Poiret’s work. Check out this link to view the Metropolitan Museum’s Paul Poiret Collection. Poiret, who was the most important French designer of the first two decades of the 20th century, made clothes that were loose and sometimes draped. Ironic, since he is the designer responsible for the brief fashion craze over hobble skirts. He designed harem pants for women. Unheard of! No doubt Jessie’s new clothes were not designer duds from Paris, but you can see from some of the following images that the empire waistlines were already part of the trend toward less restrictive dresses.