During the fifties, cotillion dresses were worn to a formal dance given to display a young lady’s social graces in hopes of meeting potential suitors. While lacking the formality and grand entrances seen during the Victorian Era, a fifties debutante ball was often preceded by months of charm or finishing schools.
The ladies introduction to society had to be flawless.
Considered a rite of passage a cotillion (kuh til’ yun) or debutante ball was as well prepared for as most weddings with the perfect gown and accoutrements the center of attention. Cotillion is derived from the word cotillion or petticoat.
Originating in France, the dance is performed by four couples in a square formation with a flash of petticoats shown when the girl is twirled around the ballroom floor. A cotillion would not have been a dance of choice during the fifties though. Lessons were taken prior to a cotillion or debutante ball with waltz, fox trot, and cha cha popular dances.
Flashes of petticoats were most assuredly seen during the fifties as netting and crinolines were the rage. A crinoline is a slip or petticoat made of stiff fabric or hoops that may have been worn under that special dress to make the skirt seem fuller and bell out. Most fifties cotillion dresses featured tiers of ruffles in their skirts.
A cotillion, prom, or debutante dress was often a months long commitment to selecting the perfect color and fabric as well as the ideal adornments. While the 1950s saw the emergence of glamorous gowns in high end departments stores, many debutantes commissioned fashion designers to construct a one of kind creation.
Hattie Carnegie was an Austrian born designer who made her mark in the United States. Although she did not design party dresses exclusively, many of her gowns were surely chosen as debutante gowns. Many strapless gowns featured a boned bodice construction to avoid having to wear a brassiere. Delicate embroidery, sequins, and beading was a popular bodice adornment as well.
Quite popular during the fifties, cotillions and debutante balls began to lose favor during the sixties. They have since re-emerged as charity events rather than an upper class introduction to society.
Modern day cotillions are given to learn and practice etiquette and social graces with the selection of the consummate gown for the event just as important today as it was in Victorian times or during the fifties. Vintage stores and consignment shops are popular venues for those picture perfect cotillion dresses.