As I crouched in the orchestra pit, I felt the beginnings of panic. My worst fear was that my mermaid tail was either going to a) fall off or b) fail to fit up the rickety, unforgiving stairs to the stage. No, it was not Halloween, and no, I was not at New York City’s annual Mermaid Parade. The cause of my stage fright? The 77th Annual Rose Festival in Tyler, a town deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas. A weekend-long affair full of queen’s coronations, parades and big hair, I was invited to attend as a Duchess. (My father is not a duke.) Call it a coming-out, call it a pageant—but however you phrase it, it’s unlike any kind of “deb” ball anywhere else.
For you Yankees who may not be familiar with the concept (bless your hearts), a debutante is the formal debut into society of young women of a certain “marriageable age.” While the whole marriage part may have fallen to the wayside (we were sophomores in college, after all), the other Southern traditions still apply—with a few new ones thrown in for added drama. In Tyler’s version, local girls are titled Ladies-in-Waiting and out-of-town invitees are Duchesses—and yes, there is a Queen. (Often, you can chart the ascent of a future Queen from birth, based solely on which family has done the most “entertaining” in the 20 years leading up to her debut—all very hush-hush, of course.) Now, throw in a few eligible men as escorts (most likely fraternity members at either the University of Texas or Alabama), the queen’s train bearers and a “Duchess of the Texas Rose Festival,” and, well, you’ve got a veritable gaggle of non-royal college kids with fancy titles.
The theme of the Rose Festival changes every year, ranging from the “Four Seasons” to “Best of Broadway” to “All Things Texas.” My year, the participants represented—in costume, of course—an aspect of Tyler’s history, with ensembles by famous Dallas designer Winn Morton, a Tyler household name. One fellow Duchess’ attire depicted Casablanca—Sam, the piano player in the film, hails from Tyler. And while I have yet to spot any mermaids in Lake Tyler, my gown was called “The Lady of the Lake.” These are not debutante gowns in the traditional sense—white ball gowns paired with white kid leather gloves (those come later); these gowns are masterpieces, carefully crafted, hand-beaded and stitched to transform each girl into what they represent.
Mothers fight for the best costume maker, as there are a limited number who can breathe life into Morton’s legendary sketches. And once your said maker is settled on (in my case, Dallas native John Ahrens), you’re in for countless fittings as they literally create their masterpiece around you. (Ahrens made me promise that after my first fitting I would neither gain nor drop too many pounds in the six months it would take him to cut, bead, and appliqué my gown. I, in turn, resolved to cut back on the carbs.)
Debutantes have long played a role in the larger fashion industry, sometimes acting as a springboard for some of the design world’s finest. In fact, Oscar de la Renta’s own career was launched at the tender age of 24 thanks to a debutante ball, when he created a gown that landed on the cover of LIFE in 1956. The white tulle double-tiered bubble dress was worn by Beatrice Lodge, daughter of the then-U.S. Ambassador to Spain, for her coming out party at the American embassy in Madrid. And this year’s Met Gala honoree, couturier Charles James, dressed debutantes, with Houston socialite Christophe de Menil wearing an all-white version of his iconic “Four Leaf Clover” gown to her debut.
Tyler’s Rose Festival runs as a very well-oiled machine, thanks to the Rose Festival Association, made up of board members who are appointed by the President of the Order of the Rose (i.e. the head honcho of the whole shindig). There is an air of mystery to the how and why of the Order of the Rose itself, an almost fraternity-like group of men (yes, men!) charged with putting a pageant together. One does not become a member. Instead, the honor is passed down through families from generation to generation. These members then appoint countless volunteers to serve as the backbone of the festival, assisting the girls as they step into their voluminous gowns, organizing the parade, and most importantly, controlling the escorts. (The male attendees of the Rose Festival do a lot of sitting around in tuxes, playing video games and surreptitiously sipping from monogrammed flasks.)
Back underneath that stage, I had little spare time to ponder the machinations of local East Texas politics. All I could wonder was why I had agreed to this fancy entrance in the first place. Most girls just enter from stage left or right, but the show’s choreographer had decided I would enter from underneath the stage, as if rising from a lake (Rose Festival dramatics at their finest). The cellist began to play—my cue to make the climb. I took a shaky breath and began to climb the stairs, albeit very slowly. Between the mermaid tail and a hoop skirt contraption, I was suddenly six feet taller and four feet wider. To be fair, I could have gone with one of the newer, sleeker silhouettes favored by this generation’s debs, but I insisted on the hoop and petticoat my mother and sister had worn. I guess you could say I’m a “go big or go home” type of girl.
After making it to the top (with a lot of assistance from my escort, who all but dragged me up), I faced the crowd. Faces were dark in the blinding glare of the lights, but I could still see that the 2,000-seat theater was packed. My stomach plummeted to my knees. Struggling to remember how to walk, I set off around the stage in what I hoped was a graceful circle, but I’m pretty sure looked less Karlie Kloss and a tad more Bambi’s-first-steps. My name was announced, I executed my deepest curtsy on my mark and was off the stage before I remembered how to breathe again.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The Rose Festival is a weekend-long affair, remember? After another “performance” in my mermaid gown on Friday and an almost unbearably warm parade through town on Saturday (even in October, 20 pounds of crystals sewn onto taffeta makes for a pretty sweaty getup), there was still the Queen’s Coronation Ball hosted by the Order of the Rose to contend with. A slightly more intimate affair, there were still nearly 500 people watching as I made my entrance, this time in a more manageable jewel-toned blue gown and kid leather gloves, carrying a white bouquet. With that last curtsy, my duties were finished, and I headed straight for the bar.
The Rose Festival is best taken with a grain of salt and a hefty glass of wine. It’s a long weekend of smiling, small talk, after-parties, after-after-parties and little or no sleep. None of us were naive enough to think that this moment of being “presented” would be the most important one of our young lives. But there is something to be said for participating in a Texas tradition, especially one so steeped in rich historical heritage. Plus, old money and an open bar is a combination that guarantees you’ll definitely have a story or two to tell come Sunday morning.