Last week, the internet lit up when a tweet about Ellie Kemper, alum of The Office, Bridesmaids, and best known as Kimmy Schmidt, told everyone about the time she was crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the Veiled Prophet Ball, held by the Veiled Prophet Organization, in St. Louis, Missouri, her hometown. Kemper was 19 at the time, a freshman at Princeton, and from, apparently, one of St. Louis’s old money families.
Reddit was quick to let everyone know that THEY knew about this all along, but that’s the thing with Reddit. They’re a bad gossip because they don’t SHARE. They just sit on their porch, knowing things, and not telling. Anyway, Reddit was aware of Ellie Kemper Kimmy Schmidt’s background as a debutante and “queen” of a highly suspect historical social organization in Missouri, and now we all know about it, too. And pretty much immediately, everyone started fighting about what it all means. Cotillions and debutante balls got dragged into it, people brought up Bridgerton a bunch of times, #KKKPrincess trended for a while, and there were op-eds on both sides of the “this is totally fine and normal” and “this it totally NOT fine and normal” divide. I’ve been stewing on this for over a week, on my own past with Southern manners and traditions of “graciousness”, and with the evolution of cotillions and deb balls in the twenty-first century, and how it all ties into what one might call “the allure of Antebellum”.
On Monday, Kemper issued an apology on Instagram, acknowledging that 19 was plenty old enough to know better, that she had done—or maybe even begun—the work of educating herself and questioning institutions like the Veiled Prophet. She also acknowledged the natural, knee-jerk reaction to defend herself against internet criticism, but she did not because she recognized a lot of the criticism was coming from “forces” that she has “spent [her] life supporting and agreeing with”. For once, a celebrity acknowledges that not all online criticism is a bad faith attack, that a lot of is just regular people using something a celebrity did as a jumping off point to discuss larger issues in the world. There was a whole discussion about whether or not 19 is old enough to know when you’re participating in a racist, classist exhibition (it is), but the much bigger conversation was not really about Kemper, personally, it was about the Veiled Prophet and other organizations like it, where they came from and what they represent. Even here, I’m not super interested in talking about Kemper. She’s the least interesting part of this. She said her peace, she can bow out of this now. But the Veiled Prophet, cotillions, plantation weddings, all that sh-t remains. THAT stuff is complicated.
Cotillions and debutante balls have waxed and waned in popularity over the years, but the last 20 years have seen a fairly steady reclaiming of the tradition in the US, particularly in the South, where many cotillions are tied up in long-standing social organizations like the Veiled Prophet, or the many clubs of cities like Dallas, which has the Dallas Cotillion Club and the Idlewild Club, which is dedicated to Black debs, Fort Worth has the Steeplechase Ball, and Tyler has the Texas Rose Festival and its Rose Queen. New Orleans has its own unique landscape with multiple cotillions including the Mid-Winter Cotillion, Le Debut des Jeunes Filles de la Nouvelle Orleans, and, ironically, the Bachelors’ Club. They also have their world-famous Mardi Gras krewes, and the oldest krewes, like Mistick of Comus, are often rooted in the same Confederate soil as organizations like the Veiled Prophet. A lot of people were comparing the Veiled Prophet to the Mistick Krewe of Comus as if they weren’t both founded in the same creepy, Confederate bullsh-t. The Veiled Prophet was literally founded by a former Confederate officer who lived in New Orleans before relocating to St. Louis.
There are cotillions and deb balls over the country—and the world: Le Bal des Debutantes, aka the Crillon Ball, is enjoying renewed popularity thanks to an infusion of celebrity daughters such as Lily Collins, Sophia Stallone, Lauren Bush Lauren, and Tallulah and Scout Willis—and many of them are, more or less, harmless. It can be argued the entire practice is wildly anachronistic and inherently unadaptable to contemporary life (a point well made by Borat) but a lot of modern cotillions are backed by organizations that demand volunteerism and emphasize professional mentorship, though at the end of the day, all of this started with the “right” people making the “right” connections through society marriages. Thus, the connection to Bridgerton and Daphne’s presentation scene before the queen. Once upon a time, aristocratic ladies were presented to society and became part of the “Marriage Mart”, a system designed to keep wealth in wealthy hands and make it almost impossible for anyone new to crack the top tier of society. The system worked so well that even today, when most aristocrats are more castle than cash, estimates run that about half of England is “owned” by less than 1% of the population.
So, yes, the whole thing is completely f-cked up. But a cousin in the cotillion business would like me to state, on the record, that not everyone is part of those old-guard social clubs, and not every cotillion has Confederate roots like the Veiled Prophet. You can find a lot of cotillions held by dance studios or local youth clubs that treat it as, basically, a way to teach etiquette classes to teens, capped off by a dance recital where everyone does the Texas curtsy. Some people even conflate cotillions with fancy sweet sixteen parties, like a white quinceañera (which is a whole other door in the Hall of Appropriation). But no matter how the concept of cotillion is remade, I don’t think you can ever shake the “Marriage Mart” connections, and in the US, I don’t think you can ever completely divorce it from the romanticization of the antebellum South and Lost Causism. It all boils down to the same poisoned well in the antebellum South, and the ongoing romanticization of that era. The gracious houses, fancy hooped dresses, and Clark Gable have convinced everyone that era is worth romanticizing. It LOOKED so pretty, how could it be ENTIRELY bad?
Sure, some of those old houses are incredibly beautiful—some are tacky as sh-t—but all that graciousness was built on the most profane human suffering. This is why I appreciate works like The Underground Railroad and 12 Years A Slave, which explicitly and graphically tie that romanticized setting to acts of dehumanizing brutality. You CANNOT separate it, and the fact that organizations like the Veiled Prophet and its creepy cotillion ball continue to this day is proof that people are STILL romanticizing this sh-t and not willing to acknowledge they’re drinking from a poisoned well. Some people do the work, like Blake Lively who went from penning odes to the “allure of Antebellum” and having a plantation wedding to acknowledging her own privilege and how it blinded her and led her to romanticize a place and a time wholly unworthy of rose-colored glasses. But a lot of people are still unwilling to do this work, to even admit there is work that needs to be done. They want to have their creepy weird parties with their creepy weird rituals and not think about what systems and inequalities they’re propping up.
Yâ€™all really donâ€™t wanna do this with me.Iâ€™m from the Lou for real. Iâ€™m not a transplant. The Veiled Prophet Society is a direct derivative of the Missouri Ku Klux Klan. FBI even once believed they were involved in the MLK assassination. Play with ya Mama. I know the history.— Tef Poe the ðŸ (@TefPoe) June 1, 2021
Maybe there’s a way forward for cotillions entirely divorced of suspect, white supremacist roots. If there is, my cousin with her etiquette classes and dance recital—notably, not the same thing as being presented in a formal social club—might be on the right path. But dismissing a group like the Veiled Prophet out of hand as unimportant or somehow harmless is not doing the work. It IS NOT harmless. It, and many clubs like it across the country, was founded explicitly to build business and social relationships that would, just as the court presentations of Europe, keep wealth in wealthy hands, and consolidate power within a small, self-selected social base. And because the dresses are pretty and those old houses are aspirational, plantation weddings remain popular, despite being deplatformed by sites like Pinterest and wedding planning hub The Knot, and cotillion culture continues its anachronistic popularity.
We long for a more gracious past than ever existed. Cotillions, plantation weddings, the popularity of historical romantic fiction—which almost never addresses realities like infant/maternal mortality, disease, or extreme wealth inequality—all of these things glamorize a past we still are not reckoning with honestly. I’m fully guilty of this, I love Bridgerton and Regency romances that are all ballroom dramatics, witty heroines, and dashing heroes, but those things make little mention of the realities of the time. Historical fiction is about enjoying the aesthetic of a bygone era in media that is explicitly about fantasy, and stories like Bridgerton choose to deliberately heighten that element to further draw the difference between what actually was and what is fun to imagine. But we still have to think about how these representations feed popular narratives of the past, which elements increase or reduce harm, and if there is even an honest way to fantasize about the past that isn’t romanticizing some godawful aspect of humanity.
And now we are attempting to apply the same kind of cinematic polish to cotillion culture, focusing on the aesthetics and not the history, which is, in turn, the same justification for plantation weddings. “But it’s so pretty” is not a moral argument, though, and if there is a way forward for cotillions—plantation weddings are beyond the pale and should cease entirely—it will only come through reconciliation. What that reconciliation looks like, I haven’t figured out, but acknowledging the f-cked up roots of a group like the Veiled Prophet is a place to start. Acknowledging that these old-guard social clubs are not just about fancy parties and deb balls but were and are about consolidating power for an elite class is a place to start. We can’t have all these conversations about social justice and racial equity and ignore the honking big dress in the room.