Have you ever wondered why every year members of the SMS junior and senior classes wear long, white dresses and stroll downtown at the historic Peabody Hotel? This December, 55 St. Mary’s girls will participate in the tradition of Junior Cotillion and be officially “married to society.” Sara Fraser explores the differing reasons people enjoy Junior Cotillion and how the event can mean different things to different people.
This December, 55 members of the St. Mary’s junior and senior classes will buy white dresses and report to The Peabody Hotel downtown to be married. But instead of attaching themselves to eligible young men, they’ll be publicly making their vows to society. Cotillion is a historic Memphis tradition in which Junior and Senior girls from St. Mary’s, Hutchison, and any other daughters or sisters of previous participants are officially presented to society. This year, I was initially excited and honored to be invited to attend Junior Cotillion, but soon my excitement turned into dubious curiosity in regard to cotillion’s origins, whether or not my participation in the event would define my character, and why I wanted to do it in the first place.
Because no one interprets the purpose of cotillion in exactly the same manner, many people have conflicting opinions about the practice.
Many people participate in cotillion as a fun excuse to get dressed up and have an elegant night with friends. However, for many, the charming frivolity of cotillion as a social event is met with the - often questionable - historical context of the tradition.
Cotillion is a historically exclusive tradition, reserved for southern society’s upper-class. And although the people in charge of the non-profit event, which will benefit the Memphis Food Bank this year, now have been public about their efforts to invite any Hutchison or St. Mary’s student who they think would be interested in participating, there is still some controversy about those who don’t get invited, specifically why they weren’t.
Joy Jackson (11) was invited to cotillion but did not accept the invitation. Joy says, “If I did accept and attend cotillion, the whole time I would just feel like the elephant in the room.” As an African-American, Joy says, “I was concerned about the lack of minority representation and decided not to participate in cotillion based on my feelings towards its exclusivity.”
Joy’s perspective confirmed some of my doubts and fears about cotillion: it isn’t an inclusive event.
The first cotillion information meeting with all of the girls and their parents was an entirely white event. I was forced to confront the obvious lack of diversity, and I strongly considered taking back my $450 and leaving. Bella Zafer (11) says, “I knew there probably wouldn't be a lot of diversity in the meeting, but being there and being the only one in the room who was not completely white, being half-Afghani, was kind of startling.” Bella adds, “seeing the obvious lack of diversity made me feel out of place and question why I was even doing it.”
While it was hard for me to ignore the exclusivity rooted in the history of cotillion, I eventually decided to participate. I decided that for me cotillion would not be about presenting myself to men or being racially exclusive; it would be a fun night where I could dress up with my friends and attend a formal dance. It’s not complicated or multidimensional. I’m not maintaining exclusive trends in society or falling into a tradition which propagates the separation of specific classes and races. I won’t subscribe to the negative connotations associated with the event.
The most important thing to consider when thinking about cotillion is that you can individualize the meaning of the event and have your own reasons for attending, but it is hard to ignore the exclusive history. I am doing cotillion in the hopes that I will have an interesting and new experience, and I don’t have to let my participation in the event define me or my principles. But, we’ll see whether or not I can separate the carefree desire to have fun and the exclusionary past from which Junior Cotillion cannot be dissociated when I walk down that aisle come December.
This article was revised on Oct. 25, 2017.