If an apocryphal event were to befall my hometown of Staunton, Va., and archaeologists uncovered the ruins centuries later, they might conclude legions of the area’s families belonged to a cult. As they dug through the rubble, archaeologists would find identical silver thimbles, engraved with the owner’s initials in a script font, nestled in jewelry boxes throughout the city. I can picture mine now — from the honeycomb crown to the S-scroll band beneath my initials — pillowed in cotton inside a miniature white cardboard box marked “H.L. Lang & Co.”
Every thimble owner spent four holiday seasons earning the now-obsolete piece of jewelry. In Staunton, an engraved silver thimble marks a Spinster: not a spinster who fusses over five cats, but a Spinster who, once a year, sends dozens of eggshell-white invitations to friends and family requesting the honor of their presence at a debutante ball Dec. 27.
While ladies of the Spinsters’ Club no longer carry dance cards and the music has changed significantly since the organization’s inception in the 1930s, the annual ball happens like clockwork every year.
Each May, a number of recent high-school graduates will receive invitations to the society. Some girls decline the chance to don elbow-length gloves and white slippers, but many who accept have been hoping for the invitation for years. The girls who accept officially become “new girls,” and the day after Thanksgiving, they’ll join the “old girls” — those in their remaining three years of college — to set the guest list. The day after Christmas, all Spinsters will spend the morning stringing garlands, magnolia leaves and red velvet bows through the cavernous interior of the former Staunton Military Academy’s Neo-Classical West Barracks.
On the night of the 27th, the “old girls” will walk through an arbor, one by one, wearing whatever color dress they like with their escort. Then, the presentation of “new girls” begins. Cloaked from fingertip to toenail in white and cradling a bundle of red roses, the first “new girl” will step under the arbor. Her father will join her on her right, and her escort will join her on her left. The tuxedo-ballgown sandwich will walk — theoretically in unison — around the half-circle of “old girls” waiting for them. When the last “new girl” completes her loop, the “new girls” will step forward together and curtsy before beginning the first dance of the night with their fathers.
If executed properly, the affair appears organized, but behind the satin and lipstick is a fraught and frenzied process.
Finding a dress that meets specifications can take weeks. Even then, girls pray their seamstresses can work miracles. Throughout my four years, my motto remained: if you’re going to be a debutante, go with the biggest possible crinoline or go home. I had more trouble walking in my dresses than I did finding them, and I could have worn a hole through my parents’ staircase learning how to move my legs under innumerable flounces of tulle and taffeta.
If sartorial concerns haven’t given us pre-mature wrinkles, lining up an escort for the evening will. An escort should appear on time and endeavor to curb the inner fraternity boy that surfaces in all 20-something males after the first few rounds of drinks. An ideal escort should be able to entertain himself while you’re making your social rounds, mix a few drinks and stand for Instagram-worthy photographs. Bonus if he can swing dance or sneak you a shot while your parents aren’t looking.
Mothers have been known to arrange escorts for their daughters through Garden Club friends and distant relatives. Girls frantically call boys to whom they haven’t spoken since high school or persuade college friends to visit them over Christmas break and pack their tuxedos. I grew up as the wallflower of Staunton, Va., so if going to extremes to find a Spinsters escort were an Olympic sport, I’d be a gold medalist. My first year, I created a pro and con list for every boy who could potentially escort me. My fourth year, I promised a quart of coveted Brannock eggnog to a veteran Spinsters escort who thought he’d since retired from the tradition. Every year, much to my mother’s chagrin, I threatened to slap a bow tie on my dog, Beau, and show up with him.
No matter who stood on my left as I walked through the arbor or how many times I stepped on the hem of my dress throughout the evening, the prospect of Spinsters excited me infinitely more than the prospect of Christmas morning every holiday season. I’d gladly trade my silver thimble for one more year as an active Spinster, even the unavoidable ritual of popping a few aspirin the morning after the ball before taking down greenery and voting on the next class of Spinsters.
Contact Phoebe Marie Brannock at firstname.lastname@example.org