Two days before the Jan. 4 season premiere of “Downton Abbey,” local fans flocked to the Altria Theater for a preview of a series that romanticizes long-lost customs.
But for Sarah Matheson, 23, who works for a local nonprofit, those manners aren’t a thing of the past. Last month she was at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria, casual in black slacks and flats and enduring a four-hour practice for one of the most colorful social events of New York’s holiday season, the International Debutante Ball.
The “Downton Abbey” plot includes an American who marries a British aristocrat, whose daughter is presented at court. But such debutante balls aren’t a thing of the past — and this is one of the grandest and most anticipated of them all.
“I thought I knew how to curtsy, but no,” Matheson says. “I practiced and practiced. And I evidently wasn’t holding my escort’s hand high enough. It was the best-organized and precise event.”
This ball was established in 1954 after World War II so that American girls wouldn’t have to cross the pond to be formally presented to society. It benefits the Soldiers’, Sailors’, Marines’, Coast Guard and Airmen’s Club.
On the evening of Dec. 29, in a white gown with billowing skirt, on the arm of escort Colin Huffines, whose father is a state senator from Texas, and trailed by a uniformed standard bearer with the Virginia flag, Matheson crossed the highly polished floor and curtsied to the elegant assemblage.
The Gloucester County native had made her debut in Washington in November 2012, where her three aunts and other kinfolk had made their debuts. Her grandfather was a prominent contractor there, with projects including work at the White House and Lincoln Memorial. Last March, Matheson received what she calls a “mysterious letter” inviting her to the international fete. She accepted.
She selected a gown, and then chose an escort from a vetted lineup of young men at a November bachelors’ reception in Manhattan.
On the big night, her cheering section included her parents, Ruth and Malcolm Matheson, and eight friends. Among the last of some 50 debutantes to be presented — including princesses and an archduchess — the orchestra struck up a “twangy sounding” number. Guests applauded along enthusiastically. She danced first with Huffines, then her father, then a good friend, Cole Rumbough, and so on, into the wee hours.
The next day, her escort flew off to Honduras. Rumbough headed to the Adirondacks. And by Jan. 2 the debutante was back at her desk in Richmond.
“It seems like a dream,” she says.