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Paris debutantes’ ball changes with the times

Paris — Blessed by the privilege of wealth, birth or both, 24 teenage girls on Saturday descend on Paris’ debutantes ball, an aristocratic tradition that survived France’s guillotining of royalty over 200 years ago.

But in a sign of changing times, the likes of the late princess Diana’s niece Lady Kitty Spencer, 18, will this year be joined by Jasmin Li, 17, granddaughter of Jia Qinglin, fourth ranking member of China’s Communist party.

A highlight of Europe’s society calendar, the ball at the Crillon Hotel marks the "coming out" of daughters of the rich and famous, including Clint Eastwood’s daughter Francesca, 16, and the granddaughter of Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho, Ariel.

Bringing together 24 debutantes from 12 countries, the event includes for the first time Australia and Venezuela. Turkey will be represented by national ski team member Gulsah Alkoclar, and India by the last descendant of the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.

The quintessentially English event was intended as an opportunity for young girls to be presented at court where they might find a future husband from a suitable bloodline.

But with the execution of much of France’s aristocracy in the wake of the 1789 revolution, the tradition also died out, until it was resurrected as a public relations event by Ophelie Renouard.

The proceeds will be donated to charity, making the event "less trivial," according to host Stephane Bern.

"The tradition has lost nothing of its appeal but it perpetuates itself by abandoning the vestiges of aristocratic glory: there are more and more debutantes from families that have made a name for themselves other than simply by being born," explains Bern.

"The debutantes ball is thus less trivial and more useful thanks to its defence of a humanitarian cause. Participants are more and more conscious of their privileges and undertake a lot of things during the year, which doesn’t stop them dreaming of an evening on the Place de la Concorde in a haute couture dress," added Bern, a society journalist.

Last year saw singer Phil Collins accompany his daughter to the event, which also saw the coming out of Maria Abou Nader, niece of former Lebanese presidents Amine and Bachir Gemayel.

This year, the likes of Angelica Hicks, great granddaughter of Lord Mountbatten, the late British statesman, will choose their own fashion stylist for the evening but all will wear jewellery from Adler, one of the ball’s sponsors.

The two Chinese debs, for instance, have chosen Dior and US designer Carolina Herrera.

Miss Eastwood will wear a dress specially created by Dolce and Gabbana, while Cosima Sarno-Pigozzi, granddaughter of the creator of the now defunct Simca car, will wear something by Frenchman Stephane Rolland.

During dinner, the debutantes walk around with their devoted companions and are presented to the master of ceremonies. During coffee, host Bern will open the ball by dancing a Strauss waltz with the youngest girl present.