When 19-year-old Jean Turlington steps into the spotlight at the 87th annual Debutante Ball on Sept. 6, she’ll not only be basking in the glow of her debut but nearly mirroring similar steps taken by her grandmother some 61 years before, and in the same dress.
For the younger Turlington, Friday night’s events will be steeped in nearly as much family tradition as in the rich historic aspects of the ball itself, hosted each year by The Terpsichorean Club of North Carolina. Turlington girls have participated in the ball since the elder Jean Turlington’s debut in 1952. Both Jean’s daughters, Neale and Selma, were debs, and granddaughter Callie followed in those footsteps a couple years back. The younger Jean’s turn arrives this Friday night.
While there will be many special aspects to this weekend’s Debutante Ball, the 19-year-old said being able to wear her grandmother’s dress ranks at the very top.
“I feel so honored to wear Mama’s dress,” the younger Jean said during a recent interview, smiling across at the grandmother she lovingly refers to as Mama. The elder Turlington couldn’t contain her own smile as the two recalled the decision, the fitting and the soon-to-be end result, often completing each other sentences as they shared the memories.
“It will be really exciting, putting on this dress and being introduced. There’s so much tradition involved, so much history. I’m thrilled, but I’m really a little nervous, too,” the debutante said.
The matriarch of the Turlington family pats her granddaughter’s arm lovingly and gives her that reassuring grandmother smile, as if to say, “you have nothing to worry about.”
The younger Turlington relaxes almost immediately. “It’s going to be fun. Who knows, I might have on the oldest dress there.”
The two exchange a knowing glance, nodding almost simultaneously. “It probably will be,” the elder Turlington acknowledges.
The 19-year-0ld, daughter of Tom and Margaret Turlington, chose the dress after first having tried on both her Aunt Selma’s and Aunt Neale’s gowns. Grandmother Jean’s was hanging in the closet and the younger namesake decided to give it a try, too, unsure that it would fit.
“It was perfect,” the younger Jean said, the smile returning. “I couldn’t believe it. I was excited I could get into it. There was really very little that had to be done … it had to be cleaned and altered just a bit at the top.”
Recognizing that the dress was a perfect fit — both in size and meaning — the debutante’s decision was made.
“I was trying to be so careful not to encourage her to wear it,” said grandmother Jean, “but I have to admit I thought it would be wonderful it she did.”
“She did, too” interjects the younger Turlington. “I was trying on all the dresses, and I ask what she thought, but she just let me decide; she didn’t try to influence me.”
The decision, the 19-year-old said, was an easy one to make. “I loved all the dresses, but this one is extra special. I love that my grandmother wore it to her Debutante Ball and that my great-grandmother made it. There’s so much heritage there, so much significance. I am very honored to be able to wear it.”
The elder Turlington, who moved to Clinton with her parents as a young girl, recalled that her mother was a very good seamstress. “She had great taste as far as style, too. So when I became a deb she made my dress. It’s been hanging in the closet all these years. I’m thrilled that it will be worn again.”
So, too, is the younger Jean. “I like the tradition in our family of passing down the dresses … the gloves too. It’s going to be exciting wearing Mama’s dress; I’ll be able to show it off and tell the stories, too.”
The younger Turlington, a graduate of St. Mary’s in Raleigh and a sophomore at Washington and Lee University, is also excited about the entire debutante experience, noting the great tradition and history surrounding it.
“It’s very historic, but it’s also a great way to get to know a lot of people. I’ve met so many new people during this experience. I’ve made connections I might not, otherwise, have been able to make. So there’s the traditional aspect, the heritage and the broader aspect of getting to know so many people. It’s a wonderful experience,” the teen said.
Her grandmother nods her head in agreement as the younger Turlington shares her thoughts. “It’s a wonderful experience,” she interjects. “I couldn’t be prouder of her … all of them” she said. “God has been good to me with my family. I have lots of pride in my children and in my grandchildren.”
The pride, evident on her face as the two Jeans talk about the debutante ball, will likely swell even more come Friday night when her namesake is introduced wearing her dress.
“I’m not sure I can put into words how this really feels,” the elder Turlington said, the smile returning as she glances at her granddaughter. “It’s special, that’s for certain.”
The Debutante Ball is Friday, Sept. 6 at Meymandi Concert Hall.