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A Her Royal Highness Elizabeth, 1928 Witte Museum, San Antonio BOOKS & THE CULTURE Dress Code The Coronated Queens of the Alamo BY CHAR MILLER DRESSING UP DEBUTANTES: Pageantry and Glitz in Texas. By Michaele Thurgood Haynes. Berg Publishers. In the spring of 1928, one of the princesses of The Court of the Mediterranean, that year’s theme for San Antonio’s most elite debutante pageant the Coronation stood for her portrait. It is now the provocative cover of Michaele Thurgood Haynes’ compelling new book. In classic pose, the young woman’s back is to the viewer, but her upper torso is swiveled so that she looks over her shoulder at a distant audience. With auburn hair spilling down her pale skin, and her right arm, bent at the elbow, raised in a coquettish wave, she’s emblematic of a young woman of virginal allure. Oh, she’s ready to step into adulthood which is why she has turned in our direction, one last time but she will do so only after she has been presented at the Order of the Alamo’ s comingout soire. This particular princess, however, may not have been quite as demure as etiquette would seem to demand. She had the proper posture, to be sure, but unlike her peers, who wore heavy, stiff dresses chastely draping their bodies, hers did nothing to muffle her budding sexuality. The dress a stunning black number that hugged her contours and even accentuated them, with white lines that dropped away from the low-cut back, flowed over her derriere, and then flared out into web-like cross-hatching on its lengthy train was the talk of the town. It still is. Another member of the 1928 Court, now in her eighties, vividly recalls how scandalized she and the other debutantes had been when they first caught sight of the gown: “We all knew she didn’t wear any underwear under it!” This is but one of many transparent moments in the history of The Coronation. With a keen anthropological eye, Haynes, who is Curator of Permanent Collections at San Antonio’s Witte Museum \(the repository of the context, historical significance, and material meaning; that she does so on so many levels makes Dressing Up Debutantes the first serious, sustained analysis of the rituals that give shape to the lives of the Alamo City’s rich and famous. It all started immodestly enough. In 1909, John Carrington, having made his pile in real estate and commerce, induced other, equally well-heeled peers to join him in founding the Order of the Alamo. As an all-male club, its central purpose was to formalize the process of selecting a queen for coronation, and to establish this event as the apex of Fiesta, the city’s ten-day-long celebration marking the 1836 victory at San Jacinto. By 1925, the Order of the Alamo claimed a membership of “some one hundred selected men of recognized social position.” Canington kept the club’s selection process under tight control. Only gentlemen would be considered. What he meant by that term is difficult to decipher, as is evident in the inscription he wrote in a childhood book of virtues he constructed for one of his sons: “There are gentlemen and gentlemen,” he advised, “and some who wear the name have not the spirit. Seek to get the spirit my son, for it is something worth achieving.” However oblique his definition might have been, this Virginia-bred, lifelong Anglophile, who apparently placed great stock in what he understood to be the tradition of Southern Chivalry, created an organization that determined which adult males would select which young, unmarried women for presentation at the Coronation. From the get-go, this was an in-house, almost incestuous, affair. So it has remained. For nearly ninety years, fathers have tapped sons, nephews, and the children of friends to enter the Order’s rolls, and they in turn have voted for their sisters, cousins, or neighbors to become officially sanctioned debutante royalty. The density of lineage that can be built up is captured in one woman’s response when asked THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23 OCTOBER 9, 1998