In a park in Havana, a stranger approaches me in the summer heat and gives me advice: “Are you pregnant with a girl? What a beauty, get ready for her 15th birthday because nowadays they do everything from photos to buying clothes, going to a hotel and of course, the party.”
I remember when I turned that age almost two decades ago, the moment was immortalized with photos in which we wore nineteenth-century costumes to turn us into colonial society ladies, while the more daring tried the fledgling studio photography.
According to history teacher Laura Vázquez, we inherited the tradition of celebrating the 15th birthday from the so-called debutante or society ball.
This was the original name of the ritual within the English court in the 18th century, a party to present young aristocratic brides to the royal family.
“The girls had to wear white as a symbol of chastity, and as it was framed within in the process of a marriage market, it was a way to preserve a social class,” she told CubaPLUS Magazine.
According to the specialist, the tradition was brought to the United States by English immigrants, and between the 1920s and 1940s, the debutante figure became one of the most important among the social elite.
Cuba received it from that northern nation and the island’s bourgeoisie, so closely linked to the U.S. oligarchy, carrying out the tradition in two ways: with private and group parties.
“Those celebrations were published in the social chronicles of the newspapers, so they acquired notoriety and generated interest in the society organized around the spectacle,” said the professor.
The 15th birthday parties, Vázquez pointed out, survived in the Cuban social fabric, among other things, due to the influence of the North American culture.
Erika María Puentes, who will turn that age next October, has already opted for a photo service in a professional studio with a complete package: personalized indoor and outdoor shots, with antique and modern settings, makeup, wardrobe, printing service, among others.
She prefers a party with her family and close friends in a pool, although she won’t rule out an additional private celebration with decorations and couple dancing.
Regarding the growing custom of boys having their 15th birthday photos taken, young Yuri Shkarupa has nothing against it, but he prefers a party with his friends and no parents.
Mahe Zárate, a psychologist by profession and owner of Mahe Estudio, is in favor of photographing boys as well; however, she considers that it is a growing trend and that most boys do it to please their parents.
In her opinion, the tastes of teenage girls constantly shift, and in the last 20 years, they have changed: images with old costumes are no longer used as much, and young women prefer personalized photos to post on social networks.
This is influenced by Western trends and the wardrobes of artists and models that constitute a visual guide for ‘quinceañeras’, she emphasized.
She agrees with colleagues from other studies, who also point out that economic and cultural factors also mediate the options chosen by each family.
In addition, they emphasized the competitiveness of this type of business, which forces them to constantly improve images, update offers and remodel the material.
Stylist Ary Vargas says how, in terms of makeup -the face-, current preferences tend to the natural and uses eyebrows as an example. Five years ago, the taste was inclined towards perfection, to be very smooth, while now they are somewhat less structured, which has come to be called organic eyebrows.
Most of the girls who come to Mahe Estudio, she pointed out, are dynamic on the social networks, they are immersed in the latest trends and, despite the mothers who, for example, ask for high hairstyles, big curls, crowns, tiaras..., they want the simplest attire, the most modern, that of a 21st-century princess.
The more classic style of other studios is respectable, the specialist stressed. “Clients are very versatile and in our case we have all kinds. We try to adapt to each one of them so that they leave satisfied, which makes us feel good,” said Ary Vargas.
So, I should thank the concern of the lady in the park, and I look forward to the evolution of the tradition during the next 15 years. In my case, the race is just getting started...