By Celestria Noel
The word debutante literally means beginner. It described the first steps of a young woman into society, usually, in England at least, at the age of seventeen or eighteen. The process of emerging from education into adulthood was also known as coming out – that is out of the schoolroom and into the ballroom. It was also a signal that a young lady was ready for marriage and matches were made. The idea was for her to meet other people from her own stratum of society but outside the immediate family circle, by attending a series of balls and parties of all kinds. In London, where families would come up from their country houses for the Season, girls from aristocratic backgrounds were presented at Court, that is to the king and queen. You had to be presented by someone who had themselves been presented. This would usually be your mother or another family member.
Readers of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen get a good idea of what it was like for the Bennett sisters at the beginning of the 19th century, and things did not change all that much for the following 150 years. At the time the book is set, Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III, was still alive. In 1809 she gave her patronage to a maternity hospital in London, which was named after her and still exists, although on a different site and now part of the NHS. Queen Charlotte also celebrated her birthday every year from 1780 with a ball featuring an enormous cake.
Amazingly Queen Charlotte’s Ball itself still exists, although it has been through many incarnations and is very different not only to the event hosted by Queen Charlotte more than 200 years ago but to the event I attended aged 17 in 1971. Indeed Queen Charlotte’s Ball had become more important after presentation at court came to an end in 1958, when Queen Elizabeth II stopped it. She was advised, largely by her sister Princess Margaret, that it had become a racket and ‘every tart in London’ was paying comparative strangers to present them, while the Duke of Edinburgh called deb dances ‘daft’. It was thought that the deb season might come to an end, but it survived the 1960s, even without royal approval.
Queen Charlotte’s ball traditionally marked the beginning of the deb season in early May and most of that year’s girls would attend, in white dresses. Our mothers, most of whom had been debs, would ask if we wanted to do a season and offer to host a dance or party. Some of my contemporaries said no they would rather travel or study. The dates were co-ordinated by Mrs Betty Kenward, who was social editor of Harpers & Queen magazine.
Queen Charlotte’s itself took place in the huge Great Room in the basement of the Grosvenor House Hotel in London’s Park Lane. Debs and their families were invited but had to buy tickets as the ball was a fundraiser for the hospital. From May until July the other deb dances would be private parties given by parents for their daughters, often two or even three families joining forces. Apart from the parties, girls might accompany their parents to Royal Ascot and might be invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace but were less likely to attend what are now the Season’s main events such as Henley and Wimbledon.
By the 1970s the Season was already considered passé by many, and the Queen Charlotte’s Ball itself was mocked as being pompous and outdated. My beautiful elder sister had sailed through it five years earlier and even had a trendy disco, Juliana’s, named after her, but in 1968 my more rebellious middle sister wore blue jeans under her white dress and escaped to a nightclub as soon as the dancing began after dinner. The following year someone let out some white mice for a joke. My year was uneventful but a few years later there were streakers and then it was invaded by gatecrashers and stopped altogether. It was revived in the late 1980s by the wife of a doctor at the hospital but again ran out of steam and was not held for twelve years until 2009. The ball is now run on a different basis with older girls from several countries taking part.
In my year there were about 120 debs who went to Queen Charlotte’s, but six of us, including my great friend Lady Jane Grosvenor, daughter of the Duke of Westminster, were chosen by the ball president, Miss Sylvia Darley, to escort the birthday cake. Miss Darley was a formidable spinster, from a rich family of brewers, who ruled the girls with a rod of iron. We six were placed at her table and had to behave. As the daughters of a duke and an earl respectively we were chosen for that reason, not looks or merit, though Jane was and is a great beauty.
The cake was enormous, a metre high and the same across and just made from cardboard. It was on a trolley with wheels, which we steered to the end of the vast room, watched by 400 guests seated at round tables on the edge of the room. Other spectators peered down from the upstairs balcony. The cake’s progress was accompanied by Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was played at all Queen Charlotte’s own birthday balls in the 18th century. The girls not on escort duty lined up at the end of the room. Once we had the cake in place, all the debs curtsied, not to the cake, as is often claimed, but to the guest of honour, Lady Howard de Walden, president of Friends of the Hospital, who then faked cutting into the cardboard, while waiters scurried out with conveniently prepared slices to hand round at the tables. It was an honour to be chosen as an escort, and reported afterwards not only in magazines such as Harpers & Queen, but in the Court Circular of The Times. I still have the cuttings and telegrams congratulating me.
Although an honour it was not entirely a pleasure. My escort, chosen by my parents, and the son of some country neighbours, was a reluctant participant. A rugby player of six foot five, his face grew redder and redder above the stiff collar of his white tie and he refused to dance with me at all. Luckily I was not short of other friends and partners. In fact I went on to enjoy my time as a deb very much, driving myself in my trendy purple Mini Cooper to a cocktail party or two and then a dance every weekday night in London and to balls at beautiful historic houses all over the country on Fridays and Saturdays. It worked for me because I love people and parties and also knew it was only for a few weeks before university. I did not take it very seriously. I had no intention of marrying a ‘deb’s delight’ as we called the young men who came to the parties, but made some lifelong friends and had fun. In fact one of the reasons the Season stopped working well was that ‘nice’ young men were increasingly reluctant to take part and were off on gap years or at university, not in London. Those who did hang round the deb scene and got themselves asked to parties were sometimes not what the parents of the young ladies were looking for. I remember one telling me proudly that he never had to buy and food or take a girl to a restaurant as he went to a party every night. His only expense was keeping his dinner jacket clean.
The main season ended in July but there were a few autumn parties (known as the Little Season) and then in the December of my deb year Lady Jane Grosvenor and I were invited to represent England at the International Debutante Ball, held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. We were beautifully looked after by the charming organiser and enjoyed a whole week of fun culminating in the ball itself, to which girls came from all over the USA as well as Europe. My escort Frank has kept in touch with me ever since. Thirty-five years on I was invited back as a guest of honour by the niece of the original organiser and asked to bring my daughter. She turned it down as not for her but I took my niece, who was studying chemistry at Imperial College, and had to be talked into it, and there was Frank, still anxious to look after me.
From the late 1970s the deb season as I had known it really ceased to exist but in 1992 when I started working for Harpers & Queen as social editor I was contacted by Ophelia Renouard, a French public relations executive, who was starting an event at the famous Hotel Crillon in Paris. Her idea was to get ‘debs’ from all over the world to attend, the French aspect being that they would model couture gowns. The first year there was not even any dancing and it was more of a catwalk show, but over the years the event has developed and become very glamorous, with participants such as Lauren Bush, Bee Shaffer, daughter of American Vogue’s Anna Wintour, and President Gorbachev’s granddaughter.
Queen Charlotte’s in my day was not so glamorous. We did our own hair and wore very little make up. Our dresses were far from being couture. Mine came from Valerie Goad, a shop where my elder sister worked in the Fulham Road, where we all got our things, and cost £29. Not a lot even then. Naturally I wore it again for the ball in America. Who needed two white dresses? We would have thought it extravagant.
Being a ‘deb’ today is a matter of attending one event rather than spending a whole Season partying. It is not part of the programme for most young English girls – none of the young British princesses have been debs, for example. The modern eighteen-year-old is in work or education, or might travel before university and a career. She chooses her own husband, or not, at a much later age. Three months full time partying is not an option. However, the fun element is being rediscovered by girls who enjoy dressing up and a change from their everyday jeans. When wearing jeans is no longer rebellious, perhaps being a deb in a white dress is cool, in an ironic way?
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