Return of the debutantes

This year marks the return of the debutantes after a hiatus of more than fifty years, the resurrection of a practice most thought confined to the history books. Traditionally the Queen Charlotte’s Ball marked the beginning of the aristocratic social season, where young ladies of a certain calibre would be presented by ladies of similar standing before the Queen to announce their arrival into adulthood. This ceremony, steeped in the history of England’s most privileged classes, served as an opportunity for blue-blooded, china-white ladies to be formally announced as available for marriage. These prissy frivolities stretched throughout the summer, taking in key events such as Royal Ascot, numerous balls, and the Dublin horse show, with the end goal being the model engagement.

As the season moved into the 1950s, it became apparent that changes were afoot. Some mothers displayed the entrepreneurial vigour to be denied their daughters by presenting numerous debutantes, or ladies of a less favoured background for a fee. Standards were deemed to have dropped, and in 1958, the royal presentation was abandoned. Princess Margaret commented, “every tart in London was getting in”. Perhaps their humility gave them away.

The event and the season carried on without royal presence for years afterwards, but the appeal appeared to have been lost and formal participation dwindled. Yet, in 2009, we are reviving this practice. We are told the event will provide impetus and future contacts for charity fundraising. Noble sentiments indeed, but perhaps if charity were at the root of the organisers’ endeavours they could have considered swapping champagne flutes for collection tins, or simply something moderately inclusive.

The fact that in the course of being charitable they are resurrecting what amounted to a shop window where women are displayed for sale into a marriage market suggests a wildly skewed vision of what charities actually need, and indeed, what they are setting out to do. It suggests, moreover, that they are happy to resurrect a scenario in which young women can expect success in life by virtue of their breeding and inherited wealth, later that of their husband, without regard for education, self-development, or having their own lives. This practice may have seemed glamorous and alluring in the past, but today what appears befitting of a lady falls more in line with an education, a career, and a modicum of self-respect.

The latest event is glossed with a fresh, more egalitarian veneer. However, this event is imbued with the realities of its history. It represents a bounded domain, pristine and aloof, the preserve only of the worthy. The timing is of the highest distaste. Millions sit jobless; the last thing we need in these times is for the monied and privileged to stoke up ill-feeling by further reminding us all of a class system favouring privilege and cronyism which should have been long-buried.


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