Debs’ Delight? What Being Presented and the Season Was Really Like

Disclaimer: While there are occasional references to the Season and presentations during the Victorian era, the focus of this post will centre more on what it was like after the First World War

One ritual that has passed into history is the presentation at court where women are presented to the reigning monarch (or his/her representative). For two centuries and over three courts a year (with additional ones held in Edinburgh), women ranging from debutantes to married women to ambassadresses and wives of government ministers, officers from the armed services, civil servants and other men of rank and status donned the regulation court uniform of three ostrich feathers, veil, train and a white or pale coloured gown then made the requisite obeisance and the acknowledgement from the Sovereign that marked the lady’s formal entry into society and the official start of the year’s Season.

The presentation has always been popularly associated with young eighteen year old ladies called “debutantes” or “debs” and the ceremony was seen as a rite of passage, where being presented to the monarch marked her “coming out” into Society and signified that she was no longer a child but an adult and therefore of marriageable age. Presentation at Court was always an important part of royal ceremonial and practiced for centuries but the idea of young ladies on the cusp of adulthood being presented at Court originated with King George III on the occasion of his wife Queen Charlotte’s birthday. While the birthday ball died out, the idea of a young lady being presented to the monarch at the start of their foray into Society remained and by the late nineteenth century the number of Court presentations increased and more so in the early twentieth century.

After the First World War, the ceremony and indeed the whole Season had more or less lost its main purpose which was to act as a social adjunct to political life. It simply became a marriage market to ensure that young aristocratic men and women could select their spouse from their own circle of society. This was made difficult by the lack of men of marriageable age and meant that many debs during the early 1920s either married much older men or remained spinsters. By the 1930s, the presentation itself had become merely an expensive parade out of touch with the economic mood of the time so in 1936, King Edward VIII, in an attempt to introduce a more informal and democratic tone in his court (as well as economise on expenditure), decided to do away with the evening presentations and instead introduce afternoon ones; much to the chagrin of the mothers of the debutantes presented that year. It wasn’t a success as it rained on the day of the first presentation which put an abrupt end to the proceedings and gave rise to a number of irate comments from mothers who thought their daughters had been cheated of an opportunity to experience the same ceremony as they did, or thought that the garden party court was a poor substitute for the traditional evening one.

There was much relief when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth reinstated the traditional evening courts in 1937 but they were suspended for the duration of the Second World War. When they were resumed after the war, it was deemed inappropriate to reintroduce the evening courts and so Edward VIII’s idea of a garden party presentation was revived and remained in place until they were finally abolished.

By the 1950s, the idea of debutantes having to curtsey to the Sovereign was becoming an embarrassing anachronism. There were criticisms most notably by the historian Lord Altrincham (John Grigg) that it was failing to reflect the growing social changes in Britain as a result of the war while others wondered what was the actual point of this pageant? Even several members of the Royal Family took a dim view of the ceremony with the Duke of Edinburgh pronouncing it “bloody daft” and Princess Margaret complained that “every tart in London was seeking to get in”. Finally it was announced that the Queen would no longer be holding presentation ceremonies and the last garden party courts were held in 1959 after which the idea of debutantes and presentations went the way of the dodo.

An Upper Class Girl’s upbringing:

Until at least outbreak of the Second World War, the goal of an upper class and upper middle class girl was geared solely towards marriage and motherhood. The idea of further education much less a career was unthinkable and this was reinforced by how girls were educated and viewed. What passed as education for girls was basic and rudimentary (mostly under governesses but by the twentieth century, girls’ boarding or day schools had sprang up to cater for those whose parents could not afford a governess), focusing more on the social graces such as dancing, drawing, singing and learning a foreign language. Before she was presented a young girl might be sent abroad to be “finished” with additional foreign language lessons and trips to museums and historic sites, a sort of mini-Grand Tour or gap year before she was formally launched into society.

As with boys, emphasis was placed on instilling “character” as well as the virtue of thrift, duty and discipline. Choice was a privilege only adults enjoyed while children and young people had to make do with what their parents and elders decided for them. The ability to be able to interact and communicate with other people was also seen as highly important, the art of conversation was instilled from an early age, along with how to initiate it and put others at ease. There was also an emphasis on good manners and to respect others especially those who were older; and unlike today where outward expressions of emotion are common and highly encouraged such behaviour then was frowned upon and kept at a distance. Upper class women would recall never seeing their parents being outwardly affectionate with each other or with them; nor would they remember any hugs, kisses or kind words.

Despite the emphasis on developing the art of conversation and polite behaviour, there was a wide gulf between upper class parents and their children and nowhere was this most apparent than in the general ignorance of young people of both genders when it came to sex and relationships. Girls were ignorant about the changes in their bodies as they hit puberty and their mothers never made much of an effort to talk to their daughters about these changes much less tell them about the birds and the bees. Some mothers did try but embarrassment always got in the way and was never really addressed even if the young woman in question was getting married. They would begin married life and their wedding night wholly ignorant of sex.

Anne de Courcy wrote that with their proximity to wild and domestic animals theoretically girls raised in the country would have some knowledge of sex and procreation but in reality, women admitted not making the connection between animal and human behaviour. However despite this ignorance, one fact of life that the girls were made aware of was the social stigma attached to becoming pregnant outside marriage. Misconceptions about pregnancy, such as a simple kiss leading to pregnancy were sometimes enough to put young girl off the idea of marriage, so that some married late while others never did.

While many girls either happily conformed or were resigned to this very basic and rudimentary upbringing, others particularly after the end of the Fist World War chafed under this restriction and resented constantly being told that they could not study certain subjects, go to university or even take on proper paid employment. Some girls managed to successfully convince their parents to allow them to go on to further education or even work (the daughter of a baron was allowed to study for a degree at the London School of Economics provided that the family housemaid accompanied her as a chaperone) while others frustrated at not being allowed to do what they wanted took to reading or studying in secret. Others rebelled by sneaking out to go to nightclubs, smoking and adapting daring fashions but they were mostly a minority as there were more than enough deterrents to make sure that the girls remained on the straight and narrow.

Coming Out and Expectations of a Debutante:

Once a girl had turned eighteen (seventeen year olds were allowed to “come out” only in special circumstances such as in 1939 when it was inevitable that war was imminent), there was the ritual of coming out which as mentioned earlier marked the end of her childhood and entrance into adulthood. This involved coming to London where a ball would be organised, as well as the mother issuing and accepting invitations to various teas and luncheons where her daughters could be introduced to other young women and crucially suitable young men. There were also events such as the Royal Academy Exhibition, Royal Ascot, Wimbledon and others which gave the opportunity to meet people.

Some families organised a “little season” in the form of hunt balls, dinners, tea parties and charity functions for their daughter prior to going to London for the presentation. This gave her a head start with the opportunity to meet other people especially those of her age and eligible men as well as knowing what to expect when she finally go to London for her Season proper.

The highlight of a girl’s coming out was the presentation at Court where once she had made her obeisance to the reigning Sovereign and his consort she was deemed to have officially “come out.” Despite the outward glamour of the evening courts with sights of beautiful gowns, jewels blazing, feathers, flowers and uniforms  they could be tedious and an ordeal for the young women and the sponsors involved. As Mabell Countess of Airlie recounted about her own presentation in 1884:

“Presentation in the eighteen-eighties was an endurance test. Queen Victoria held her Drawing Rooms at varying times in the afternoon but anyone attending them was expected to arrive at Buckingham Palace not later than one o’clock. No food was provided and debutantes, weighed down by their long satin trains and enormous plumes, wilted as the hours passed, but so great was the crush that they could hardly move forwards or backwards. The guests often numbered 3,000 and the majority spent their time trying to fight a way through the crowded rooms. Many of the girls waiting to be presented had their dresses torn in the struggle, others retired weeping because their ordeal had been in vain, and they had not succeeded in reaching the Queen, who always left long before the last debutantes had passed before her.”

By George VI’s reign not much had changed. Debutantes and their sponsors would bring food and books, knitting and embroidery frames to pass the time between arriving at the Palace in mid-afternoon and the presentation in the evening. Mishaps such as fainting, headdresses falling apart, wilted flowers, ruined dresses and difficulty to find somewhere to relieve oneself were common occurrences. When Nancy Mitford was presented in 1923 the only facilities were a chamber pot behind a screen.

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Contrary to Jessica Fellowes’ claim that the presentation and the Season were “anticipated for many months with feverish excitement”, the reality was very different as many young women dreaded their presentation and the round of parties and events that would follow; and you can understand why. From being children in the schoolroom they were suddenly propelled into public under the eyes of their sovereigns and the cream of Society and expected to bear themselves with poise and dignity, while knowing that any gaffe such as an awkward curtsey would be remembered, their looks and deportment were being scrutinised, and that the whole thing would be avidly reported in the papers. Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott (later the Duchess of Gloucester) was one of those who admitted not enjoying her Season and wrote about her relief when it was all over, while others such as Fiona Colquohoun (later Lady Arran) and Susan Grosvenor (later Lady Tweedsmuir) found the social rounds tedious and tiresome. Lady Elizabeth Wellesley (later Lady Elizabeth Clyde) found her season “ghastly” and their tedium only relieved by going to nightclubs with fellow debs but only because of the lure and novelty of the forbidden. Lady Diana Manners (later Lady Diana Cooper) observed that apart from the horrors of being a wallflower or being left by a dance partner on the floor midway it was more the mothers who enjoyed their daughters’ Season. It was telling that it was they who reacted most violently to Edward VIII’s experiment with the less formal garden party presentations.

Once the young woman had been presented, the next three months would be a whirl of parties, balls, teas, events, dinners and dances; all carefully chaperoned of course. While some mothers or chaperones revelled in these gatherings (more than their daughters or charges), others found it an ordeal but gamely put up with the experience which was made all the more difficult if one had several daughters or relatives needing a sponsor for the season as Deborah Mitford (later Duchess of Devonshire) observed of her mother in the 1920s and 1930s:

“My dutiful mother suffered this extraordinary fate for six seasons, one for each daughter. At 10 pm on four or five nights a week in May, June and July she looked longingly at her turned-down bed, put on an evening dress and set off alone for the party.”

The ordeal of chaperoning and the Season can be seen as akin to Groundhog Day, the same thing over and over again with the same faces and the same events. Someone like Lady Grantham (from Downton Abbey) would have not only been presented as a young girl but also presented when she married, when her husband inherited a title and each time she presented a daughter or a relative – in Cora’s case she’d have been presented seven times. It must have seemed like a never ending parade and especially for a family with little money, it was imperative for the debutante to secure a proposal as soon as possible as doing the Season did not come cheap and for all the perceived glamour that lives on in the photographs, behind the scenes there was a lot of borrowing, making do and mending, recycling and buying off the peg.

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The whole point of the Season was to find a husband and hopefully secure a proposal by at least August. The debutants might have already been considered adults but interactions between young men and women were still tightly controlled. It was considered unthinkable that a young woman would be seen with a young man without a chaperone as Loelia Ponsonby (later Duchess of Westminster) recalled when she came out in the early 1920s:

“Teenagers had not yet been invented. I doubt if my parents knew what an adolescent was. Flappers were definitely middle class. Till one came out, one was a child, the same as one stopped being a baby, speaking only when spoken to, dressed in any old clothes (it went without saying that well-dressed children had common mothers) and of course with no male friends. My mother would have considered me very depraved if she had caught me writing letters to a boy, let alone making an assignation and I had hardly spoken to one except perhaps at a neighbour’s tennis party.”

The debutante’s most precious commodity was not money or who her parents were but her reputation. Being chaperoned was to ensure that her morals and behaviour were impeccable and someone who was regularly seen out and about unchaperoned and going to places unsuitable for young women ended up developing a reputation for being “fast” or “loose” which would be held against her by mothers seeking wives for their sons. Archaic as it seems to us there were streets in London an unmarried girl could not walk along and places she might not visit without grave damage to her all-important reputation. As a late nineteenth century publication The Lady’s Newspaper, provides a glimpse of what was expected of debutantes, “a girl’s prospects of marriage, even her entire future, may well depend upon her conduct at this most important juncture of her Youth. Any false step may prove Disastrous.” Expectations of how a debutante should behave lingered even after the Great War in spite of the freedoms  to work and go about unchaperoned gained by women during that period.

Young and naïve as they might have been, many debutantes did have ideas of the man they wanted to marry. Just as young women were held to strict moral standards, so too were the men. Whilst they were given a certain amount of leeway not allowed to girls, young men were still expected to conform to certain moral standards, to be branded as NSIT (“not safe in taxis”) or MTF (“must touch flesh”) harmed their prospects of attracting potential wives.

If a debutante did not secure a proposal during her first Season then it would be a case of better luck next time and if there were still no proposals by the second then third then the chances of finding a husband receded further and further until she was resigned to a life of spinsterhood or to marry the first man who showed interest and proposed. It was not until after the Second World War that upper and upper middle class women could have careers, travel and marry or not marry as they chose and the iron grip of social convention and expectation was discarded, freeing them, at least in theory, to be equal with men and as free to live as they wished.

Notes:

Photo 1 – Lord and Lady Harmsworth and their daughters, source: http://fortheloveofsantalucia.tumblr.com/post/107782582264/the-right-honourable-cecil-baron-harmsworth-and

Photto 2 – Eunice Kennedy (1939), source: http://america-runs-on-kennedy.tumblr.com/post/113609190448

Further Reading:

Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester. The Memoirs of Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (London, 1983)

Princess Alice Duchess of Gloucester. Memories of Ninety Years (London, 1991)

Pamela Horn. Ladies of the Manor (London, 2012)

Pamela Horn. Country House Society (London, 2014)

Anne de Courcy. Debs at War (London, 2005)

Anne de Courcy. 1939: The Last Season (London, 2003)

Deborah Devonshire. The Duchess of Devonshire’s Chatsworth Cookery Book (London, 2003)

Deborah Devonshire. Wait For Me!: Memoirs of the Youngest Mitford Sister (London, 2010)

Jessica Mitford. Hons and Rebels (London, 1960)

Mabell (Ogilvy) Countess of Airlie and Jennifer Ellis (ed.). Thatched with Gold: The Memoirs of Mabell Countess of Airlie (London, 1962)

Lady Diana Cooper. The Rainbow Comes and Goes (London, 1958)

Loelia (Grosvenor) Duchess of Westminster. Grace and Favour: The Memoirs of Loelia Duchess of Westminster (London, 1961)

Angela Lambert. 1939: The Last Season of Peace (London, 1989)

Jessica Fellowes. A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey (London, 2014)

Jane Wellesley. Wellington: A Journey Through my Family (London, 2015)

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