Last Curtsey: The end of the debutantes, by Fiona MacCarthy

How shy Di killed off the debs
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The Independent Culture

'We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in." In these words, the late Princess Margaret, with her customary blend of regal hauteur and sod-you directness, described one of the reasons behind the decision, in 1958, to bring an end to the centuries-old tradition of the presentation of debutantes to the Queen.

The expensively attired vestal virgins at Buckingham Palace queued to curtsey to the Queen as part of a feminine rite of passage that would launch them on their first Season, and from there, it was hoped, into an advantageous marriage. Traditionally, these young women were the daughters of the anointed, the aristocratic and landowning families who owed their first allegiance to the British crown. From the mid-19th century, however, the choice of debutantes had expanded to include the daughters of families whose fortunes were founded on industry or commerce; and, by the second half of the 20th century, the floodgates had opened to admit women of even more dubious connections. A new age of social mobility and celebrity waited in the wings, and bringing down the curtain on presentations at court was a tacit acknowledgement of the fast retreat of Empire and conventional monarchy, of the landed aristocracy, and of the whole concept of social deference itself.

Fiona MacCarthy is ideal to chronicle the last days of this white satin and light chiffon world. Not just because she is a distinguished writer, who seamlessly constructs an enjoyable narrative about the end of the debutantes from a wide range of historical sources and personal interviews, but also because MacCarthy herself was a member of that final 1958 intake. On her mother's side loomed the figure of Robert McAlpine, a self-made man, founder of the construction firm and Fiona's great-grandfather. McAlpine's daughter, Agnes, her grandmother, had married into the French aristocracy.

It was never questioned that Fiona MacCarthy would "do" the Season. If not quite a "reluctant debutante", she was certainly "a bluestocking deb", ready to take up her place at Oxford, once the Season was over, and perhaps not yet able to formulate objections to the way of life this social ritual represented, as she would in the next decade as a Guardian journalist of left- wing sympathies.

MacCarthy combines social history, and a memoir of herself and her debutante generation, with accuracy, wit, and a deftness of touch that enables her to describe the antics of half-a-century ago with a fond, and not too overly critical, approach. She describes being sent to Madame Vacani's in Knightsbridge to acquire the technique, passed down the generations, of how to curtsey gracefully. After being presented, in March 1958, in a palace ballroom where the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sat enthroned under a crimson canopy, she was launched on a round of parties, dances, and balls stretching into the autumn, where the most vital thing expected of her was that she should not surrender her virginity.

Following the last curtsey, the Season further declined in the early 1960s, as money and success became more sought after than breeding, and as high society suffered the humiliation of causes célèbres like the Argyll divorce case and the Profumo scandal, both substantially weakening the status quo. Satire was rife, and Jennifer of The Tatler, starchy arbiter of the debutantes' social calendar, was an easy target, lampooned by the actress Fenella Fielding. Meanwhile, young women discovered feminism, the pill, and Mary Quant. They no longer wanted to look like their mothers, and sex before marriage became increasingly the norm (Nigel Dempster once estimated that whereas in 1958, five per cent of debutantes had had sex, in 1965, only five per cent were still virgins).

The system had always thrown up mavericks, like Rose Dugdale, the deb turned IRA activist, one of Macarthy's contemporaries. But who could have anticipated that the blushing, virginal bride chosen by Prince Charles in 1981, who appeared such a throwback to the debutantes of the past, would one day turn with such vengeance on the outdated double-standards of own class? Princess Diana's 1995 Panorama interview, in which, according to MacCarthy, "she overturned all the decorum and passivity her upbringing and class had battened into her", may be said to mark the final death of the English debutante.