'OH DARLING, I haven't seen you since Val d'Isere,' said a large woman with an elegant bouffant as she rushed towards her long-lost acquaintance, Chanel handbag swinging at her hips.

'Oh, wasn't it fun?' came the reply as the two women clashed cheeks and exchanged lipstick.

Despite the recession and John Major's classless society, the Berkeley Dress show celebrated its 40th year in the Ballroom of the Berkeley Hotel, in London's West End on Monday. Young debutantes, picked according to height and hip size, sashayed down the catwalk in designer clothes, in aid of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the launch of yet another season of parties and dances, at which young girls from well-connected families meet desirable and suitable men.

'Well, of course, it was very different in my day,' said Mrs Ronald Scrivener, 73, as she popped a canape into her mouth and delicately placed the used cocktail stick on a paper doily. 'I came out in coronation year, 1937. There were lots of people and lots of money and lovely dances. It was a very good year. There was none of this commercialism,' she sighed.

'It was absolutely terrifying being presented to the Queen. I had an entree, which meant if one was related to the Royal Family, one went in at the side entrance and had a private audience. The others went in with their chaperones. I remember the present-day Queen standing behind her parents. One had to curtsey and walk out backwards with an arm out and one's train over it.'

She took a sip of champagne. 'And we had the business of feathers. It was awful, we had to pin them and keep them in.' She laughed. 'Not at all like today.'

Mrs Scrivener's granddaughter, Caroline Bland, 17, was coming out that evening, as her mother had done before her. 'We will give her a small party in the summer,' said her father, Godfrey. 'I've heard that 18th birthday parties are more important than 21st birthdays these days. I think she will do a few parties, but her exams are more important than the season, obviously. We hope she is going to study classics at Oxford University.'

Leticia Shepherd-Croft was also coming out, although she was not taking part in the fashion show. 'I think I'm too short,' she laughed. She was being chaperoned by her brother, Harry, and Henry Knox, both students. 'My mother came out and she feels I will have great fun doing it.'

Her brother interrupted. 'It's better than passing out, isn't it?'

He shrieked with laughter and reached for more champagne.

'I have had a lot of stick from my friends who think it is a bit old-fashioned,' said Leticia. 'The word 'deb' gives you a bad name. It's not really all that it's cracked up to be, but it is getting better. I have met an eligible man who looks like Keanu Reeves. He's lovely and over there.'

She pointed him out and then hid behind a pillar. 'He was the only boy at a gathering we went to the other day. But if I meet some nice people who aren't pretentious then it will all be worthwhile.'

The show was announced by a large man in black tie, and excited mothers rushed through, glasses in hand, to grab the best seat. Grunge and groovy tunes graced the catwalk, as gauche girls with large bottoms and hunched shoulders tripped their way to the front, executed their Paris turns, hands on hips, and trotted back again.

'They've worked so hard,' said one mother, who clasped her hands and bit her tongue with pride as her daughter shimmied on stage. She applauded so loudly that her daughter flushed with embarrassment.

The extravaganza seemed to last for ever as deb after deb walked on in the manner of the Lucie Clayton finishing school, dressed in clothes lent by Harrods. 'Oh, look at that,' said a woman with short brown hair, as she checked out a black evening dress. 'I'm popping in to Harrods to buy that tomorrow.'

After the final turn by Diana Blakeney, in a baby doll wedding dress covered in daisies, the show was over and the raffle drawn. Kate Fletcher and Tara Campbell Golding had removed their make-up and packed away their clothes, and were waiting to join their parents. 'It was quite a laugh,' admitted Kate. 'And such a good audience,' said Tara.

'We spent six hours practising for this,' said Henrietta O'Dwyer Thomas. 'But I won't be doing any more. I did it for charity, and anyway I don't have time for parties. I have exams in the summer, which are much more important.'

As the girls rejoined their parents to the sound of expansive kisses and loud congratulations, it was announced that the evening had raised pounds 16,000 for the NSPCC. 'Oh, isn't that marvellous?' said a mother as she put on her velvet cape. 'It makes the evening so worthwhile.'