meet a suitably upper-crust husband, more a few agreeable parties to pass the time before university. Sheila Johnston meets the modern-day debs
girls may start off rather reluctant," says Anne Hobson, who came out in 1957 and had since ushered a new generation of girls through the system. "When we ask them `would you like to be a debutante?' they immediately say `no' because the idea is not in their make-up. They're much more serious now, there's no doubt about it." And Elizabeth Ungley, who is preparing to launch her third daughter, believes "there's a lot of inverted snobbery about it. A very hard core of daughters have rebelled and put both feet down. There are certain educational establishments that one would have thought would be a hotbed for potential debs, but the worm has turned. Nobody would dare do it, let alone admit to it."

However, her daughter, Portia, did say "yes" although it meant that as the only girl of 60 in her year at school to come out, she came up against some good- natured teasing. "There's a certain amount of fun made at my expense because it's something that nobody ever expected me to do. There's no disapproval involved, it's just `how bizarre'." Her reasons included a healthy curiosity about what is a unique experience. "I'm surprised to find myself doing it, but also glad. I don't think I'll get the chance to meet the people doing the season at any other time. It's admittedly an odd idea to shove a group of 80 girls together and say `right, you're going to parties together for the next 12 months'. But it works." For many at boarding school it's a way of building up London contacts. Mrs Hobart's daughter, Sophie, confesses that she too hesitated, but was persuaded by friends and by family tradition. "I wouldn't have pushed her into it at all," says Mrs Hobart ."I showed her some cuttings from last year's season and she met a few girls who'd done it. In the end her only reservation was `do I have time?' "

When asked for an interview Peter Townend huffed: "Certainly not.". Asked if he wanted publicity for the fund-raisers, he replied that he would much prefer them to be select and low-profile. But everyone else is anxious to point to the good causes: the appropriately female-oriented charities that will be the beneficiaries of the two main social events. The Berkeley Dress Show will raise funds for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, while September's ball is held in aid of Queen Charlotte's Hospital, which specialises in obstetrics and the prevention of handicap in babies. That's not to say it isn't fun. These girls are no different from the thousands of other stir-crazy school-leavers celebrating the end of exams and perhaps it would be churlish to begrudge them the fact that they have more money than most to spend on their parties.

It is more difficult to defend the whole business against the charges of snobbery. You do not need to be fabulously wealthy in order to do the season. "Contrary to what people expect it can cost amazingly little money," says Lady Celestria. Typically several mothers will club together to throw a small drinks party, "it's rare for a girl to have a large party to herself, much less a full scale ball". As for the frocks, they are more likely to come from Monsoon or a second- hand shop than from a top couturier. And the official line is that anyone can play. "It's not just exclusively for people who happen to come from the right background," Anne Hobson says. "In fact I don't think the girls like that. The elitism has gone. With the season now anyone can join in." Elizabeth Ungley adds: "There's an automatic assumption that because you don't speak BBC English there's no point in going for it. But I don't think that's true." Still, one suspects that if Sharon from Romford, much less Dyanne from Brixton, wanted to join the list, they might get turned away with a dusty answer; and even if they were accepted, they would, as one insider says, be likely to have problems "fitting in".

On the other hand, one can scarcely blame the debs for grabbing the advantages while they are there. They might be privileged by their class, but they're handicapped by their gender and there are more than enough old school ties around to help their male counterparts. The season is, in essence, a brilliantly effective upmarket women's network: the mothers-who-lunch do more than just that and Anne Hobson says she now runs a small antiques business with a friend she made while bringing out her daughter. "The reason most girls do it is that they might meet a couple of kindred spirits," says one journalist who successfully went through the mill in the late Eighties. "I wouldn't have done it if my mother hadn't made me. But it's put me streets ahead." Meanwhile the debs in waiting are taking the only course of action they can: closing their eyes, holding their noses and taking the plunge. "I haven't told most people I'm doing it because I know how they look at it: rich girls having parties and finding boyfriends," says Catherine Redpath, another deb. "It's not like that but it's difficult to explain. But I've decided to do this, I'm going to enjoy it. If they don't understand it, it's their problem."

The Berkeley Dress Show will be held on 2 April at 6.30pm. For more details telephone 0171-734 7070