In the Nineties the London Season, starting this week, is less a way to meet a suitably upper-crust husband, more a few agreeable parties to pass the time before university. Sheila Johnston meets the modern-day debs
his Tuesday Mrs Rob Hobart (chairman) and the committee request the pleasure of your company at the Berkeley Dress Show, and with it the first night of an ancient British institution; the annual debutante season.

Alas, the Glorious Second also marks the beginning of something else: the media's open season on the upper-middle classes. "Be kind," I was urged repeatedly when researching this article. Everyone involved is on the defensive about something that most people still regard as an event for a bunch of selfish bimbos who enjoy splurging lots of money on having fun. One deb talked over tea with two of the mothers hanging on to her every word; the suggestion that we might meet unchaperoned was smartly quashed: "We wouldn't want anything said that could be misunderstood by people who have their own views on the deb season whether they know anything about it or not."

The office of the Queen Charlotte's birthday ball, which marks the proceedings' unofficial end in September, would like the press to say that it will be a beautiful and glamorous event that will raise lots of money for sick babies. The press, regrettably, would prefer to write about debs streaking, and had a field day last year when two American girls, Delight and Cherish Thompson, were invited to the ball, causing much pursing of lips ("it could have been perceived as becoming a free-for- all" said one mother) and an embarrassing public spat.

Coming out is no longer what it used to be. Presentation at court, once its focal point, was considered old hat and stopped nearly 40 years ago, while the lavish balls have steadily thinned out in favour of low-key, early evening drinks. As a marriage market - once its raison d'etre - it is now a non-starter: boys are no longer an unknown quantity for the modern girl, and few, if any, hope to land a husband from the circuit. "They are more likely to meet a lot of other girls - not so many young men," says Lady Celestria Noel, the social editor of Harpers & Queen. "It's a girlie thing." Besides, they are are cramming for A-levels and will be out of circulation for the first few months of the season, which will not enter full swing until mid-June, after the exams, and will peter out in September as most of them drift off to university. In the meantime the events are kick-started by the mothers over smart lunches.

At the centre of all this is one man, Peter Townend, "social consultant" to Tatler magazine and the kingpin of the circuit for more than 20 years. Townend keeps tabs on the right families, and each year writes to those mothers with daughters about to come of age inviting them to take part. The resulting list of names is used by hosts when sending out invitations. But a large question mark hangs over the future. "We're all very worried, really worried," said one mother, asked what will happen when he retires. But for the time being, through his diligent efforts, the institution survives. A generation ago the list ran to more than 400 names. The 1996 line-up has shrunk to less than a quarter of that number. "The