The Hon. Mrs Evans-Freke invites you to join the class of '97

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The Independent Online
For many without a sense of history, "Debs" is likely to be the young woman at the check-out in Sainsbury's.

But as Britain approaches the millennium, the tradition of The Season, when young upper-class girls - debutantes or Debs - come out "into society", is alive and flourishing in this allegedly hip and classless nation.

No longer are Debs presented to the Queen before rushing off across London dance floors in search of a suitable mate.

Last night, the traditional curtain-raiser to the season came in the form of the Berkeley dress show at the Dorchester Hotel in London's Park Lane. It ends at the Queen Charlotte's Ball in the autumn.

The organisers are at pains to stress the charitable purpose - about pounds 20,000 was raised for the co-host, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, courtesy of rich mothers paying pounds 50 for their girls to network.

However, a quick glance at the names taking part or the committee organising the show reveals the upper class origins of the tradition. The Hon Mrs John Evans-Freke, Countess Coronini von Cronberg and the surnames von Pflugl, Mackenzie-Charington and Poole-Warren are just a sample. One wag claimed there were more double-barrels than at an average clay-pigeon shoot.

The Berkeley dress show takes the form of a fashion parade, with clothes from the distinctly egalitarian firm Next, in which the debutante models, watched by adoring parents, have been trained to "have the confidence of a super model" at the Lucy Clayton College, including a dress rehearsal with strict instructions on how to "tuck their bottoms in" and "swivel their hips".

The 24 models plus the remainder of this season's 70 debutantes have already undergone the rigours of a "selection tea party" at which the veteran society figure Peter Townend, of the Tatler magazine, chooses the lucky girls to star in the show.

The whole notion of Debs nearly foundered in the late 1980s when girls of 17 and 18 were effectively forced to choose between the hectic social demands of the season or a decent university education.

But, according to Judith Kark, principal of the Lucy Clayton College, the season has now changed, to allow debutantes to continue with their studies, and provoking a revival of interest.

"If it keeps changing and keeps its social conscience I can see it continuing into the new millennium," she said.

Now it seems the debutantes can continue their fun, perhaps meeting a "Deb's delight" - the name for an eligible young man - at one of the obligatory drinks parties, or at sporting events, such as Polo at Smith's Lawn, happy in the knowledge that successful careers still beckon them after the season's busy networking.

Marriage, apparently, is no longer the main object.

"It used to be about meeting a nice young man," admits Ms Kark.

"But now most parents would be horrified if a Deb came home at the end of the season and said 'I'm engaged'."