High Society: Whatever happened to the last of the debs?

One became a princess, naturally. But another became a terrorist, another a rock chic, still another killed herself. Liz Hoggard on the upper class of '58

Bred as socialites, they were sent out into the world with the most rudimentary education. They were expected to marry well, so no one spoke to them of careers or personal ambition. And yet the debs of 1958 - the last year aristocratic young women were lined up to curtsey before the monarch - turned out to be a rather remarkable group of women.

One became an IRA freedom fighter, another an international Marxist. Several chose to marry unconventional men, from monarchs to rock stars. Others went on to successful careers, chairing arts and political organisations, and some becoming powerful public figures. One, Jennifer Murray (née Mather) became a record-breaking helicopter pilot. As the writer and biographer Fiona MacCarthy - herself a 1958 debutante - documents in her new book, Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes, this was the year the socialite was forced to become a modern woman of the world.

March 1958: Buckingham Palace. Fiona MacCarthy, just out of girlhood, ascends the grand Carrera marble staircase, and enters an Alice in Wonderland world of "stagey pomp and comic fancy dress". Debs, dressed in full-skirted, wild-silk dresses and little petal hats balancing on carefully waved hair, nervously - and competitively - eye each other. Moustachioed fathers and bossy mothers look on, as the girls are whisked into a cold anteroom. Here they sit on stiff gilt chairs for what seems like hours before the Lord Chamberlain calls them into the ballroom to curtsey before Queen Elizabeth II, enthroned under a crimson canopy.

The long procession of fresh-faced virgins passes in front of the young Queen, the naughtier ones trying to catch the eye of Prince Philip, or extract a wink. If the deb is the daughter of the peer, the Queen will kiss her hand; if the daughter of a commoner, she will kiss the Queen's proffered hand.

The debutante coming out ceremony, an upper-class rite of passage that marked the emergence of the virgin out of the schoolroom and into society, dated back to the late 18th century, when it was launched by Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, to mark her birthday feast. The purpose was to display aristocratic 17-year-old women to eligible bachelors (known as "debs' delights") and their families within a select upper-class circle. Only girls who had a relation who had herself been presented at court could apply.

Long before wives and girlfriends and supermodels, the debutante was the first modern celebrity, beloved by society photographers and newspaper diarists. She was also a fashion plate. In the 1920s, she was expected to wear an ostrich feather headdress and a white dress with a long train to be presented at Buckingham Palace. This was seen as a symbol of virginity - but also a form of wedding dress. Once successfully married, the young bride would be presented again by her mother-in-law at court wearing her real wedding dress. By the late 1950s, however, styles were more informal. The deb was more likely to be the girl in pearls, photographed by bohemian snapper, Tony Armstrong-Jones.

The season ran from late spring through to autumn, taking in key events such as Ascot, the Queen Charlotte Ball (where 150 debs worshipped a giant cake) and the Dublin horse show. It was planned like a small military campaign, with Tatler's social diarist, Betty Kenward ("Jennifer"), keeping a ledger of dance dates booked and bestowing the free dates on grateful mother.

The goal was to get engaged by the end of the season. Deb etiquette was rigorous. A young woman could flirt and go on dates but virginity was a must. Young men who tried to go too far were blacklisted as NSIT (Not Safe in Taxis) or MTF (Must Touch Flesh).

"You could hardly call us teenagers," insists MacCarthy. "We were altogether too formal and submissive, imitations of our mothers, clones of the Queen herself, here at court in our court shoes." The deb uniform was punishing. According to Anna Massey, the actress, who came out in 1955, "We all wore stiletto heels, ruining our feet, trying to make our waistlines minute - if you held your breath you could get it to 17ins. It was unspeakably silly."

It's not surprising that the debutante tradition ended just as the revolutionary 1960s began. John Osborne had written his coruscating play Look Back in Anger two years earlier, satirising the world of old colonels and nice gels.

Even the Crown could see the deb season was becoming debased. Blueblood families were being overtaken by new money, and some canny mothers even ran a black market, charging less aristocratic girls a fee to be presented. As Princess Margaret famously declared: "We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in."

When the Lord Chamberlain announced the end of the royal presentation ceremony in 1958, it provoked a record number of applications from distraught mothers. That year, 1,400 girls curtseyed in front of Queen Elizabeth II, over three days.

Not everyone was sorry to see it go. Behind the grandeur of the debutante season lay anxiety about money and position. "Most girls were going out five nights a week, that's a lot of dresses," recalls Massey. "You spent your time going to the parties of hostesses you had never met before, and you asked people to your party who you didn't know either."

A season could cost up to £120,000 in today's money, and many mothers launching their daughters were war widows. Historically, deb balls and parties had been held in grand townhouses and stately homes; by the late-1950s, many were held in hotels and flats. Food rationing had only ended in 1954, and sometimes a deb's mother and father had to double as the butler and maid. No wonder they expected a return on their investment in the form of an engagement.

By 1958 there was a dawning feeling that the conventional cycle of coming out, courtship and marriage was not the be-all-and-end-all of a woman's life. "The debutante season was a cattle market," Massey says. "So to have a job was just so, so lucky because it gave one a sense of purpose. Who wants to look for a husband at 17? It's a ludicrous age."

The debs of 1958 had one foot in the lost world of their parents or grandparents and one in the world which we know now. Britain was teetering on the brink of feminism. "If you think about it, we were curtseying to the Queen and then burning our bras five years later," Massey says. With the end of the season, the post-war deb was forced to put the only accomplishments she had ever been taught - flower-arranging, needlework, gardening, entertaining - to good effect and become a new breed of female entrepreneur. "It has sometimes seemed to me," MacCarthy observes, "that the official end of the curtseys helped to concentrate the mind on the kind of futures we wanted. There was a breaking of the mould."

Today anyone can have a season if they have the money to pay for it: the criterion for inclusion is not birth anymore but wealth. By 1975 Queen magazine had stopped listing private dances altogether. The London season is now largely a question of polo matches and hunting.

In the 1980s Princess Diana and her Sloaney set represented a moment of upper-class nostalgia. In 1989 there was an attempt to revive the Queen Charlotte Ball - the final straw for purists came when it was featured in Hello! magazine. And this month's issue of Tatler reports that the deb-style coming-of-age bash is back. Aristo teens are demanding no-expenses-spared balls in St Petersburg or, like Princess Beatrice, a lavish event with an 1888 dress code. Only this time around, there's a cool DJ and champagne and Red Bull instead of white gloves.

These days the guest list is more democratic. The new debs may be blue-blood (Lady Eloise Anson, daughter of Patrick Lichfield; Princess Caroline of Monaco's daughter, Princess Charlotte Casiraghi) or hail from the rock, media and business world (such as Peaches Geldof, Lily Cole, Alice Horlick and Julia Restoin-Roitfeld). But one senses these teens will never be as extraordinary as the debs of '58.

'Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes' by Fiona MacCarthy is published by Faber, £17.99, on 5 October

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

The Army daughter who wed the Aga Khan

Sally Croker-Poole: born on the Indian subcontinent, the child of an army family. Became a fashion model and married the English nobleman, Lord James Crichton-Stuart in London's Brompton Oratory. But then she fell in love with her second husband, the fourth Aga Khan, Prince Karim Aga Khan, one of the richest men in the world. She converted to Islam and became Her Highness Begum [Princess] Salima. She lived in the lap of luxury, but tired of her husband's playboy lifestyle and divorced him in 1994. She won the right to sell at auction the £18m collection of jewels he had given her, including the Begum Blue diamond. "I've only got one pair of ears and one neck, and the sale has enabled me to live a more balanced life," she told Hello! magazine in 2002. She is now a child-welfare activist and a prominent supporter of the charity SOS Children. "I wanted to do something hands-on and active," she insists. Today she lives in London with Phillipe Lizop, the lawyer who managed her divorce.

The beauty who ran off with a pop star

Nicolette Powell: the blonde Pre-Raphaelite beauty married the 9th Marquess of Londonderry (brother of Lady Annabel Goldsmith), an unconventional marquess who ran a jazz band - the Eton Five - while still at school and refused to give his fiancée an engagement ring. The young couple were hailed by the press as an example of the new unstuffy aristocracy. They had two daughters and a son, initially brought up as the heir to the Londonderry title, but the Marquess later proved he was not the father. Nicolette had fallen in love with pop star Georgie Fame (after first seeing him on Top of the Pops in 1964. With supreme irony it was her sister-in-law, Lady Annabel, who rang her up to tell her to switch on the TV) - and she began an affair. She and Fame were married at Marylebone register office in 1972, where they were mobbed by the singer's screaming fans. They attempted to live quietly and had another son together, but by the 1990s she was suffering from depression and committed suicide by jumping off Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The deb who became an IRA terrorist

Rose Dugdale: daughter of the Lloyd's underwriter, Eric Dugdale, did the season under sufferance. At Oxford she gatecrashed the Oxford Union wearing men's clothes as a protest against women's exclusion. She abandoned her academic career and cashed in her share of the family syndicate at Lloyd's to distribute among the poor, and moved in with married shop steward Wally Heaton. In 1973 she was arrested for a burglary at her parents' home - police suspected the proceeds would go to Wally's IRA connections. In court, Rose told her father: "I love you but hate everything you stand for." In 1974, she was sentenced to nine years on charges of conspiring to smuggle arms and explosives to Ulster. She and three IRA accomplices broke into Sir Alfred Beit's home and stole paintings to trade for the release of Dolours and Marion Price, sisters jailed for life on explosive charges. She had a son in prison, then married the father, the IRA terrorist Eddie Gallagher. She lives in Ireland and is director at Dublin Community Television.

The deb bride who launched a rock festival

Christine Stucley: married David Cobbold, heir to Knebworth in Hertfordshire, whom she met in the season of 1958. "Attracted by my low-cut, green dress and long hair, he had wandered over and asked: 'Are you a mermaid?' " she recalls. Christine has not lived a life of idle luxury, however. Knebworth, an Elizabethan manor house with fabulous Gothic additions, was a demanding property to keep up. David's parents were on the point of giving it away to Hertfordshire county council, to turn into university buildings, but even they didn't want it. Christine recognised its potential as a visitor attraction like Woburn and Longleat, and she and David developed the site. They also set up the massive Knebworth rock festival which featured stars such as Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.

The It girl who took to politics

Diane Kirk: darling of the gossip columns, she told one newspaper, she was looking for a job "ideally as a film star". She modelled for Pierre Cardin in front of a gilt-framed painting by Gainsborough in 1958 and married Earl Beatty in 1959. Although he was 54 and thrice married. A Unionist MP, he encouraged Diane to enter politics and in 1968 she was elected to Westminster Council. From 1980-1995 she was the first woman on the board of Anglia TV and from 1991-97, a trustee of National Heritage Memorial Fund. She is now chairman of the Georgian Group and the Prince of Wales's Drawing School.

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