The return of the debutante
After 12 years' absence, the traditional 'coming out' ceremony for the young and privileged is back. Jerome Taylor meets the young women who will go to the ball
Monday 10 August 2009
To some, it is one of Britain's finest lost traditions, a celebration of nostalgic pomp that was slowly strangled by class jealously and political correctness. To others, it is an elitist practice that lauds social exclusivity. But for those who thought that the era of the debutantes was long over, think again.
Next month, for the first time in 12 years, 150 young ladies from some of the country's most prominent families will curtsy, sashay and dance the night away at the Queen Charlotte's Ball, the traditional "coming out" ceremony that once heralded the beginning of the season and enabled Britain's aristocracy to parade their eligible daughters to a host of similarly high-born suitors.
The monarchy stopped attending the ball – where girls in white wedding dresses signifying their virginity would curtsy in front of the Queen – in 1958, at a time when Britain's imperial pomp had taken a hammering with the loss of the colonies and the disastrous Suez Crisis.
But thanks largely to Peter Townend, the tireless social editor of Tatler whose memory for debutantes past and present was legendary, the ball and the season's dances, fashion shows and garden parties soldiered on with varying degrees of success.
But in 1997, the Queen Charlotte's Ball folded and once Townend died four years later, the season seemed to be little more than a pale reflection of its former glory days.
Now Jennie Hallam-Peel, a Knightsbridge-based former lawyer who was a friend of Townend, is determined to see the debutante scene resurrected. She is to re-establish the Queen Charlotte's Ball for the first time in more than a decade.
In place of the British monarchy, the girls will curtsy in front of European royalty including Princess Olga Romanov, a descendent of the Russian Imperial family, Princess Katarina of Yugoslavia and the Don Alfonso di Borbon y Franco, otherwise known as the Duke of Anjou and Cadiz.
"I think people are sick and tired of New Labour's political correctness and this horrendous cult of the celebrity," says Mrs Hallam-Peel. "People want to re-instate some of the proud institutions that defined Britain's identity and I believe debutantes are very much part of that."
But what does it mean to be a debutante in the 21st century? In the New Bond Street store Pronovias, an exclusive Spanish wedding dress designer, three modern-day debs are trying on summer dresses that have just arrived from Spain. Tamara McCombe, 19, is the daughter of a Lord and received an invitation to the ball in the post. Her friend Fleur de Sousa, 18, became a deb when Mrs Hallam-Peel came to her Knightsbridge private school and asked the headmaster to recommend someone (Fleur was the head girl and a natural choice). Araminta Lawrie, the quietest of the three, was invited when her mother contacted Mrs Hallam-Peel.
They are all public-school educated but come from a more socially varied scene than the previous generations of entirely aristocratic debutantes. With more than six months of being a debutante behind them, all three are beautiful, poised and exude the kind of confidence that comes easily to professional socialisers.
"I think a big element at the moment for being a debutante is raising money for charity," says Tamara, in a polished answer to the question of what a modern-day debutante does.
"Traditionally it was all about getting married, and then it was about the partying. Now it's very much about raising money. I think particularly in the credit crunch era we can't just go around on the lash and having a party – I think you have to justify it."
Charity does feature prominently. Because of Mrs Hallam-Peel's connections with former royal families in the Balkans, this year's debs have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for causes in Montenegro and Macedonia. The Queen Charlotte's Ball will raise money for a medical research unit run by Imperial College London.
The girls do eventually (and somewhat guiltily) admit that wearing beautiful dresses and indulging in such a glamorous tradition is a big draw. "How often in today's society do you get to swan around in full-length posh dresses," admits Araminta, finishing with a giggle. Fleur adds: "It's every girl's fantasy."
But isn't the whole nature of the debutante scene woefully out of touch with the rest of Britain?
"I wouldn't say we're a broad cross section of society, that would be wrong," says Tamara, who admits to finding out she'd been asked to be a deb while watching Brideshead Revisited and mocking "all those women having tantrums" about parties.
"But we're not all aristocrats whose families have known each other for generations. I met these guys three months ago and our parents are all in very different professions."
Fleur adds: "It's quite a pro-active organisation. You can't just sit back and turn up to the parties, that's not how it works. You want a party, you organise it and raise money for charity." Once the organising is over, the decadence can begin. Little expense has been spared with this year's incarnation of the Queen Charlotte's Ball, which will be held on 16 September and will adhere strictly to the traditions associated with it, including a somewhat bizarre curtsy to an 8ft wedding cake.
Held in the palatial surroundings of the Durbar Court, a cornucopia of marble at the heart of the India Office, each girl will be wearing thousands of pounds worth of Pronovias dresses and jewellery by Mikimoto. (So many pearls will be on display that Mikimoto has hired security guards to patrol the venue in case any go missing.) The ladies will be escorted by family friends and potentially members of the Coldstream Guards in a fleet of Maseratis.
Jennie Hallam-Peel is unapologetic about the lavishness of the scene which she says is counterbalanced by charity. But as most of the girls' families are found on the pages of Debrett's or by being part of a small coiterie of wealthy Londoners, shouldn't there be more emphasis on social mobility within the scene?
"I have thought about this," she says. "But I think it is best we stick to charity. I regrettably agreed to be a judge a few years back on the television show Ladette to Lady which took girls from less fortunate backgrounds and taught them etiquette techniques. I genuinely hoped the show would do some good but, of course, once it was over these girls were just sent packing back to their lives."
It was in the 1960s, when sexual liberation de-emphasised the importance of virginity, that the first debutantes began to publicly criticise the scene in which they had been a part. One described the season as "the upper class version of a puberty rite".
But at the start of the new century this new generation of debutantes seem hooked. "I'm not going to deny how much fun I had and if I had a daughter I'd definitely encourage her to do it," says Fleur.
"It's been great to meet new people and do loads of things you probably wouldn't be able to get to do otherwise. And it's all for a good cause."
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