Gels just want to have fun

The Season opens tonight, but debutantes want unwedded bliss not marriage, says Libby Spurrier
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The origins of the London social season go back 216 years, to a royal birthday present. In 1780, for her 36th birthday, George III gave his wife, Queen Charlotte, a party at which the newest and prettiest girls in town were presented to her. This charming and (at that time) novel idea became the launch pad of the London "Season". The girls, known as debutantes (from the French for "beginner") were formally presented to the sovereign, after which they floated off like a flock of young swans on the waters of London's social life. The significant fact was that they had seen their sovereign face to face; proud fathers and fussing mothers had been identified ("yes, she's one of the Yorkshire Swales" people would say for ever afterwards), and the girl could now head serenely for the Sea of Matrimony.

Until the end of the 19th century, there were only between 5,000 and 10,000 members of the titled classes and landed gentry, and most people lived within horse-and-carriage range of only a few dozen: hence the need to come to London to command a decent selection of marriage partners. Money and property have always been important elements in a "good marriage" - see Jane Austen, passim - but connections, or what the aristocracy called "cousinage", were even more vital. Being well born was more important than being well heeled.

Between 1780 and 1930, the shape and purpose of the Season remained basically unchanged. A family that was too poor, or disinclined, to accompany its fledgling to London for three months (from May till the start of the grouse- shooting season) could use a chaperone to drag her from ballroom to ballroom. Originally, this might be a married sister or an unmarried aunt, though in due course the practice was corrupted and paid chaperones were used - but always sneered at.

A marriage market is, in truth, what the Season has always been about - which is why, today, it has become no more than an illusion. Few "gels" are docile enough to take much notice of their parents' wishes in the matter of a husband, and, even among the upper classes, the practice of cohabitation has taken hold.

For pretty, witty, confident girls the season could be highly enjoyable; but then, for girls like that most things are. For those unfortunates who were shy, plain, bookish or simply gauche, the Season was a nightmare. Debs from the Thirties remember spending half the night in the ladies' powder room, pretending to stitch a fallen hem rather than face the ordeal of a dance floor full of strangers. Today's more assertive young women would be more likely to retire to the ladies' powder room for quite another sort of powder. Times have changed, and with them the Season.

The fundamental change is that a woman's sole destiny no longer has to be a lifetime of marriage and breeding - first children; then dogs and horses. Two world wars have transformed the social landscape. During both wars many young women worked in hospitals, and in the second, served in the armed forces. They found that even lowly and harrowing work could be more satisfying than marriage and domesticity, however grand. In any case, there is always a shortage of eligible young men and a superfluity of heart-broken young women in the aftermath of war.

Finally, the class structure was changing and with it the money basis of the aristocracy. The upper classes were getting poorer; many could no longer afford to spend tens of thousands of pounds in search of a suitable husband for an increasingly rebellious daughter.

For all these reasons, what today purports to be the Season is a shadow of its former reality. True, there are still events such as the Berkeley Dress Show, which opens the Season tonight, and Queen Charlotte's Ball, but these have to advertise for recruits in girls' boarding schools, and are laboriously puffed into life by an army of snobbish PRs. In reality, these have become occasions at which rich businessmen make good contacts while their wives try to set up a future social life against the empty days when their daughters have flown the coop - most probably not into matrimony at all, but to go backpacking in Nepal, share a flat in Fulham or even to live in unwedded bliss with some quite unsuitable fellow.