Page last updated at 10:42 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 11:42 UK

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The return of the debutantes

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

For the first time since 1997 young women will dress in virginal white, curtsey to a minor royal and partake of a giant cake at Queen Charlotte's Ball. It's the return of the debutantes - but who are they and what do they do?

"We did NOT curtsey to the cake. Let's get that straight," says Elfrida Eden Fallowfield, a debutante in 1958, and niece of Sir Anthony Eden. "Debutantes curtsey to the person they are being presented to, not the cake."

Elfrieda, right, and friend set off for the palace in 1958
Elfrieda, right, en route to the palace

It's a common misconception. At the Queen Charlotte's Ball - started in 1780, and resurrected on Wednesday after a 12-year hiatus - there is indeed a very large, very white, and very elaborate cake as the centrepiece.

And the debutantes line up in rows to drop curtseys in its general direction. But they will be genuflecting to Duchess of Somerset and Princess Olga Romanov, a descendent of the Russian Imperial family. Not the eight-foot cake itself.

For decades the ball, then held in May, acted as a starting gun for the Season, a six-month whirl of parties and events to launch young ladies, aged 17 to 18, of certain wealth and/or breeding on to the marriage market.

Not only did parents hope their daughters would meet a suitable young man, the Season aimed to equip the young women with poise, confidence and social skills needed for their married lives. "Career woman" was not a phrase much heard in those days.

"After the presentation at court [to the monarch], it was the next most important aspect of the Season," says Ms Fallowfield, of the Queen Charlotte's Ball. Aged 18 she was among the last debutantes to be presented at Buckingham Palace in 1958 - the year Queen Elizabeth called time on the anachronistic practice.

We had to put a stop to it - every tart in London was getting in
Princess Margaret

The aura of a closed circle jarred with the new Queen's desire for a more modern monarchy and her sister, Princess Margaret, was said to have detected a decline in the calibre of invitees. "We had to put a stop to it - every tart in London was getting in," she is said to have commented.

After the Windsors removed themselves from the formal debutante framework, the ball was kept alive by Tatler's social editor, Peter Townend, as a social and charitable event. He passed away in 2001, several years after the ball folded.

"The Queen Charlotte's Ball is not quite what it once was in our day," she sniffs in reverie.

Madame Vacani teaches three debutantes the correct way to curtsey, 1936
Curtsey lessons with Madame Vacani

"In my day it was terribly grand, held in Grosvenor House. We were taken to Madame Vacani [the royal dance instructor] to learn to curtsey. And we felt terribly grown up in our dresses. Mine was very lacy, with hundreds and hundreds of mother-of-pearl sequins."

In the latter years of the ball, while working as principal at the Vacani School of Dance, Ms Fallowfield for a time took on the task of teaching debutantes to curtsey and to waltz.

"They'd troop in in their jeans and Doc Martens, but we went along looking like mini-mothers. But they loved it."

Party time

To the casual observer, Wednesday's Queen Charlotte's Ball has all the trappings of those that went before - except that it is held in September, rather than May - which these days is considered too close to exam time.

Deportment lessons
The season was an opportunity to hone one's social skills

Now, the event raises funds for Imperial College London's Wolfson and Weston Research Centre for Family Health - continuing the ball's long tradition of raising money to improve the health of mothers and babies (the hospital that used to benefit became known as Queen Charlotte's Hospital in west London).

Its origins lay in the desire of George III's wife for an amusing birthday celebration.

"She thought it would be fun to have her favourite ladies-in-waiting bring in a cake," says Mrs Fallowfield.

From these intimate beginnings, it became an annual ball at which mothers brought their daughters of marriageable age to be presented to Queen Charlotte. This became formalised into the debutante season.

The white dresses worn by Wednesday's debs nod to the virginity that was once required of a bride, and also hark back to the outfits worn by Queen Charlotte's ladies, who all would have been single women.

Coming down the stairs
Massed debs process down the stairs

But today's "debs" are drawn from a larger pool than in the past, and come from home and abroad. Nor is the Season the key method to finding a mate, now women habitually go on to higher education and careers beyond that.

Tamara McCombe is one of the select few who will be attending the new incarnation of the ball. She's about to start university after a year out which has seen her work in the Far East and do some travelling.

While the ball has been absent for 12 years, the Season itself never went away, and now revolves around a series of charitable social events with the emphasis on fundraising.

"There are house parties, there are cocktail parties. There's always lots of money raised."

The social element seems secondary, and is as much about generating further contacts for fundraising.

"It's about, as far as I'm concerned, meeting new girls from not necessarily your social circle.

Debutante Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff, at her coming-out ball at the Dorchester Hotel, London, 29 June 1968
Princess Olga in her debutante days

"Originally it was a marriage market… having financial backing is no longer [necessary]. They feel they can fund themselves rather than have to rely on a rich husband. Having their own lives is enough. People don't need to be organised into parties to have fun."

She contrasts the social background of the old school debs with today's more egalitarian times.

"It was incredibly elite. A lot of the girls come from single parent background and have to finance their own way through university."

The modern version may look a bit like the old version, but it's really just for show.

"They wanted to keep some traditional elements for the novelty. [Everyone] knows this is not normal - we all think its somewhat surreal."


Below is a selection of your comments.

It seems such a waste when they are obviously bemused by the tradition to spend all that money on expensive dresses, etc when the charities are desperate for funding.
Laurene Reid, Houston, West Renfrewshire

How lovely to see a tradition resurrected instead of dumped as is usually the case these days.
D Avery, Bushey

I, for one, support this to the hilt and would encourage any other activities which involve giant cakes. Frankly, at this time of economic worries we all need a giant cake to look forward to and I'm certainly taken with the idea. I may very well have a do with my own giant cake. The invitees being myself, the cake and a fork.
Ian, Redditch

I hope that the Pythonesque sport of removing the bra from the deb will still be included. I presume, though, that in these baseless days a gal can qualify as a deb through having loads of dosh as well as having a daddy who owns some shire or other.
Dave Loochin, London

My grandmother was presented to Queen Mary and she taught me to curtsey just in case I was ever presented at court or attended a debutants' ball. Alas, it was never to be and it is a skill I am still waiting to use.
Christina, Parkstone

What a quaint and old fashioned way to raise money for charity. Still, if it keeps them in their social ghetto, then great.
Tom Hogg, Edinburgh, Scotland

What I'm interested to know is how the girls who are attending this have been chosen. I really hope that in this day and age, with so many deserving girls from all backgrounds, they haven't got their tickets based on the wealth or influence of their parents. Getting rid of events like this, which judge young people on their parents' social standing, were key moves in breaking down the class boundaries that are one of the worst aspects of British society.
"Joe Bloggs", London

I'd like to go. How, perchance, can one get a ticket to the events? Does Primark do gowns for the occasion?
Shaw, London

This kind of farcical parade is what makes England a laughing stock around the world. Class division and elitism are dangerous entities and during a recession - where millions are literally facing destitution - it is sick to hear of "ladies" waltzing around an eight-foot cake. These people should show more humility.
Chris Mitchell, Brixham, England

What a hoot, this country could do with some culture and this looks great. If the grim socialists had their way, all we would have would be grotty celebrity soap stars.
Jeremy Slawson, Plymouth, UK

It really does sound amazing. Although I don't think I would go to one to find a guy. No, I rather go to university, but it looks like so much fun.
Rachael Macdonald, Falkirk, Scotland

An event to "launch young ladies, aged 17 to 18, of certain wealth and/or breeding on to the marriage market" should remain firmly in the past, where it belongs.
Emma, London

Debutante Balls are organised at most high schools in Australia where the "girls" come out at age 16. They are dressed in white and, along with their partners, learn to ballroom dance. Balls are usually held in a hotel/convention centre with formal room. The school orchestra plays and there is a dinner. Girls are presented to their families - usually many generations - and friends, and are expected to have a formal dance with their fathers or substitute. The boy partners also dance with their mothers or substitute. After the formal part of the evening, all usually change and it becomes a dance where everyone enjoys themselves.
Stan, Melbourne, Australia



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SEE ALSO
Audio Slideshow: The 'debs' of 1958
11 Jun 08 |  Magazine

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