Coming Out & The Season

London Portrait Magazine 06-1984

Coming Out may be going out but The Season goes on for ever.
CHRISTOPHER LONG thinks today's debs may be getting their priorities right.

"The difference between 1954 and 1984 is that then they were all mum look-alikes while today the mums have a full-time job to keep up with their daughters."

That observation on the Season from its grand master of ceremonies, Peter Townend, rather neatly sums up the way in which the much maligned, much over-rated and often misunderstood phenomenon of coming out has changed in thirty years.

Much maligned because most people who've never taken part in this annual ritual have to rely on often rather preconceived, cynical and ill-informed reports from the press and the imaginings of gossip-columnists.

Over-rated because no-one who has been through the procedure in recent years could honestly say that it is as glamourous, thrilling and magical as it might once have been and is still sometimes claimed to be.

Misunderstood because things have changed out of all recognition since the '50s. The nostalgic and rather romantic English still choose to believe that it's all just as it used to be.

The truth is rather different. Gone are the Court Presentations when only a privileged few were launched into the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace before being launched in turn into Society.

Gone too is Queen Charlotte's Ball where demure girls, dressed in virginal white, curtseyed to a cake and secretly wished that the season ahead would bring all the answers to a maiden's prayer (whatever they might be).

But most of all, gone are the lazy, hazy days of the 1930s when mothers and daughters had very little else to do with their time and when the whole pattern of English life was unrecognisable by today's standards.

Today it's all quite different – and quite right too.

'A' Levels, university entrance, jobs, careers or any employment at all are the realities that today's maidens pray for. Now that women have won the right (whether they like it or not) to live independent, self-supporting lives – whether single, married or divorced – further education and careers are a top priority.

Personal wealth and social status may once have been a passport to success but now you need a visa too. The visa requires girls to be socially mobile, infinitely adaptable and prepared in all ways to survive in an increasingly insecure and hostile world. All these are things that debutantes of yesteryear learnt about least at tea dances and fashion houses.

Today the girls they meet on the Season circuit may be more valuable than the men. And it's an unwise girl who thinks the circuit alone will equip her to survive. The wise ones treat it as a treat.

In the 1920s and 1930s mothers brought out their daughters because, for girls of a certain background, it was an essential training ground, a necessity for those who would one day (pray God!) marry the sort of chap whose life and career would demand a wife with the poise, sophistication and social skills that the Season was supposed to equip them with.

But the loss of India and Empire, coupled with the arrival of post-war emancipation and the winds of utilitarian change, soon turned the deb season into a dull anachronism.

With great prescience the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh abolished the Court presentations after 1958 and in this ungarnished fashion the ritual staggered on until the full force of the Sixties took high society by the scruff of its neck and shook it as surely as it shook every other aspect of the Establishment and society at large.

What happened from 1963 onwards was that the whole deb scene became fun. It had to – otherwise it would have died. In those early years, if I remember correctly, it was Lady Jacqui Rufus Isaacs and Melissa Cunliffe who were among those that led the way to a freer, less regimented Season.

Queen Charlotte's Ball still blew the starting whistle, but young guards' officers were prepared to gatecrash the ball and vanish into the night with a girl apiece.

It was then that couples were found making love on the band-stand in Hyde Park just yards from where benign parents watched their apparently virginal offspring 'twisting' away to the first live pop groups to be heard in London hotels.

It was then that girls refused to come out at all if the dubious delights of drop-out life had more appeal, or they had already graduated to evenings spent more enticingly with someone's husband at the Garrison, Les Ambassadeurs, instead.

A healthy spirit of rebellion continued well into the 1970s.

In 1974, Sarah Myburgh and Victoria Mather felt prevailed upon to streak through Queen Charlotte's stark naked – later hiding under a table and begging delighted gossip columnists not to tell their fathers. But by 1976, Queen Charlotte's was abandoned almost exactly 50 years after it was founded by Marguerite, Lady Howard de Walden to raise funds for the hospital of the same name. Lady Mancroft was its last guest of honour.

Just as the Chelsea Arts Ball had died in decadent disarray ten years before, so the last formal link with the days of tiaras, pearls and the Palace had died too [... though the author was among those who resusitated the Chelsea Arts Ball from 1980, held at the Chelsea Arts Club where he was then living].

Inflation and the property crashes of the early '70s began to put paid to many of the lavish set-piece balls in London hotels and large country houses. Even the nouveau riche (perhaps the nouveau riche in particluar, in view of the property crash) tightened their belts and felt happier about paying £10-15 per head to fill a table at a charity ball and leave it to a relative few to lay on a something spectacular.

Yet in other way things hadn't changed much. Mothers and daughters still gathered over lunches and teas early in the year to fix dates for drinks, dances and pre-dance dinners. The Times and The Daily Telegraph still announced the fixture list in February. Peter Townend was still acting as unofficial go-between for mothers bringing out daughters or in need of extra men from his list of 'delights' – all guaranteed suitable and dinner-jacketed.

As always there was the Summer Exhibition {Royal Academy], Ascot, Henley, Goodwood, Wimbledon and the Chelsea Flower Show to fill the days while charity balls like the Royal Caledonian and The Rose proliferated and boomed. And, most of all, Betty Kenward was there to record it all in Harpers & Queen – a task she had performed in one way or another as the doyenne of the 'do' since 1942.

And that, many people believe, is what coming out and doing the Season is all about: except that it isn't. Doing The Season – Yes. Coming Out – No.

With eminent practicality and a sober sense of the realities of life, most girls now are more concerned about 'A' Levels and university than spending three or four months sticking out like a sore and very élitist thumb, or looking like a Christmas fairy out of season.

Of course there are a few who take it all very seriously, spending £5,000 of daddy's hard-earned cash at the very least. But only a few of the 150-200 official entrants 'go all the way'.

Popular belief has it that the nouveaux are the ones who take it all too seriously, whereas Peter Townend maintains that it has nearly always been they who have taken the lead and given the best and most original parties.

For the vast majority – perhaps a couple of thousand people all told – coming out has gone out and been replaced by a diary-full of semi-official, charitable and sporting events during the summer from which the participants can choose which they would like to attend. These are interspersed with innumerable private drinks parties and occasional private dances.

Instead of being crammed into the 'A' Level crammer months, the fun is more concentrated between the end of the summer holidays and the post-Christmas rush to the ski slopes – in the partridge shooting season, in fact – September 1 to February 1.

So while the official season runs from April to July, more and more people find themselves fitting in with the Scottish winter season – just as the French do with their fiercely snobbish and exclusive system of rallyes during the winter months.

So what do they do it for, in these oh-so-egalitarian and apparently anti-élitist days?

Certainly not as a marriage market. Very few girls, it seems, expect to find a husband – or are even looking for one among the 'delights' on offer. Male companionship, yes, and almost certainly there's someone in the background to justify those visits to the family planning clinic – even if the family isn't planned for another seven years.

It's my guess that the sex and sensuality that the Sixties sang about so strongly has been found over-rated and less sensational by the generation that was in its nappies then.

For some there's great kudos to be won: enterprising mothers with a competitive spirit, a compliant daughter and a bank balance to fund an ambitious schedule of dress, catering, serious socialising and circuit sampling.

For the vast majority – a far larger number than the exclusive 200 or so who had to jump a clear round over all the fences pre-war – the aim is apparently to widen a circle of acquaintances among people of roughly the same age, background, interests and aspirations... to shed inhibitions, stretch wings, sharpen claws and find some friends to go skiing with in March.

The same principle applies in different ways at all levels in society, of course, though understandably there are still those who fiercely criticise what they see as a profligate waste of money, lavished on children who've done nothing to deserve it, by élitist parents determined to maintain a class divisive status quo.

The argument to that is that hotels, caterers, charities, magazines, photographers, journalists, travel agents, dress-makers and a host of others would be the poorer without it. And in a kill-joy fashion it would be the end of a lot of fun for those who enjoy it if the ritual were ever denied.

Peter Townend, with a memory for names, faces, pedigrees and incident that resembles an almanac, wouldn't be able to recall that Josette Bromovsky's dance was the finest of the vintage year of 1963.

I remember once walking into the ladies loo at The Dorchester, by accident, to see a group of girls, too terrified to venture onto the floor, sitting in their petticoats playing poker, with their dresses on hangers, watched over by a sympathetic cloakroom lady. I doubt if that happens today.

Now, reflecting the spirit of the times, only a very few treat it as an upper class rear-guard action to make sure that suitable alliances are made between a handful of families anxious to keep money, property and precious daughters 'within the fold'.

Now the circuit is open to a wider, more socially mobile sector who find that Ascot, Henley and Goodwood can be combined very happily with endless drinks parties and occasional charity balls, while all of this in turn can be combined with the inevitable cookery and secretarial courses, a stint in an art gallery or estate agents, more directors lunches and more attempts to take the over-subscribed rag-trade and interior decorating jamborees by storm.

For this year's entrants the days of being a leggy, nubile and irresistible nymphet in the company of callow and unsuitable youths have gone. Just for a year they can take up instead with undemanding 'hoorays', Peter Townend's teamsters, or the insufferable 'Duxbridge' set.

Not until next year will some of them have to decide whether Cirencester of the City offers the best prospects for life in the hereafter – producing a man least endowed with paunch, more endowed with the necessary and most likely to be approved of by their girlfriends.

In the meantime the new free-style circuit is far removed from the stuffy days of the '50s, largely thanks to their mothers who helped break the mould in the early '60s. And now, far from bringing out their daughters, it is the daughters who are bringing out their mothers in the 1980s.

1939 The Last Season

Personal Memories of the Sixties

© (1984) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

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