Belles of the ball

September 26, 2012

By Olivia Harris

I had thought that ‘debs’ belonged to the pre-1960s days before the pill and equal pay. But at Queen Charlotte’s Ball last week there were eighteen young debutantes who had volunteered for the London Season, the symbolic right of passage to mark their entry into ‘society’ as young women.

The ball was the high point of ‘the season'; six months of parties where young women of money and class were premiered for the marriage market.

The young women at Friday’s Queen Charlotte’s Ball didn’t think it was old fashioned or sexist. None of them would admit they were looking for a husband – or not quite yet, anyway.


They said they wanted to learn confidence in social situations, confidence which might help them to a career.

They also talked about making new friends. The shrewder girls hinted at connections that might be useful in future.

But mostly it seemed to be about the dresses. When they arrived from the dressmaker, glittering clouds of pastels and pinks, there was a real excitement as well as anxiety. Much of the afternoon was spent
squeezing into corsets, adjusting ruffs or drastic complete changes of dress.

The hairdressers worked without a break, straightening hair, putting in curls, fitting tiaras. The make-up women asked about holidays, while the girls compared their Carribbean tans.

And among it all the ball’s coordinator herded the girls from one room to another, pleaded with them to pay attention and wrung his hands over the lack of rehearsal time. Former debutante and organizer Patricia Woodhall was exasperated as the girls walked too fast and then too slow. A hired voice sang the national anthem over and over.

But the final dress procession went off without a hitch. Fathers wept. Even the seven-tier cake remained upstanding in pride of place.

At some point later in the evening one of the debs was given an impromptu lesson in the waltz in the ladies’ toilets. She was to dance with her father later but didn’t know the steps.

Finally, at 1am carriages arrived, mostly black cabs and none of them turned back into a pumpkin. The girls went off to an after party with the men in white bow ties and gloves.

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