The true story of Queen Charlotte’s debutantes at Bridgerton
For centuries, London’s social season has revolved around debutantes. Yet in 1958, the last debutante curtsied to Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh at court. The tradition by which thousands of girls had passed to officially “come out” into society was over. Gone are the presentation evenings that had turned from formal affairs requiring girls to wear a court dress with a train, carry a bouquet of flowers and a fan, and wear three feathers in their hair to less formal evenings requiring simple day dresses.
When, in 1957, it was announced that the following year would be the final season for presentations, the palace was inundated with thousands of requests from mothers, aunts and grandmothers wishing to present their eligible daughters. I’ve written a book about a debutante whose life is forever changed by the people she meets and the events that unfold during the 1958 season.
So if so many women were trying to bring their daughters to Buckingham Palace to curtsy to the Queen, why did it all end?
The origins of the beginner
The presentation of court daughters to the monarch is a tradition that began in Britain in the 18th century. (It’s a custom at the center of the Netflix series Bridgerton) When an aristocratic girl came of marriageable age, she was brought to court by a godfather—usually her mother or another older relative—and presented to the monarch. Once that was done, she would be officially “out” in the marriage market.
Throughout the season, a girl was invited to proms and parties in order to meet eligible single men whom she could then marry. In the 18th and 19th centuries, a girl was expected to get an engagement in her first or second season. If she didn’t, she risked being “put away” and facing the life of a spinster.
Who could be a beginner
By the time 1958 rolled around, the rules regarding court debutante presentations were set in stone. A girl could only be introduced by a woman introduced herself, thus limiting the pool of debutantes to a select few.
A beginner’s chaperone would ask the palace for an invitation by writing to the Lord Chamberlain. He would then draw up a list of girls to whom invitations would be offered. These invitations included the invitation itself and two cards which allowed the girls to enter the ballroom for their reverence to the Queen and the reception afterwards where they would be joined by their chaperone.
The exclusivity of requiring a chaperone who had herself been featured meant that some very wealthy girls but of more modest family background would hire a professional chaperone to guide them through the season. By searching The debutante’s last danceI also found that divorced women would not be received at court, a restriction which showed that the palace was far behind in a country where divorce was becoming increasingly common.
A dying tradition
The answer to the question of why the tradition of debutante court presentations ended in 1958 is multi-faceted. The simplest explanation is that the monarchy wanted to distance itself from the practice.
Apparently the Duke of Edinburgh has branded Queen Charlotte’s Ball – one of the highlights of debutante season where debutantes acted as servants and curtsied before a giant cake believed to represent Queen Charlotte of the 18th century – as “bloody idiot” and ended that it takes place at Buckingham Palace. (Actress Golda Rosheuvel plays a fictionalized version of the real Queen Charlotte on Bridgerton.)
Always on the lookout for a good joke or phrase, especially the shocking ones, Princess Margaret is said to have looked around on a debutante party and said, “They’re letting in all the pies in London. ”
Although I seriously question Princess Margaret’s insults against these girls, it is true that the debutante presentations had many more daughters of diplomats, bankers and lawyers in their ranks than daughters of dukes, earls and barons. . The elite of Britain, devastated by two wars, had changed in the first half of the 20th century to such an extent that an Edwardian would hardly recognize the feasts of the Season.
However, an equally likely explanation for the demise of debutante presentations is that the monarchy recognized that society was changing. Queen Elizabeth began her reign with the first televised coronation. She was meant to represent modernity in a Britain that had seen incredible change in the years following World War II.
The last debutante presentations were in 1958, just before the Swinging Sixties, second-wave feminism, and the sexual revolution would change British life forever. More opportunities arose for girls who would also be beginners. Even though college attendance was by no means common for girls, doors were opening. More and more girls were also working, including many newbies from previous years.
Beginners after 1958
The Saison and its focus on debutantes didn’t stop immediately as the palace ended introductions. The season continued for a few more years, with the girls’ families continuing to host balls and parties to bring their daughters into society. However, by the late 1960s and early 1970s the practice had all but died out in Britain.
There has been an attempt to revive the season in the 21st century, but the efforts have been very modest compared to what once was. In other places like Vienna and the United States, the traditions of debutantes unique to those places continue. However, it seems unlikely that the British debutante will hit her prime again.
Julia Kelly is the author of books about ordinary women and their extraordinary stories. In addition to writing, she was an Emmy-nominated producer, journalist, marketing professional, and (for one summer) tea waitress. Julia made her home in Los Angeles, Iowa and New York before settling in London. Readers can visit JuliaKellyWrites.com to learn more about all of her books and sign up for her newsletter so they never miss a new release.
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