Queen Charlotte's Ball is the crowning event of the London Season, a programme for a hand-picked group of girls from rich backgrounds. Girls like (left to right) Maria Austin, Amelia Simmons, Sophie Bonello, Zoe Rawson and Georgina Riddle become debutantes for a season - attending social events, taking part in etiquette classes and charity fund-raising.
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"The modern London Season also has a more international twist than its traditional predecessor."
The last of the old-school British debutantes were presented to Queen Elizabeth in 1958, the start of an era less about royal balls and more about rock ’n’ roll.
But although the old rituals of the London Season -- a six-month spree of parties during which the daughters of aristocratic families were introduced to court, and to blue-blooded potential husbands -- have ended, the tradition and the luxury persist today in a slightly modified form.
The current London Season, crowned by the Queen Charlotte’s Ball that took place on Sept. 14, involves meetings with aristocracy and etiquette training. But it is more about philanthropy and setting girls up with networking opportunities than finding them someone to marry, said organiser Jennie Hallam-Peel.
“So many of the fathers are partners in law firms, of they’re chairmen of banks or hedgefunds or whatever, and they’re able to create something for the girls,” said Hallam-Peel, who also stressed that events had raised millions over the years for children’s charities.
The girls, normally aged 17 to 20, are selected through an application process, during which both they and their parents are interviewed, and they take part in organising parties and charity events. According to Hallam-Peel, only around half of the girls have relatives who were former “debs.”
The debutantes themselves stressed the importance of fund-raising, but also enthused about Queen Charlotte’s Ball, the high-point of the season that took place at the sumptuously decorated One Whitehall Place in London, and which involves a special curtsying ritual and a nine-tier white cake.
“The ball is a fun opportunity to wear nice dresses and things. We don’t float around in nice ball gowns 24/7… It felt like that was a nice kind of reward for all the work we’d done thought the year,“ said debutante Maria Austin, 20, who went to Notre Dame, a girls school in Surrey, and who now studies drama and theatre studies at Royal Holloway.
Austin, who wants to either become a classical actor or go into business development, said she was attracted to the Season because of the opportunity to take part in philanthropy.
“A lot of my friends went over to Malawi and Cambodia and did something worthwhile and I wanted to have a chance to give something back a little bit so I was really interested in the charity side of it,” she said.
The modern London Season also has a more international twist than its traditional predecessor, as the girls attend occasions for privileged young women around the world.
“I’m doing a little world tour – I’m going to Dubai in November for the Kind Hearts and Coronets Ball, to New York in December for the International Debutante Ball, and also in January to the International Debutante Ball taking place in Shanghai,” said Zoe Rawson, 18, who has begun a degree in geography at Edinburgh University.
Despite this international aspect, Hallam-Peel stressed that the Season and the Queen Charlotte’s Ball were still about holding onto England’s past.
“I do feel as an English person, it’s really important to preserve our traditions. All these people come into our country and they maintain their traditions, and we tend to have our traditions eroded because we’re so easy-going,” she said.
But debutante Amelia Simmons, 21, who studies history at University College London, stressed that some of the formal aspects of the Season were not particularly important to her, saying that she was motivated to take part in the by the opportunity to do good work.
“People place too much importance on etiquette… it’s more important to train people to be good and kind and charitable than how to use cutlery,” she said.
“I was bought up reading Debrett’s so I knew most of it already and I didn’t pay too much attention,” she added.