Tue 16 Apr 2002
Isabelle Coaten, 17, leads the way at the start of this year’s
debutantes’ season on the catwalk at the Berkeley Dress Show.
A deb’s delight,
but how long can it last?
By Karen McVeigh
THEY may have dwindled
in number, but according to the gals taking part in this year’s season,
the widely predicted demise of the debutante has been greatly
Around a catwalk in London’s Dorchester Hotel, where the Berkeley Dress
Show traditionally kicks off the social season, an astonishing array of
lavishly feathered headgear was gathered yesterday. Under it were
debutantes from the past 50 years, ranging in age from 17 to 67, being
put through their paces by a fierce-looking woman in a leather skirt.
It is the first show since the death of Peter Townend, the social
consultant of Tatler magazine, who compiled the list of debs and the
male equivalent, the debs’ delights, since the war - and the first that
has included debs from past seasons.
In all, 67 women and three men took part, to honour a tradition that has
been finding husbands for society ladies since 1780.
This year, only 14 of the aristocracy and upper-middle classes’ finest
were actually "coming out" at the show - compared with last year’s 30,
although the number that "do the season" is much greater, at about 100.
These days, they say, the season may not be about finding husbands, but
is very much alive. It’s about "meeting new friends, having fun and
doing stuff for charity". Incorporating Ascot, Henley, Cowes and a
flurry of parties hosted by names found within the pages of Debrett’s
Handbook, it is also very much about being introduced to all the right
Isabella Lauder-Frost, 17, the great-great niece of the Scottish
entertainer Sir Harry Lauder, plans to balance it with studying for her
A-levels at Christ Hospital School in West Sussex. She plans to go to
university to study the history of art. "It is one of the biggest things
in my life," said Miss Lauder-Frost, whose family live in Edrington in
Berwickshire, in which ancestors have owned land for 600 years.
"It is an amazing opportunity. Where else could I star in a fashion show
and wear lovely clothes? People think, ‘Oh, they just go to parties and
find husbands’, but, to me, it’s far more about helping charity, but in
a fun way. We will raise £25,000 this evening and we’re helping to build
a house in India."
She is not entirely sure of what the season will involve: "I know that
there are polo matches and I’m keen to go because I love horses.
"We had a drinks party on Tuesday night with some of the debs’ delights.
I’m not quite sure what they’re for ... we couldn’t work it out. But at
least they’ll be there to escort us to things."
The debutante season, reported to be in serious jeopardy after Townend’s
death, is an unlikely event in 2002 and many people are predicting it
won’t last much longer. The National Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Children, which benefits to the tune of more than £45,000
from the season, which ends in December with the Snow Ball, admitted
that it was a "real challenge" to keep it going this year.
Melissa Knatchbull, of Harper’s and Queen magazine, which has recently
cut its coverage of the season’s events by 60 per cent, was even more
"The season doesn’t have a future," she said. "I think the debutante
season is irrelevant because girls don’t need help to get married. We
live in a meritocratic society, or at least one where there is a melange
Yesterday, at the Dorchester, the debs disagreed.
"It will never die out because society will never die out," said
Caroline Garvey, 51. "Is Ascot or Henley going to stop? Everyone likes
going to parties."
The older generation of debs say that much has changed. Today, they say,
young girls wear more casual clothes and have a much more casual
Lady Alexander Roche, 67, came out in 1952. She said: "It’s about
education, friendship, working for charity and travelling. That is what
it was about then and that’s what it is now. I never found a husband
there. People have an idea that we were silly, frilly little girls but
we weren’t. It’s a lot more casual now. We would be frightened if we had
not written a thank-you letter to someone."
Frances Smith, whose grandfather was the Marquess of Tweeddale, admitted
she had found her husband as a deb, in 1961. "He didn’t talk to me all
evening, but phoned me later as he decided that I was worth further
investigation. It was a lot stricter then. My mother provided me with a
conversational starter for every subject listed in the Badminton
Dressed to thrill
THE debutante season was originally designed so the youngest and
prettiest of the upper-middle classes and aristocracy could be presented
to the Queen.
It began as an offshoot of Queen Charlotte’s Ball, which took place in
1780, to raise money for Queen Charlotte’s Maternity Hospital in London,
but became a fixture and a method by which well-born girls could be
formally presented at Court and secure suitable marriage partners. The
season, a whirlwind of social events, lasted from the ball in May until
August, the start of the grouse-shooting season. Families would give
coming-out parties for their young daughters and invite relatives as
chaperones to ensure that they met someone suitable.
It remained unchanged until after the Second World War, when young women
gained independence after being involved in the war effort, and it was
no longer considered a must for young women looking for husbands. The
monarchy stopped being involved in the 1960s.
During the last Queen Charlotte’s Ball in 1994 - which was not attended
by the Queen - debutantes curtsied to a colossal 6ft-tall cake.
Today, the debutante season of parties and dances is very different to
the traditional format. it includes Ascot and ends with the Snow Ball in
December and is seen as a fun way of networking.
Scotland Note: Isabelle is now the Countess of Haddo.
Immediately behind her in the picture is Isabella Lauder-Frost.