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Isabella Lauder-Frost

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 exaggerated.

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 people.

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 blunt.

"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 of hierarchies."

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 attitude.

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 library."

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.

Electric Scotland Note: Isabelle is now the Countess of Haddo. Immediately behind her in the picture is Isabella Lauder-Frost.


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