If you are prepared to spend about $4,500 per day on clothes, you have cleared one of the many hurdles to become a debutante.
You also need to attend an exclusive school such as Roedean, Cheltenham, or Cherborne. You will spend a “finishing” year in France, Germany, or Switzerland in polishing your command of art, languages, and especially social rules–because the Prince of Wales was known for rebuking a lady if she wore a crescent when she should have been wearing a tiara.*
You will learn how to curtsy properly at the barre in the Vacani School of Dancing in Knightsbridge, putting “the left foot behind the right, leaning the weight on to the right foot, bending the knees, sinking down and rising up in one fluid movement.”**
There is no arguing over the dress you will wear to be presented to the King and Queen: it will be “a short-sleeved white evening dress with a train…between 2 and 3 ½ yards long held in place by a headdress of three white ostrich plumes carefully arranged in the style of the Prince of Wales feathers.”**
You and your sponsor will ride in an elegant car down Pall Mall towards Buckingham Palace with throngs of onlookers. At precisely nine-thirty, the ceremony will begin and you and your sponsor will be announced by full, formal title. You will each execute a flawless curtsy, and–if you are favored–the Prince, King, or Queen might give a brief compliment or acknowledge your family ties.
This moment–this royal imprimatur–shows you are now deemed acceptable for society and for a privileged marriage.
Now you will spend every night for weeks in ballrooms of exclusive hotels such as Claridges or the Dorchester–or in glittering town homes in Mayfair and Park Lane. If you are a debutante in 1939, you might be among the 1,000 guests attending the debutante ball at Blenheim Palace for young Lady Sarah Spencer-Churchill where you enjoy fountains of champagne (Smith 52). You will carry a dance program numbered 1-20 with a pencil attached by a ribbon, and young men will write their names next to the numbers, “signifying which dance they would like to serve as partner.” ***
Your dance partners will judge you as well. Even Winston Churchill and his friend Eddie Marsh played the game, “Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?,” standing by the dance floor and allotting to each face a tally of ships to decide who was worth their interest.
And if you do not measure up in social standing or behavior, you could still be ignored with the “cut direct” where someone looks at you–and then past you without acknowledging you. These judgments could last your lifetime.
To learn more about English social manners, click this link to Debretts:
Next time: American Heiresses Invade as Buccaneers
Photo credit of Lady Olive Baillie and daughters Pauline and Susan (portrait painted by Etienne Drian): Nancy Parrish
*Aslet, Clive. The Last Country Houses. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982; p. 17
**Taggart, Caroline. Her Ladyship’s guide To the British Season. London: National Trust Books, 2013; pp. 35, 26
***Smith, Sally Bedell. Reflected Glory: The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996; p. 42