The last debutantes

In March 1958, 1,400 teenage girls were presented to The Queen. They were the final debutantes, marking the end of a ritual that spanned 200 years and was imitated across the English-speaking world. Fifty years later, ‘The Last Debutantes’, a new exhibition at Kensington Palace, rediscovers that vanished realm.

Fiona MacCarthy, former deb and author of Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes, says that there was a ‘certain melancholy’ among those 1958 debs who realised that their coming out marked the end of an era. ‘We had a sense of a way of life coming to an end—not only the Season, but all the beautiful big houses we went to parties in starting to crumble, and their owners wondering if they could afford to maintain them.’ Fellow deb Auriol Stevens remembers that the 1958 Season ‘was very make do and mend’. She and her mother would sit up at night stitching dresses on a sewing machine.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Tim Burnett, a former ‘debs’ delight’, recalled the stark contrast between the luxuries of the Season and the hardships of post-war Britain. During his £10-a-week job as a canvasser, he ‘knocked on doors all over London, including at some pretty grim council blocks. It showed me how privileged the deb world was compared with everyone else’s. But it didn’t stop me enjoying the excesses of the Season—I was literally a Champagne Socialist!’

A display of headlines at the start of the exhibition shows the kind of challenges that were threatening the status quo, from the political (‘4,000 join “Ban H-bomb” march’) and geographical (‘Antarctica is a continent—proof obtained on crossing’) to the social (‘First woman bank manager’). Against this backdrop, the world of the debutante certainly seems anachronistic.

‘We were the last conformist generation—our parents chose our friends, our clothes and our views,’ says Mr Burnett, who spent the Season in formal attire inherited from ‘great-uncle someone-or-other’. Among the dresses on show are two Christian Dior gowns, one worn by 1958 deb Margaret Mackay, the other by her mother; their similarity in style suggests the overriding influence of parents when it came to dress.

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Such clothes favoured femininity over practicality, and Miss MacCarthy admits that they were hard to move in—‘but when you feel you look good, you do put up with it!’

‘Clothes are very evocative—they bring back those scenes, X wearing that to that ball’, which is why curator Deirdre Murphy wanted to track down the original creations for the exhibition. The loaned selection of chiffon, silk-taffeta and organza gowns in gold, pink and that year’s Tatler-approved blue, evoke the opulence of the Season, as do the accessories—beautifully crafted hats and gloves, new commodities such as Pond’s Vanishing Cream—and the reminiscences: ‘My first lipstick ever was Redwood by Revlon’ (Sally Donnelly-Smith); ‘We always wore stockings. It was a nightmare to keep the seams straight!’ (Rosemary Kennedy). Margaret Mackay saved every single invitation she received, and all 292 are on display.

Yet the exhibition also shows the vulnerability of the debs, many of whom came straight from all-girl boarding schools. One diary entry reads: ‘Taken to dance in Ham by dangerous young man. Dumped by bus in Chelsea Square at 4am. Walked the streets in yellow chiffon.’

A room devoted to etiquette illustrates the lessons the debs received, such as how to walk gracefully, lay a table and curtsey correctly (as demonstrated in a film by deb Elfrida Eden shown at the exhibition), as they were groomed for marriage. The contrast between their horizons and those of their modern-day counterparts is conveyed by a series of filmed interviews with 21st-century girls, who express a desire for further education and successful careers.

Back in 1958, Miss MacCarthy was one of only four ‘bluestocking debs’ to go to university. ‘We were in the minority, although I’m surprised that so many debs I talk to today shared my reservations about having our futures—marriage and so on—mapped out for us.’ This is one of many personal revelations in an emotive and poignant exhibition.

‘The Last Debutantes’ is at Kensington Palace until June 14, 2009 (0844 482 7799;