Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Coming Out

During the long reign of Queen Victoria the key social event of the year was always "The Season." There were a number of specific social events connected with the season, but the most important event for many was the formal entrance into society of the young women of the upper class; their "Coming Out." Coming out was a very Victorian ritual although it had its origins well before those decades. For the daughters of the aristocracy, this meant presentation at Court. it commonly occurred when a young woman reached the age of eighteen and was, in the words of one etiquette book "the hall-mark demanded of those who aspire to fashionable life."

Not all of those who came out, particularly in the last years of the century, were from the aristocracy. If one had the right contacts it was possible to be presented. The informal embargo on those whose papa's were either manufacturers or significant tradesmen, however, began to break down towards the end of the century. By the 1890s, one popular book on etiquette could pronounce that being presented at Court did not "carry such distinction with it as formerly, as nearly every one with any pretensions to wealth or position contrives to get an entrance to her Majesty's Drawing-room."

For a marriageable young woman, the season was often the most important event of the year, for she knew that she had, at best, only two or three seasons in which to confirm her future through marriage. The first season would be her coming out, but if she was not successful in the marriage race, she knew she still had one, or at most two, more seasons in which to find a mate.

Were one fortunate enough to be presented at Court, preparation began weeks, sometimes months, before. First there was the clothing required for the momentous few minutes in which one was presented to the Monarch. Cynthia Asquith described the process as "a violent sudden change as though at a word of command a butterfly had to break her chrysalis and instantaneously spread her wings."

The metamorphosis called Coming Out was supposed to be effected when you were presented at Court, where the wand was officially waved over your head. The picturesque rites of this social baptism were preceded by weeks of trepidation - weeks busied with long lessons in deportment ... and panic-stricken rehearsals of my curtsey ... then there were endless wearisome hours of trying on.
Imagine what it must have been like for even the most self-assured seventeen or eighteen year old to take part in this drama - or perhaps it was a comedy, at least when recalled in later years. For Cynithia Asquith who came out at seventeen, in 1905, only a few years after the death of Victoria, it was a combination of both for, in her own words, she came out in what

most people thought ... a deplorably unconventional way, for instead of diving with one clean plunge into the social stream, I came out, so to speak, in instalments. Why? Because my mother constitutionally incapable of saying "No", had psromised to present someone else's daughter, a girl who being several years older than myself, could not, in her parents' dreadful phrase, "afford to wait". So I was taken to Court a year sooner than had been planned and then promptly withdrawn from circulation ...
When, in the following season, she returned to the social scene, and "reappeared in London ballrooms," there was comment about the events of the previous season and according to Cynthia herself, the worldly-wise shook their heads and pronounced her coming out a "very badly bungled production."

But as her presentation at Court approached, at least the young woman being presented to the Monarch did not have to worry about what to wear. She already knew, for there were extremely strict regulations about what was acceptable and what was not. In Victoria's later years,

A lady about to be presented at Court must appear, if a spinster with two, and if married with three, feathers disposed on her head so that they are visible from the front, and with two long lappets of tulle or lace (two yards in length) flowing from the back of the hair. She must wear a low bodice and short sleeves, and a train coming either from the waist or the shoulders, not less then three yards in length. The gloves must be white, and never tinted with a colour, except in cases of mourning, when black or lavender are allowed.
For Cynthia, after the dressing and primping, after the interminable hours of being fitted for the dress, the final dreaded hours arrived. Her hair was "tonged" and "three stiff white ostrich feathers ... stuck into ... [her] newly corrugated head." She was laced into her "billowing white crepe-de-chine dress" and an immensely long and unmanageable train" fastened to her shoulders. Finally prepared for the event, the party left Cadogan Square for Buckingham Palace.

The drive to the Palace must have seemed to take forever, but on arrival the debutante was ushered into an anti-room which she entered with her train carefully folded over her left arm. Here she might have quite a long wait before being ushered into the Royal Presence. In the ante-room, where older women might wait for their young charges,

Ghoulish dowagers froze ... young blood by reciting disasters that had befallen debutantes. They did not even spare ... the story of the wretched girl who from extremity of nerves had been sick in her SHOE (what commendable presence of mind to tke it off) on the very footsteps of the throne.
On entering the Presence-Chamber, the debutante let down her train which was immediately spread out by two lords-in-waiting. She would then approach the Monarch, curtseying as low as possible "so as almost to kneel and the Queen kisses her on the forehead if she is a peeress or peer's daughter, or extends her hand to be kissed, if the lady is a commoner."

Lady Cynthia Asquith described her experience on entering the Royal Presence.

Flourish of music; blaze of uniforms; backward-stepping, white-wanded courtiers; dazzle of light. ... Suddenly I seem to be all by myself in that fierce light. A small floodlit, isolated figure, I am advancing towards Their Majesties. ... Heaven knows what my feet do but the voluminous folds of my dress conceal their fumblings. At least I don't topple over, and however loudly my knees may crack, the strains of the orchestra prevail. ... I have passeded into, through, and out of the Royal Presence. ... King Edward and Queen Alexandra have both smiled most graciously, giving me - even if only for one split second after all those long, long hours of pebble-on-the-beach deflation - the lovely illusion that the whole magnificent ceremony has been for - me! ...
After curtseying to the Monarch and any other members of the Royal family who might be present, the debutante "then passes on, keeping her face towards the [King or] Queen, and leaving the room in a succession of curtsies". It was over and now it was time for the enjoyment of innumerable balls, dinners and other social events that made up the season; and time to start thinking about marriage!

To read Lady Cynthia Asquith's description in full, download her book, Remember and be Glad, by clicking here and reading pages 57-84.

To see a guide to the etiquette of "Presentation at Court": download Modern Etiquette by clicking here and reading pages 34-36.

2 comments:

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Effulgency said...

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