If you’re passing through Bexley on the south-eastern fringes of London, then try to find time to seek out Hall Place, a Tudor hidden gem with extensive gardens a couple of minutes from the A2. We’ve had connections with Hall Place for some time through Bexley Heritage Trust, whose archive we represent, but more recently we’ve collaborated with them on a new exhibition that opened just a fortnight ago, The Last Curtsey. Inspired by one of Hall Place’s 20th century inhabitants, socialite Baba D’Erlanger, the exhibition aims to recreate the vanished world of that upper class phenomenon, the debutante.
Debutantes are something of a specialist subject here at the library. The magazines of the ILN archive, specifically The Tatler, The Sketch and The Bystander, were the bibles of the beau monde and consequently are filled each spring with every conceivable highlight of the ‘Season’ from the Royal Academy and Fourth of June to Ascot and Henley. Alongside these delights were published photographs of the annual crop of ‘debs’ that were to be launched into society together with adverts for court gowns, hair stylists, West End couture houses and catering companies. Source material doesn’t get much better.
And we have form in terms of writing on the subject. Some forty years ago, Mary and Hilary Evans were authors of ‘The Party That Lasted 100 Days’, a highly illustrated and wry look at the late Victorian season and more recently, in 2013 I wrote a concise history in, ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ for Shire Books.
The London Season, vestiges of which remain in some of today’s summer sporting and social fixtures, was the dominant feature of the social calendar, a three-month bonanza of events and parties during which the daughters of the upper classes made their ‘debuts’. The girls and their families descended on the capital from country piles all around Britain to take part in an elaborate and protracted marathon of social interaction that culminated in them being presented at court where they would make their carefully-practised curtsey in front of the King and Queen. Today, it’s a ritual that seems terribly archaic, and at times rather comic; an outmoded phenomenon that pandered to rigid class distinctions and judged the youthful participants purely on looks and breeding. And yet, it is also rather glamorous, romantic – and terribly British. After a modernising drive at Buckingham Palace in 1958, the last debs made their curtsey in March of that year, meaning 2018 marks the 60th anniversary.
At Hall Place, the exhibition rooms, painted in soothing and elegant tones of lilac pink, take visitors through the debutantes’ typical first season and introduce us to a few key debs from the past including Baba but also the ravishing Henrietta Tiarks, fabulously wealthy Mary Ashley, sister of Edwina Mountbatten and the rebellious Nancy Cunard. There are some exquisite gowns including a wasp-waisted example from the 1890, a cascading 1920s number and a glamorous strapless gown of mustard satin belonging to Elfrida Eden, one of 1958’s debs. Curator Kirsty Macklen, who showed us around last week told us that Elfrida’s dress was bought from America, in order to avoid the ghastliness of turning up at a party in the same dress as someone else. As well as the advertisements, magazine features and portraits lining the walls (50 of which come from Mary Evans, others from the archive at The Lady), there are some fascinating debutante accoutrements such as glove stretchers and papier poudre books (to keep a shiny nose at bay) as well as dance cards lent by Mary Evans and a couple of books from the inter-war period celebrating the debutante from my own collection at home. For the full deb experience, you can try negotiating the complicated array of cutlery that might face an Edwardian lady sitting down to dinner, or squeeze into a ballgown and practise your curtsey to the Queen. After just two weeks, the visitors’ comments at the end of the exhibition reflect a deeply felt nostalgia for this long-gone era, though no appetite for its revival in the 21st century. Like many aspects of history, it is fun to learn more but it should remain exactly where it was left – in 1958.
Click here to see a selection of images from our archive on the subject https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/
‘The Last Curtsey – Etiquette and Elocution, the life of a debutante’ at Hall Place, Bexley, runs until 18th March 2018 https://www.hallplace.org.uk/exhibitions/
Luci will be giving a talk on ‘Debutantes and the London Season’ at Hall Place, Bexley on 10th October at 7pm. Further details here https://www.hallplace.org.uk/events/debutantes-london-season/
Further reading: ‘Debutantes & the London Season’ by Lucinda Gosling, Shire Books 2013