As someone who never paid attention to history in school, I find myself smiling whenever I come across a concept or custom that I otherwise wouldn’t have known had been passed down for many generations. Living in the south of the United States, I have often heard of debutante balls for the elite society (a group I do not belong to...and I say so humorously). I used to work at an East Texas magazine and much of what was covered were the wealthy society girls and their flower parades and balls. Reading many historical fiction books, I was instantly intrigued by the Coming Out events for young girls in the Victorian Era. I am sure that if I continued to dig, this concept could be traced back even further, but for my own sake and for the love of the era, I will be focusing on the Coming Out for ladies during the 19th century.
Photo courtesy of Pinterest
From April (just after Easter) to the ending of June, the London social season (Season) was an equally busy time for young women, as it was for men. One of the most important events was “Coming Out,” a social event where months of stress and preparation would lead up to a kiss from the Queen and the young lady’s formal introduction into the peerage.
Once a girl reaches a certain age--seventeen, eighteen, or an age her family deemed appropriate--she would begin preparation for her coming out. Many months in advance, either her mother or some other guardianess would commission her a special gown and tighten the strings on her etiquette lessons. The young woman would need to first and foremost know how to curtsey properly, practice her dancing, practice walking without stumbling and perhaps, diet.
If not her mother, at the helm of her instruction would be another woman, preferably a lady who has a good reputation within the peerage, a title and influence. This was common practice for those who could afford to pay her for the assistance, those who were lower of rank and needed the extra endorsement for their daughters, single fathers or commoners. Although a coming out was expected for daughters of peers, women of nobility or daughters of knights and baronets, it wasn’t until late in the 19th century that the extremely wealthy were becoming more and more accepted. Even daughters of prestigious professions (law, medicine, higher education, religion, bankers and politics) were included.
Older and married women could also attend a coming out, however, a woman who had been divorced or had her marriage annulled could not.
To determine if a debutant was ready, was up to the discretion of her family and many factors were taken into consideration. The family wanted to introduce her as quickly as possible but she also had to be her most fashionable self. She needed to have completed an education and on paper, considered intelligent. Speaking multiple languages, learning instruments, being skilled at watercolors and oil painting, being knowledgeable about horses, knowing how to manage a household, hosting parties and events, having an untarnished reputation and being able to identify one peer and their families from another, could only help her chances. Because of this, her maturity was not definitive of age--girls as young as sixteen could have their coming out--but timing was important. Coming out was a primary resource for securing a husband and after her introduction into society, she was expected to have no more than two or three seasons to do so.
If a woman did not secure a husband after three Seasons, the men and women of the aristocracy would wonder if she was unlawful, ruined or unfit to wed. Once she reached the ages of twenty-seven to thirty, she would be considered “on the shelf,” a spinster who would remain husbandless. This age may seem low, but one must consider the life expectancy of the period. In the 19th Century, no country in the world had an average life expectancy longer than 40 years.
On the day of her coming out, the young woman would spend hours getting ready. Her hair needed to be curled with tongs and she needed to be fitted into her gown. In my opinion, old photos of Victorians on their coming out days made them look the equivalent of a 90s bride on her wedding day--silk white skirts, a flower bouquet in hand, white feathers in her hair, a 3-foot train that either hung from her arms or waist, tulle or lace that hung from her hair (forming a second train), white gloves. If she were in mourning, she could wear black or lavender (although social rules usually prevented a woman in mourning from attending events). Once ready, she would enter her carriage that would take her to Buckingham Palace. There, she would join in the line of other carriages of other awaiting ladies, only to enter a waiting room/antechamber of other nervous and eager women (and their mothers or guardians). Because of the hundreds of debutants that would come out each year, the event could stretch over days.
Once it was her turn, all of those practices would pay off as she entered the chamber that held the Queen and sometimes, other members of the royal family. The woman would perform a curtsey so low, her knees almost touched the floor. If she were of noble birth, the Queen would kiss her on the forehead. If she were a commoner, the Queen would extend her hand to be kissed.
“Ofcourse I forget everything Mr. Turveydrop has taught me. 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 passed 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 ! . . . ” -- Remember and Be Glad by Cynthia Asquith.
She would exit the room and enter the world a woman on the hunt for a husband. Her mother, guardians and patroness’ would hover over her through the entire duration of the Season and those that followed, where she would attend balls, dinners and other events.
An additional note on the social leniency that was occurring late into the century, it is well known that Queen Victoria was naturally strict, and even more so after she became a widow (many attempted to strive for her unreachable standards). Bertie was quite the opposite, and many of his sexual scandals and stories involving mistresses were public knowledge. Because of this, and the fact that the nobility class was dwindling on the cuffs of industrialization, the late Victorians/Edwardians were changing their methods and standards when it came to finding spouses. If wealthy enough, many middle class or entrepreneurs were having their own debutante balls and events, allowing young women to be introduced to society by relying on connections of friends and family members.
Thank you very much for reading this post and I hope you find some of this information useful. Coming out can be a milestone for a young VIctorian woman, just as a quinceanera or a sweet sixteen can be for the modern day teenager. Aside from knowledge gathered over the years of reading books and watching programs, here are some of my favorite blogs by other historical fiction/romance authors:
Victorian History: An idiosyncratic selection of short bits about elements of Victorian history. http://vichist.blogspot.com/
Kate’s Adventures: http://www.katetattersall.com/kates-adventures/