Behind the scenes with Cheshire's debutantes (with audio)
The deb scene is no longer geared towards high society marriage, as Sareda Dirir found out when she met the girls behind the pearls
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Sinead McGrath shakes out her dark, tumbling hair, smooths down her satin dress and raises an artful eyebrow. Holding the photographer’s pose for just the briefest of moments, she suddenly breaks into peals of silvery laughter. ‘Oh my goodness, this is so, so amazing!’
Sinead, a sixth former from Sale, is one of the debutantes taking part in the 2010 season. Tonight the girls are modelling at the historic Berkeley Dress Show - a showcase of couture dresses created by some of London's brightest young designers.
Backstage, as the girls excitedly prepare for their modelling debut, the show’s creative director, Lukas Kroulik valiantly attempts to maintain order among the racks of exquisite gowns and bespoke headpieces.‘Girls, girls, remember your headpieces. Your cue is the second beat. Remember walk, hold pose, walk again.’
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Although the squeals and giggles are quite typical for girls of this age, these young ladies have an added elegance and poise that belies their tender years. Having been selected earlier in the year, the debutantes have been preparing for this moment for months, undergoing an intense series of elocution lessons, etiquette workshops, deportment classes and public-speaking seminars.
The debutante tradition is steeped in history. For many years, young girls from the most prestigious families across the country were presented at Court with the hope of ‘introducing’ them to society and ultimately, marrying well.
Now no longer presented to the monarch, modern Debutantes view the process as an ideal opportunity to make friends, learn valuable life-skills, network and raise money for charity.
In recent years (right up until his death in 2001) the dedicated and knowledgeable editor of Burke’s Peerage, Peter Townend, was the last word on the London debutante scene.
Invoking a famously secretive and arbitrary process, families would receive letters, written in his trademark turquoise ink, inviting girls of a particular age and background to be part of the Season.
Today, the process is infinitely more transparent and the current directors of the London Season are keen to make the debutante world a more accessible one.
Sinead, 17, who boards at Shrewsbury School, explains how she got involved. ‘I had to fill in a form on the internet. Then I had to come for an interview with my mother and explain why being a debutante appealed to me. I just love being lady-like, I like nice dresses, I'm not really a jeans person.’
Chatting to Sinead it quickly becomes apparent that she is quite determined about what she hopes to gain from the experience. ‘The skills I am learning will prepare me for the world after school. I have always wanted to ‘grow up properly’. For me this is the last stage of being a teenager. I feel sure this will give me more confidence when applying for jobs and university places.’
So what do her friends back in Sale and at school think about her doing this? ‘They are all really envious, I have had loads of people asking if they can come.’
Thierry Macquet, the man charged with changing the image of the debutantes season, explains the difference in approach. ‘We wanted to make the process more open, more welcoming. For many years the men have had the ‘Old Boy’s’ network enabling them to make business contacts, gain opportunities and raise money for good causes. This is the same thing but for girls, and of course many young girls like to play princesses!’
Royalty and debutantes have always had a strong connection and this year is no exception. Princess Olga Romanov of Russia and her daughter Alexandra are in attendance and as the girls glide past on the catwalk we chat about the event.
‘It’s such a wonderful experience for these girls to be a deb. It helps them so much with self-confidence, with social-skills. They will make so many important contacts for their future and of course some life-long friends.’
Chair of the London Season, Jennie Hallam-Peel is a previous debutante - the epitome of grace and elegance. She is passionate about the benefits of the Season and is keen to see more girls getting involved.‘Girls these days often don’t know how to present themselves,’ she says.
‘It is so useful to have someone to guide and provide the skills to make the most of oneself. We get letters all the time from people asking if they can take part. It’s great for confidence building and so many of the girls keep in touch with us, telling us how useful it was for them.’So how does she respond to criticisms that the Season is frivolous and irrelevant?
‘Many of our young girls are extremely accomplished and dedicated. We have girls who have gone on to be doctors, teachers and lawyers but who wish to celebrate and enjoy their femininity as well.
‘Being a woman is becoming a dying art and our girls always say how grateful they are to have something like this around.’
Patricia Woodall, another well-known figure on the London Season committee added, ‘People don’t realise just how much money these young ladies raise for charity. Throughout the year they work exceptionally hard organising social events, garden parties, balls, charity auctions, and all for such worthwhile causes. I’m very proud to be a part of it.’
As the curtain falls on the fashion show and the models return to their families, Flavia, Patricia’s daughter approaches us. Peaches and cream complexion, perfect Cupid’s bow lips she is a vision of youth, loveliness and confidence.
Eyes shining, breathless with excitement she links arms with her mother. ‘I loved it, I absolutely loved it! It just felt amazing to be up there. I didn’t feel nervous at all!’
Her mother turns to me with discrete pride. ‘You see. It’s such a wonderful thing for mothers and daughters to share.’
For more information on becoming a debutante, or attending a debutante event visit www.londonseason.net.