The Rubens at the Palace overlooks Buckingham Palace Road, where in centuries past, shivering debutantes in short-sleeved white dresses once sat for hours in carriages waiting for their presentation at court.
Generations of English debutantes entered society with a curtsey to the queen at Buckingham Palace. The tradition began in 1780 when the press accused Queen Charlotte and George III of pinching pennies. Determined to prove their maligners wrong, George III held an extravagant ball in honor of his queen’s birthday. Debutantes with powdered hair and Rococo dresses curtseyed to Queen Charlotte. George III and Charlotte went on to establish a rigid social calendar that dictated the lives of aristocratic British families through the 1950s. Soon an established annual tradition, the Queen Charlotte Ball opened the London season of balls, garden parties, races, and concerts where the elite reinforced its exclusivity.
A debutante’s presentation at court was her entry ticket into high society. So long as she only mixed in high society, her parents could rest assured that at the very least they would marry a man of her class. After all, an unacceptable suitor could not secure an invitation to society fêtes. The more quickly she announced her engagement — preferably to a titled man with property — the prouder her parents. And the longer she lingered on the marriage market, returning to London season after season, the more perilous her future.
But even at the apex of English society, tradition enforced critical distinctions in class. Some families secured an “entrée,” the privilege of entering the palace by a private door on Buckingham Palace Road instead of waiting at least three hours outside the palace. Once inside, palace servants guided the daughters of the highest-ranking nobles into a wide, spacious chamber to wait for their turn to process into the throne room, while most debutantes crammed into a tight room. “You find that you have ample space to walk about, train and all, and thoroughly enjoy yourself; a pleasure heightened by the misfortunes of others, for there, in the room adjoining, are the poor wretches we have just left, crowded together like sheep in pen, fast crushing out the freshness of their beautiful frocks, and, of course, regarding us with envious eyes,” wrote one lucky debutante in 1891. Then, the debutantes processed, one by one, with their trains carefully arranged behind them, to the throne. Queen Victoria kissed the young women of noble blood when they curtseyed, while the commoners had to kiss her hand.
Before the Rubens at the Palace was built in 1912, shops catering to the elites of London’s West End filled the block. One shop, Madame Excalier, was a Court dressmaker that made bonnets, mantles, robes, gowns, and in all likelihood, the white dresses that young wore for their presentations at court. Young women spent weeks preparing for their “coming out.” The court required that they wear a white gown with an open neckline and a ten-foot train, white ostrich feathers in their hair, and elbow-length white gloves. Some debutantes displayed their wealth by weaving diamonds through their trains. In the 19th century, many debutantes chose dresses designed with two bodices: One for their presentation at court, and one for their wedding day.
Readying a trousseau was only part of a debutante’s preparation. A low and graceful curtsey with hundreds of eyes set on you and a train weighing you down is no easy feat. While a successful curtsey would not distinguish a young woman, a stumble would inflict shame and embarrassment. In the 19th century, Queen Victoria’s diminutive stature made for a gymnastics challenge. The debutantes had to curtsey so deeply that their knees almost touched the floor in order to lower themselves sufficiently. Many young women took curtseying lessons to limit their risk of starting the season off badly. But most could rely on their mothers for help. No young woman could be presented at court without the sponsorship of an older relation who had also been presented, usually her mother.
After the Rubens at the Palace was built in 1912, many families stayed there while they were in London for their daughters’ “coming out.” The hotel hosted a ball for debutants to celebrate their transition from the school room to the drawing room. In the 20th century, many of the rules around “coming out” in society relaxed. Impoverished aristocratic women took bribes from new-money families to sponsor their daughters so they could curtsey at Buckingham Palace. Some American heiresses bought a ticket into London society, hoping that their independent wealth would attract a lord. As times changed, so did the ceremonies of high society. During World War II, presentations at court were postponed indefinitely. As many as 20,000 women applied to be presented at court after the war ended, but the ceremony had lost much of its luster. Hemlines had shortened, and ostrich feather headdresses were no longer required. Princess Margaret complained that “every tart in London is getting in,” while leftists attacked the tradition for its exclusivity. In 1957, the Lord Chancellor announced that the tradition would end. The next year, the last debutantes curtseyed to Queen Elizabeth II.