by Claire Timms
“Well, you had to have something totally original for your own party. You also had to have several ball dresses, several cocktail dresses, things you were going out to lunch in and out to tea in, little hats and matching gloves.”
Maggie McKay reels off this mind-boggling list of ‘necessities’ for the average debutante to enjoy her season as if it was the most normal thing in the world. And in 1958 it was. If you were from a world of wealth and privilege.
Well-bred girls from the best families in the land would be launched into society at 17 or 18 by curtseying to the young Queen Elizabeth before enjoying a whirlwind of parties, dinners, lunches, teas and dances – for an energy-sapping six months!
For many, it was a sure-fire way of meeting a suitable husband but for others it was a rite of passage; moving from gauche girlhood to becoming a sophisticated young woman.
"It was completely in a time warp. We are now part of history which is the most amazing feeling"Elfrida Eden Fallowfield, debutante 1958
Maggie says: “ Meeting a future husband was less important. My mother was keen for me to just meet people, it didn’t matter about the sex of them and she certainly didn’t want to marry me off at 18. It was simply a wonderful way of meeting people.”
Elfrida Eden Fallowfield agrees: “We didn’t meet our husbands there. We had lots of boyfriends. I remember Beresford White was one of mine, Berry White, he was rather tall and good-looking!”
Elfrida and Maggie met in the 1958 season and have stayed firm friends ever since. They embarked on their six months of fun with all the gusto they could muster.
“Some girls dreaded it but we looked forward to everything and that’s how we met and we’re still friends today. Some girls didn’t do it like we did it. We went to just about everything and all the events you were meant to go to,” says Elfrida.
Elfrida Eden in 1958 (c) Desmond O'Neill
“We were quite often invited to two or three dances an evening and you had to make up your mind which was the best one. You always wanted to go to the best one last so you’d end up there. So, you probably had dinner with somebody and then you went on to a dance, then went to another dance.
“In the end I got too tired and would only go to one.”
The pair were presented at court in March 1958 and it was to be the last official season. Society was changing and the tradition was slowly becoming anachronistic.
As Elfrida says: “It was completely in a time warp. We are now part of history which is the most amazing feeling, to think that we are part of history and it’s right that it finished, it could not possibly go on.
“It was an end of an era, and some were beginning to make fun of it and that play, The Reluctant Debutante, came out. That was the first little indication that people were going to rebel against it.
Margaret MacKay in 1958
“I’m awfully glad, and Maggie is too, that we did it. It was a great experience and as someone said; ‘you’re going to go to all these parties, have new dresses and you’re going to have a lovely time for six whole months’, you’re not exactly going to say ‘oh goodness me, no!’
“We learnt how to behave in a grown up world. Most of us were very demure children and sheltered. Suddenly we were being treated as grown ups and you had to behave like a grown up and you had to have grown up manners. That’s one of the things we learnt; good manners and good etiquette.”
“Nowadays you have the gap year. We didn’t go that far. We went to finishing school, I was studying ballet in Paris but it was the same sort thing. I was away from home for the first time in my life. Wow, I could say yes or no without having to ask mummy first. I was 16.”
An exhibition charting that final debutante season – The Last Debutantes – is now on show at Kensington Palace (in the late Princess Margaret’s old apartments).
"I was away from home for the first time in my life. Wow! I could say yes or no without having to ask mummy first. "Elfrida Eden Fallowfield
Displaying original 1958 couture dresses by the likes of Hartnell, Balmain, Dior and Worth, photographs, audio and newsreel footage, it conjures up a bygone age of glamour and privilege but hints at seismic social changes to come.
Exhibition curator Deirdre Murphy says: “For an outsider it seems like a complete dream world. You’ve got huge numbers of girls going to these amazing dances, country houses and huge London hotels. They’re wearing the most amazing couture dresses and I think there’s a real fairytale element to it but once you speak to people about what actually happened in 1958 you get more of a hit of reality.
“The tendency is to think that everybody just had a wonderful time and while, of course, the vast majority of people did, in doing research I met some people who didn’t necessarily have the time of their lives.
“For instance, certain people who were shy or didn’t like the discomfort of waiting around for a man to ask them to dance. It wasn’t always easy. I think that really comes out in the exhibition.
“The real reason we wanted to do this exhibition was that it’s 50 years since the last curtsey and the last presentation at court.
“These girls were 17 years old when they performed this last curtsey we wanted to show the rise of the teenager in the 1950s, because they were teenagers, and explore what was going on at the time. It helps to explain why the whole thing had to come to an end. People commented at the time it was out of step with reality.”
Click here to listen to former 'debs' Maggie McKay & Elfrida Eden Fallowfield talk about their experiences plus interviews with exhibition curator Deirdre Murphy and the exhibition designers
Help playing audio/video
'The Last Debutantes, 1958. Season Of Change' at Kensington Palace until June 2009.
• Admission to the exhibition is included in the Kensington Palace ticket price.
• To book advanced tickets to Kensington Palace please call 0844 482 7799 or book online at www.hrp.org.uk
• Kensington Palace admission prices: adults £12.30, students/seniors £10.75, under 16s £6.15, under 5s FREE, family ticket (up to 2 adults and 3 children) £34.00
• Historic Royal Palaces annual membership (unlimited visits to all five palaces for FREE) one adult £38.00, two adults £59.50, a family of one adult and up to six children £55, a family of two adults and up to six children £75.00. Join online at www.hrp.org.uk or call 0844 482 7788
• For recorded information about visiting Kensington Palace please call 0844 482 7777
• Opening Hours: Kensington Palace is open daily, except 24–26 December
1 March – 31 October 10.00-18.00 (last admission 17.00)
1 November – 28 February 10.00-17.00 (last admission 16.00)
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites