Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball


Once Easter was over, it was time for the ton to begin straggling back to London from their estates. But not until the royal family returned did the Season officially begin. And the highlight for any young lady was her presentation at court. After she made her curtsy to the king and queen, she was considered "out" in society.

George III is said to have inaugurated this custom in 1780 when he threw a ball to celebrate Queen Charlotte's birthday. In her book, Old Court Customs and Modern Rules, the Hon. Mrs. Armytage wrote:

"It was a point of etiquette that the ladies and gentlemen who meant to attend the court on a birth-day should be presented to their Majesties at a previous levee; a day was se
ttled in the week for that purpose, and several foreigners of distinction, besides young-persons of fashion of both sexes, were presented..."According to George III: His Court and His Family, presentation at court, "was then most particularly considered the sole introduction to high life..." The Queen "had a powerful weapon to wield; and she wielded it to good purpose, by once proscribing from her society all females of bankrupt or even of ambiguous character--demireps as they were called; never admitting to her public or private parties any lady, however high in rank, if she had on the slightest degree forfeited her claims to general respect."
The young lady being presented required a sponsor, a woman of rank who had already made her curtsy to the king and queen. Virginal white was the proscribed dress color, or pale tones on a white background. The gown itself could be of popular design, but no matter what style of dress, hoops and a feather in her headdress were de rigueur.
Typical was this description of the levee held before Queen Charlotte's birthday ball in 1818:

"Yesterday was the day appointed for the celebration of her Majesty's last birthday, and a drawing room was held accordingly...At one o'clock there was a salute of artillery in the Park and the Tower...An immense multitude of spectators were collected together in spite of the rain and cold. The court visitors were also very numerous; they began to arrive at one o'clock, and continued setting down till past three."
Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball quickly became an annual event to benefit the Lying-In Hospital at Bayswater. The hospital served pregnant women regardless of marital status. (Until then, maternity hospitals catered only to married women.) As the mother of fifteen, this was a cause close to the queen's heart. The hospital came under her patronage around 1790-1810 and was renamed in her honor in 1813.

Until her death, Queen Charlotte's birthday ball was held in January or February. Eventually, it moved to May--her actual birthday month--but it's unclear when. Certainly by the early 20th Century. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II ended the custom of debutantes making their curtsy to the queen because, as Princess Margret succinctly put it, "Every tart in London was getting in." That year, 1400 girls were presented over three days. (Factoid: the term debut was used to describe this event during George III's reign, but referring to the young lady being presented as a debutante didn't come into vogue until 1837.) Queen Charlotte's Ball was abandoned in 1976 because of drug use and "louchness" -- improper dress and a lack of personal hygiene among attendees. It was revived in 2009.

Resources:
Presentation at Court
Memoirs of Her Late Majesty, Charlotte, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland by W. C. Oulton; 1819
Notes on the Foundation of Queen Charlotte's Hospital
The London Season in 1841
Recalling the Lost Era of Debutantes
High Society: Whatever Happened to the Debs?
Come on Out, Girls
Debutantes of 2010: Backstage at the Queen Charlotte's Birthday Ball