It’s not a phrase that is heard all that commonly anymore, unless you are a member of a very particular part of society, but the events that comprise the ‘London Season’ are known internationally to this day. While many of us are unlikely to have attended a débutante ball or met personally with any royalty or members of Parliament, it’s more possible that we may have attended events like The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, The Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon or the The Proms.
These are among the many events that made up the historical London Season and remain incredibly popular. This is particularly true now that these events have been opened to the public, rather than restricted to a privileged elite, as they were in the past.
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Indeed, you no longer have to be a member of the aristocracy to celebrate and participate in some of these highly traditional events, many of which continue customs today that were initiated as far back as the 1700s. While the more modern among us might raise an eyebrow at the over the top hats at Royal Ascot or the strict etiquette at The Henley Regatta, they are keeping alive part of a long history of British culture. And the British do love to celebrate history.
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What Is The London Season?
Traditionally, the London Season marked the time of year when wealthy British families would migrate from the country estates where they spent their winter months and take up residence for the summer in London. Mayfair and other well-to-do areas would have been their London-based destinations. The Season in its original form started as far back as the 17th and 18th centuries, but peaked in status and popularity in the 19th century. Broadly speaking, it would fall in line with the sitting of Parliament (there was known to be a lot of political chatter and dealings taking place at many of The Season’s events) and ran from around late February to mid-summer.
The key purpose behind The London Season, apart from summer fun and festivity, was the debut of young ladies of affluent families into society and the promise of matches and marriages being made. Debutantes would be presented at the Royal Court, marking their ‘coming out’ into society, after which they could attend the whirlwind of social occasions.
After the First World War, the London Season went into a semi-decline as many aristocratic families had given up their London places of residence, while events started to take place in public places, making exclusivity hard to maintain. By the end of World War II, the social structures that made up the elitist tradition of London Season were eroding, and in 1958 Queen Elizabeth II abolished the presentation of debutantes at court. It was one of her majesty’s first movements towards the birth of a more modern Monarchy.
From the beginning, however, it wasn’t just the sitting of Parliament that led the timing of the London Season, but also the world of sports, many of which made up key events during the season itself. These included Royal Ascot, the Henley Regatta and Wimbledon, all of which remain key dates in the international events calendar and which serve to keep The London Season alive, albeit in a newer, more modern format.
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Some of the most memorable depictions of The London Season come from noted authors like Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility uses The Season as a key plot point in the lives of the Dashwood sisters, while The Picture of Dorian Grey, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest all represent Wilde’s take on the social calendar. More recent references have come from the ever popular Downton Abbey, with the debut of Lady Sybil to London society.
Much of The London Season isn’t all left behind in history though, as while there is no longer a presentation of debutantes at court, The London Season is still a formal organisation that hosts a number of exclusive events in the capital, including Queen Charlotte’s Ball, where international debutantes from the worlds wealthiest families come to make their debut. It remains very much an elite event, with international royal connections, but also works with a number of charitable organisations.
Aside from the tradition of debutantes, many other customs of The London Season still remain. Most of the key events of what used to be The Season are now organised or sponsored by large companies and open to the public, but a lot of the original values are maintained. For example, Ascot was historically attended by fashionable society ladies with the purpose of showing off their latest gowns. Although in a slightly different style of dress, the modern fashionable elite still flock to the event. Or think of Wimbledon, which might have been the source of international amusement in recent years for giving out leaflets on queueing, but goes to show how seriously the manners and etiquette of the event are still taken.
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How Can I Attend?
Almost all of the most prominent events of The London Season are now very much open to the public, with tickets in high demand. The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which traditionally opened The Season takes place this year from June to August, while The Chelsea Flower Show (a newer addition to the calendar) takes placer earlier, in May. The Henley Regatta takes place at the end of June and for those without tickets, it will be shown live on the Regatta’s YouTube channel, while standing room will be available for early arrivals along some of the river’s public footpaths. Royal Ascot also takes place in June, followed by Wimbledon and finally The Proms, which traditionally close the season and take place from July to September 2016.
Of course, one of the key benefits of the modern day London Season for the public, is that the majority of these key events will be broadcast in some capacity on the BBC. Check local listings for timings and you can enjoy your own taste of high society from the comfort of your own home. Or country estate, if you’re lucky.
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