Rachel Johnson (BoJo’s sis and former editor of The Lady magazine) made a fascinating documentary for BBC4 called How To Be A Lady: An Elegant History and what it means – if anything – to be ladylike today. (Watch it here, it’s great).
She talked to all sorts of people, from the archivist at Cheltenham Ladies' College (who told her how the second headmistress covertly taught her girls chemistry and biology under the guise of ‘physical geography’ because their parents didn’t approve) to horsewomen who prefer to ride side-saddle not because it’s ladylike but because it’s a seriously badass extreme sport.
RaJo also interviewed Fiona MccCarthy, one of the last debutantes from the age when ‘gels’ from the upper classes were presented to the Queen and author of Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes. Fiona was a reluctant deb, finding the circus of balls, lunches and teas (a glorified marriage market) excruciatingly dull and rather humiliating, as she’d earned herself a place at Oxford and was regarded as a ‘brain box’ as a result.
It was all pretty anachronistic by the late ‘50s and soon the presentation of debutantes at court fizzled out (apparently thanks to Prince Philip finding the whole process deathly dull, you gotta love the DofE). BUT there is one aspect of this quaint/sexist (delete as appropriate) institution that I can’t help missing: the beautiful gowns.
I could look at dresses aaall daaay looong and that’s exactly what I did at two wonderful exhibitions – The Last Debutantes at Kensington Palace and Ballgowns: British Glamour since 1950 at the V&A. The former was one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever been to – there was so much archive material, from film footage to audio, photographs and, of course, the dresses that it made for a stimulating and immersive experience.
So I was delighted to see that Coast – traditional purveyors of bridesmaid dresses (and my slinky Liza Minnelli-esque sequinned cocktail frock) have partnered with the V&A to create a tightly edited collection of what can only be described as proper ballgowns. Look, just look:
Oh fancy, it’s called ‘Phoebe’ – I should probably just buy it then, even though I’ve got nowhere to wear it and I’m precisely twice the age and 50 years too late to be a debutante. It’d be rude not to.
I think the Daphne would make a beautiful wedding dress if you’re looking for an alternative to the traditional ivory floorlength kind. All that intricate beading and buttercup tulle make this a dress to treasure – and you could wear it again after your big day.
I could easily imagine Evie from The House of Eliott wearing this bias-cut, silver stunner. If I’m ever invited to a red carpet do, this is what I want to wear.
Clearly, none of these gowns are cheap, but the materials, craftsmanship and time that have gone into their construction explain the prices – and if you’re looking for something really special for an important occasion, whether it’s a wedding or a significant birthday when you want to hog ALL the limelight, these will do the trick.