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Presentation At Court

By Dawn Aiello of Victorian Lace, Author and Copyright owner of this article

In the life of a Victorian debutante, there were probably few experiences more exciting than her presentation to the Queen at Court. This event marked the young woman's entrance into Society, and allowed her opportunities of which she had previously been discounted.

The extensive rules and etiquette surrounding this grand event were mind-boggling. The young lady's actual presentation took only a moment, yet the preparation for her brief appearance took several weeks. Prior to her long-anticipated "presentation day", she would endure fittings for gowns, gathering of the necessary accessories such as her slippers, her fan, feathers, jewelry, and more....but, equally as important, was her deportment training. This included learning to walk gracefully with seemliness in the presence of the Queen. She may spend hours practicing to glide across the room, using a tablecloth as a simulated train in order to get the feel for sweeping her dress appropriately as she walked, without getting tangled in yards of fabric. The young debutante would also practice kissing the Queen's hand, but the curtsy was all-important! Often a young lady attended classes to learn to curtsy in the proper manner. The curtsy she performed at Court was not an ordinary curtsy. This was a full court curtsy; one where she would need to bend her knee until it nearly touched the floor--but not quite. Then she would hold this position for an ample amount of time while making a low bow, and rise again, without losing her balance, falling over, or tripping on her gown and its extensive train.

Finally, the young lady repeatedly practiced her exit because she would be required to back out of the room, as it was considered the height of impropriety and was against all rules of etiquette to ever turn her back on a royal personage.

According to The Habits of Good Society, precedents set regarding those who could be presented at Court were as follows: "The wives and daughters of the clergy, of military and naval officers, of physicians and barristers can be presented. These are the aristocratic professions, but the wives and daughters of general practitioners and of solicitors are not entitled to a presentation. The wives and daughters of merchants, or of men in business (excepting bankers), are not entitled to presentation. Nevertheless, though many ladies of this class were refused presentation early in this reign, it is certain that many have since been presented. No divorcee, nor lady married, after having lived with her husband or with any one else before her marriage, can be received."

As stated above, ladies who had been divorced were forbidden from being presented at Court, but Queen Victoria eventually felt that this was a severe penalty in the event that the woman was not to blame for the divorce. Therefore, in 1889, the Queen decreed that women who had been previously debarred from Court due to divorce were to thereafter be allowed to apply for admission, and that each case would be decided upon based on its own merit.

Rigidly defined rules also determined what a young lady could and must wear, and these formal regulations were rigorously enforced. For presentations, one was required to wear a gown with a train, and a tulle headdress with a veil that was long enough to float over the train. The style of the dress itself varied with the Monarchy, no matter what the popular fashion of the time was. For example, during the reign of King George III and Queen Charlotte, the court dress style was hoop-skirted and elaborate, even though fashion styles at that time called for simple dresses with high waists. During the reign of King George IV, hoop skirts were expelled and court-dress style became a variation of whatever was popular for formal evening wear during the period.

For a young unmarried woman, white was the prefer-red color for her dress, though other soft colors were acceptable, over a white background. Married women to be presented were allowed more color, however, most chose soft shades and white. It was not un-common for women to have their wedding dress modified into a court dress. Frequently, wedding dresses were made with two different bodices: one for the wedding; one for court. Court dresses were usually short-sleeved, and--unless a doctor's certificate could be presented stating that such a thing was injurious to the young woman's health--it was absolutely mandatory that a court dress be low-cut.

The headdress, while always including a veil, also required feathers as part of it, although, the number and size of the feathers varied with the Monarchy. At the time of Queen Charlotte, young ladies wore one single towering ostrich feather, but through the years, the number of feathers required increased.

Queen Victoria hated small feathers, so orders were issued that Her Majesty wanted to see the feathers as the young lady approached. Later in Queen Victoria's reign, as well as in the court of Edward VII, the mandated headdress was three feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume--that is, the center feather was higher than the two on each side of it--and it was worn slightly on the left side of the head. Tiaras were worn by married women, and it was extremely difficult to keep the feathers in place, especially during the curtsy.

For young ladies and women to be presented who were in mourning, it was acceptable for their dresses and veils to be black. No matter how cold the weather was on this special day, absolutely no cloaks, shawls, capes, or wraps of any kind were permitted to be worn. Those items remained in the lady's carriage.

It was required for each girl to be accompanied by her "sponsor"--an older woman of suitable rank and unimpeachable respectability preferably, her mother. The excited young ladies waited for hours in their carriages outside St. James Palace for their turn. Then they waited for almost as long once they entered the Palace, remaining in the chilly St. James Gallery until receiving their summons. Finally, the ladies were ushered into the Queen's presence in a seemingly-endless line, in order of precedence that is, lined up according to the importance of their father's titles. When she stepped into the drawing room where the Queen stood, the young lady handed her card to Lord Chamberlain, who in turn, announced her name while another gentleman-in-waiting spread out her train for her. Then, she set forth across the great room toward a group of royalties dressed in richly-colored glittering gowns and uniforms.

 As she approached the Queen's throne, the nervous young woman prayed for her steps to be steady; prayed that she would not trip or otherwise disgrace herself; that she would not fall as she curtsied; that her feathers would stay in place and finally, she found herself standing before the Queen. The young lady made her full curtsy until she was nearly kneeling, bowed, and kissed the Queen's hand. As she touched her lips to the hand of the Queen, no doubt the young woman was thinking about the power represented by this hand; the historic decrees it had signed; the times it had been raised in a gesture heeded around the world.... Yet, if the young woman was the daughter of a Duke, a Marques, or an Earl, she did not kiss the Queen's hand rather, the Queen kissed the young lady's forehead.

At this point, the young lady rose and curtsied again in genuflection to other royalties who were present, finishing with one last brief curtsy to the Queen. Then came the real trick backing out of the room with a ten-foot train! To do this, the woman had to reach for her train, and as gracefully as possible, drape it over her arm to get it out of the way. More often, however, lords-in-waiting retrieved the train for her and draped it over the young woman's arm. Then, step-by-step, the young lady backed out of the room. Liveried servants were strategically posted to help guide the debutantes, but most seemed to have negotiated their exit with little misfortune.

It took weeks of preparation for the event, but this short ceremony allowed the young lady full-membership into fashionable Society and the "Marriage Market", along with its collective privileges. She was now permitted to attend court functions, balls and parties of which she would have otherwise not been included. As well, she could now negotiate an acceptable marriage in high society. Formal presentation to the Queen was an honor bestowed exclusively upon young ladies at the highest level of society, but anyone who had been presented at Court was welcomed anywhere!


Article Information:
Article Name: Presentation At Court
Website: http:www.thehistorybox.com |Author: Dawn Aiello  
Source:  Bibliography: By Dawn Aiello of Victorian Lace, Author and Copyright owner of this article
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