From the June 1949 issue of the Socialist Standard
In an article packed with vital and fascinating information, Mr. Charles Graves in the Sunday Express of May 8th gave his readers the facts about the miserable plight of this year’s debutantes, and in doing so performed a valuable public service which should not pass without comment. Further, since it is possible that in some remote corner of this island there are those whose week-end reading is confined to the Bible and News of the World and remain therefore unaware of this grave social problem, it is felt that the greatest possible publicity should be given to Mr. Graves' article, of which the following is a brief summary.
First let the writer make it clear just what debutantes are. “Official debutantes,” says Mr. Graves, “are girls between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, who will be attending the Presentation Parties at Buckingham Palace on May 18 and 19.” It is not clear from Mr. Graves as to how the 584 young debutantes who are being launched this year are chosen, and this detracts slightly from the value of his article. It can be assumed, however, that in this democratic day and age and in the fourth year of Labour Party Rule that they are elected by popular ballot, and their attendance at Buckingham Palace is in no way connected with their membership of the ruling class.
What is their social function? They are the great providers of employment for as Mr. Graves points out, “What may seem to some people, at first sight, to be a great extravagance is actually of direct benefit to hundreds of workpeople in London—dressmakers, salesgirls, manicurists and other beauty parlour specialists, taxi-cab drivers, car hire firms, florists, dance academies, contract bridge teachers, waiters, wine merchants and the like.” Let the reader imagine the social unrest that would follow mass unemployment among contract bridge teachers. As the great providers they are related to the various workers mentioned above in the same way as horses are to road sweepers, rats to rat-catchers, disease to doctors, burglars to policemen, and so on. Another of their functions is in the words of Mr. Graves to provide “the traditional reason for having a season at all.”
As is so often the case with public benefactors it is only at great personal cost and sacrifice that they become of such value to the community. The following details will give the reader some idea of the cost that they, or at least their parents, incur in “doing good.” According to Mr. Graves the lowest price for dinner frocks and ball gowns is about sixty guineas. Many of the parents in these days of Crippsian austerity are buying at less exclusive shops, but even so “cannot escape the fact that evening shoes cost six guineas or so.” The cost of a dance or ball during the season is nearly double the pre-war figure and this year a mere forty have been planned at Claridges and Londonderry House and elsewhere. Bands, flowers, food and drinks are twice the pre-war cost and £900 is not an extravagant estimate says Mr. Graves for a dance of 400 people. “One way and another it will be impossible to launch a debutante this year for less than £500. And that is a real utility price.” Such is their sad plight!
Does the writer hear a low ominous rumble of protest at what appears to be extravagance? In one poignant sentence Mr. Graves quiets this. He says, “As for the girls themselves, they are surely entitled to taste what little glamour they can before they start the drudgery of earning a living and thinking about P.A.Y.E.”
Yes, that is the gruesome unvarnished truth. Not only do these slaves to the community provide work but actually work themselves. Mr. Graves is quoted again. “The Monkey Club in Pont Street has a number of debutantes among its students who are taking such subjects as domestic science, cookery, foreign language, arts award (the history of music and art from the sixteenth century until today), music, secretarial courses, and from now onward, interior decoration. Debutantes, however, are released from any studies until the afternoon, with an occasional lecture at midday. The Principal realises that a girl who is doing the season will not have the energy to study at 10 a.m. if she has been dancing until one or two in the morning.”
Sally Ann Vivian, daughter of Lord and Lady Vivian, for instance, has had automatically to learn about red and white wines, but has still to learn bridge, which is part of the education of any modern young lady. What is more, among the many post-war deb’s who have taken jobs Mr. Graves informs us that one is actually third cook at the Bank of England.
Should the reader imagine that the strain of public duty on these young women is too great and that they are in danger of treading the path of dissipation, the writer hastens to assure him that “The average debutante does not really like even champagne. It tastes much the same to her as cider and she would just as soon drink water,” There is, of course, no connection whatsoever in the reference to champagne and the fact that the deb's are said to be launched into the season.
Enough has been said to demonstrate the unenviable lot of these young women and the plight of their parents who foot the bill, “so spare them your jealousy,” says Mr. Graves, “if you feel any. Especially when you remember that after their brief butterfly existence for three months they will go back to the cocoon of austerity like the rest of us.”