When I first started this blog, I was an unemployed costumer attempting to create period gowns and costumes with very limited means. Although now employed, I still try to be as thrifty as possible. I am still "The Broke Costumer"!

In addition to posts about the outfits I make on a budget, this blog includes short research articles on fashion, history, accessories, styles, or whatever interests me at the moment.

I hope you enjoy my journey into the land of inexpensive costuming and short articles.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Royal Court Presentation in the 20th Century

I recently re-watched Downton Abbey’s season four finale wherein Lady Rose is presented to King George V and Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace.   I wondered how accurate it was, and how had customs changed since Queen Victoria’s era. Was Rose’s gown period correct?  Here is a photo from Downton Abbey, next to an actual photograph. Linnie Irwin Sweeney, left, and her daughter Elsie Irwin Sweeney being presented at court in 1923

The costumes were pretty much spot on, and beautiful!  One huge error with the presentation itself.  After Rose's curtsy, she was to walk out of the room backwards, without tripping on her train.  Instead, she walked by the King and Queen, and turned her back to them as she left the room.  This was NEVER done.

There are many wonderful blogs written about court presentations and the beautiful gowns that were worn from the 1700s through Queen Victoria’s reign.  So, I will concentrate on the 20th Century, and the end of the presentations.   I have included many links to actual articles, as this blog would be way too long for you to read with all the information included.   I hope you enjoy these links.

The London Season began approximately after Easter through August 12th (the beginning of hunting season).  It was also loosely based on Parliament’s schedule and more importantly, sporting events.  The Derby and Ascot are the highlights of the season.   During this time, there were several court presentations for young ladies to “come out” into society, in hope they would meet and marry wealthy eligible young men from the “right backgrounds”. Once out, they were free to attend debutante balls, dances, parties, and other activities. One big event of the season was Queen Charlotte’s Ball started in 1780 by King George as a birthday celebration for his Queen.
                                                                                THE RULES                             
Only certain women and young ladies could be presented at court. There were three qualifications that had to be fulfilled to receive a royal summons:  1. The lady should be of good moral and social character. 2. The lady needed to be sponsored by a woman who had already been presented. Usually it was a young lady’s mother, or other older female relative, sometimes however, a presented woman who was short of money would sponsor, for a fee, young women who had no one else. 3.  Only certain women were allowed to be presented at court: wives and daughters of the aristocracy, of town and country gentry, of the clergy, of military officers, of professional men such as physicians and barristers, and a few other select groups.

Those who wished to be presented had to have someone who had previously been presented to the Sovereign apply on their behalf. This could be their mother or someone close to the family.  Once accepted, a royal summons from the Lord Chamberlain would be sent.

At the ceremony, the lady, accompanied by her sponsor, would first be announced by The Lord Chamberlain. She would then approach the throne and drop into a full court curtsy, her knee almost touching the floor. She would hold this position while bowing first to Their Majesties and then to any other royals in the Presence Chamber. She would then leave, backing out of the room, since one never turned their back on the King or Queen, all the while taking care not to trip over her gown.
                                                               THE ACCESSORIES
A train was attached to the shoulders of the dress. The length of the train varied throughout the years: under Queen Victoria, trains were not less than three yards in length, but by 1925, trains could not exceed 2 yards in length or extend more than 18 inches from the heel when standing. The train could be cut round or square as was the fashion or the wearer’s inclination, but was required to be 54 inches in width at the end.  White gloves were also required. You may carry flowers or a fan.
Headdresses were also required, worn slightly on the left. The headdress included a tulle veil and white feathers, although black could be used when in deep mourning. The number of feathers increased through the years from a single towering ostrich feather at the time of Queen Charlotte, to three feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume later in Queen Victoria’s reign. The three white feathers should be mounted and worn towards the left hand side of the head. Married women could wear tiaras.  In addition, a short veil was worn, or lace lappets. Previously presented Mothers/Sponsors generally wore two white feathers.
 Photo:  Court Accessories 1926 Museovirasto, Finland

While the formalities stayed basically the same until World War II, fashion certainly changed. The following photos are by year.  When researching fashion, its best not to rely on photo sharing sites for information.  It can be mislabeled and shared incorrectly several times.  Many wedding dresses were captioned as court presentation gowns, and the reverse.  Try and go directly to the source, i.e., family photos, historical archives and museum sites. However, some debs DID use their presentation gowns as wedding dresses later!

1899  Early on, the only exception to the all white rule was of course, mourning.  This is a beautiful example of a mourning presentation gown.  Countess Victor di Carrobi, who was presented by Baroness de Renzis.  Layfayette Collection, V&A

1900.  Lady Darell, with her daughter Dorothy and Mrs. H.C. Jobson        The Layfayette Collection, V&A

1904  The invitation for presentation to the King and Queen states: "The Dress Regulations are: Ladies: Full Court dress with feathers and trains. Gentlemen: Full Court dress." Harry McLaughlin has kindly shared this image of his Grandmother's Court Presentation portrait on Victorianweb.com   (RIGHT)


1904.   The young Norah Cleveland Smith was presented at Court on May 13th 1904.  Her photo and presentation card which is shared here.  Norah Cleveland Smith

1907. Laura and Eva Farlow had a wonderful presentation, which Laura wrote an article about in Success Magazine, Volume X, New York December 1907, Number 163.  It was reprinted in The Royal Magazine, May 1908, Volume 20, "A Description of the formalities, the glorious moment, and afterwards." 
read article here starting page 805   

1907 Left.      Read about this beautiful gown on the FIDM blog.   It gives a very detailed account of the presentation process and has more photos of this gown  Link here

1911-13    Below.   http://lafayette.org.uk/war12506.html

1912 - Left 
Major Reginald Francis Legge and Mrs Reginald Francis Legge

1912  - Right
Mrs. Charles Graeme Higgins, née Algitha Howard  

                                            1914 -Mrs. Hugh Palliser Hickman Lafayette.org.uk

Formal presentations were dropped during World War I,  but were resumed in 1922.

Mrs. Ogden Hammond, 21 June 1922: presented by Mrs. Harvey.

 1926.  Court presentation gown and train, Jacques Doucet, 1926. Gift of Miss Mary Dudley Kenna. In the collection of the Chicago History Museum. 1965.380a-e. Photo by Katy Werlin.   Read this wonderful blog on the gown  http://www.thefashionhistorian.com/2014/08/the-past-and-future-two-court.html   

 1927.   Lady Blades in her court presentation ensemble, Lafayette Photo Studio.

1928 Right.  Gorgeous Boue Soeurs gown

1928.   Right - Beautiful art deco gown, covered in pearls.  Helen Hurley Ryan in her court gown and train.   You can also read about it and see this original gown, as well as the pink 1927 Jacques Ducet here

1928 Left - Silk and lame with net, sequins and rhinestones  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

1929     Callot Soeurs dress worn by Marjorie Merriweather Post for her presentation.  From the Cartier: Marjorie Merriweather Post's Dazzling Gems" exhibition at the Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens

1930.   AMAZING movie by British Pathe Debutantes for the Court.  Arriving by droves. Must Watch This!!

1931.  Another movie, this time with sound  "London. The First Court of the Season. Large crowds gather in the Mall to see - and sometimes criticize - beautifully gowned debutantes on way to Buckingham Palace."   Must Watch This Too!!

1931 Left - Miss R. Bingham.  Published in the Evening Standard.  Bassano Studio Production    collections.
Museum of London

 1932-34   Right Boue Soeurs from the Metropolitan Museum


1933- Left.  Edward Molyneax designer.  Metmuseum.org

 1935- Right.  Harvey Nichols department store in Knightsbridge, London, advertising a "gown of classic simplicity"  original


"In 1936, King Edward VIII, in an attempt to introduce a more informal and democratic tone in his court, decided to do away with the evening presentations and instead introduce afternoon ones; much to the chagrin of the mothers of the debutantes presented that year. It wasn’t a success as it rained on the day of the first presentation which put an abrupt end to the proceedings and gave rise to a number of irate comments from mothers who thought their daughters had been cheated of an opportunity to experience the same ceremony as they did, or thought that the garden party court was a poor substitute for the traditional evening one.

There was much relief when King George VI and Queen Elizabeth reinstated the traditional evening courts in 1937 but they were suspended for the duration of the Second World War. When they were resumed after the war, it was deemed inappropriate to reintroduce the evening courts and so Edward VIII’s idea of a garden party presentation was revived and remained in place until they were finally abolished."   Source

"In 1937 the King decided that the presentation of debutantes would take place as before in evening court. The ceremony began at 9:30, and it took all day to get ready. The debutantes spoke of it in awe.  "They describe queuing up in the mall (and everyone would crowd around your car and peer in at you, sitting there in your Prince of Wales feathers).  A great beauty of the Season  says, "When I curtseyed, the King looked down the front of my dress!"  One deb gave a rollicking account of her presentation, saying she was "all dolled up, gold lame train and all.  We had to curtsey to the King, get up, walk one and a half steps to the Queen, curtesy, then walk backwards out of the room, doing something with the damned train. I managed the low curtsey to the King, but when I went down in front of the Queen, I heard my heel break off!"  "1939: The Last Season of Peace"  by Angela Lambert

Thomas Lee Jones writes on his website about Miss Anna Glen, a young American girl, to be presented to the king and queen of England.  “We embarked as planned, armed with a letter describing the rules and regulations concerning court etiquette and dress. Once in London, my white satin dress was made. The train, which hung separately from the shoulders, had to trail a prescribed distance on the floor. The same with the tulle veil, whose official length seemed to hit the middle of the rear end, so sitting was difficult. I also had to make certain I did not dislodge the three feathers on my head. The feather fan was purchased and all was ready.”   She also took classes, wherein she learned how to walk, curtsy, and leave the room.

Finally the big night: July 1, 1937. The first court of King George after the coronation, and what turned out to be the last formal, feather-and-fans court ever.    “With this great silver mace, the Lord Chamberlain hit the floor three times and called out the name of each debutante and suddenly it was my name, Miss Anna Glenn Butler of the United States of America. And there I was walking along the length of the Throne Room and through the entire routine! I remember well the lovely smile of the queen’s face as I bowed my head to her.”

One of the most famous court presentations of American women was the presentation of the Kennedys.  In 1938 Rose Kennedy, wife of newly-appointed American ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, is shown at center with two of her daughters, Kathleen "Kick" Kennedy (l) and Rosemary Kennedy, at their presentation at Buckingham Palace. Kathleen's lively personality made her a great hit among the British social set.
1938-9  Elsa Schiaparelli presentation gown

Christopher A. Long wrote a wonderful article on his conversation with his mother who was presented in 1939, and the season that followed just before World War II broke out.  Read about this amazing woman HERE

Again, presentations stopped during wartime.   When they resumed after World War II, the ceremony was replaced with more casual afternoon reception. The choreographed curtsies and court dress also went away. Edward VIII's boredom with the 'Deb' Court Presentation led to one disastrous afternoon ceremony in the gardens at Buckingham Palace. Not only did the King appear to doze through much of it but the rain came down too.

"Court presentations continued after the war, but they gradually became less opulent. In the post-war 1940s evening Courts were replaced with afternoon presentations (for which afternoon dresses were worn); and with that, the donning of full Court dress ceased to be a rite of passage for young women taking their place in society."     Wikipedia

1953  House of Balmain Presentation Gown  Metmuseum.org

By 1953, ladies attending the Coronation were directed to wear 'evening dresses or afternoon dresses, with a light veiling falling from the back of the head. Tiaras may be worn ... no hats'. Court presentations continued, but they gradually became less opulent.

1957  RightDebutantes and their families lining up for entrance to an afternoon presentation party.
original link


The very last Presentation occurred in 1958.  This group has come to be known as “The Last Debutantes”. HERE   

In 2010, over fifty years later, these same women graciously lent Kensington Palace their original evening dresses for display at the exhibit.  Some of them had even saved their shoes, hats, and tubes of lipstick from the monumentous evening!  Read about the exhibit HERE

 Right:   Evening dress of pink silk organza.  Charles Worth.  Part of "The Last Debutantes" exhibition at Kensington Palace in 1958.

This link is to a fantastic slide show about the last debutante court presentation audio slide show

Attire requested was a ladies day dress and hat, suitable for the afternoon presentation party.

At the 1958 Presentation Prince Philip pointed out that it was ‘bloody daft’.  As well as Prince Phillip's dismissal, the Queen felt such an elitist event was at odds with her desire for a more modern monarchy. 

The system itself was also becoming open to abuse, as well-born ladies charged large fees to bring out girls whose credentials were not always of the highest. The titled but money poor women would launch several debutantes at once. By 1958 the exclusivity of the Season was eroded. In the immortal words of Princess Margaret, "We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in."

For further reading on the Last Debs,  see “High Society: Whatever Happened to the Last of the Debs?”  Read Here   and “What was it like to come out at a debutante ball?”  Read Here


  1. I finally got a chance to watch the full length BBC video you posted here on Debutantes, and really enjoyed it. The presentation of Rose in the Downton Abbey episode really brought the interest level in this to the forefront of everyone. It was nice to read all about the history of it.

  2. Hi, Many thanks for linking our blog and your one is very informative in light of how changing fashions have influenced what is essentially a uniform attire. The Downton Abbey Christmas Special you mentioned had more than simply Rose turning her back on the King and Queen as an error, the special itself is riddled with errors as we pointed out in part 2: https://enoughofthistomfoolery.wordpress.com/2015/03/26/debs-delight-part-2-lady-roses-court-presentation-and-a-right-royal-boo-boo/

    1. Thank you for your amazing link to the post above. I loved reading it and continue to learn about this subject. I feel I just scratched the surface. I try to include as many links as possible so readers can continue to explore. Yours is wonderful.

    2. Thank you for your amazing link to the post above. I loved reading it and continue to learn about this subject. I feel I just scratched the surface. I try to include as many links as possible so readers can continue to explore. Yours is wonderful.

    3. Your welcome and yes, there is a lot to learn about this subject. Laurence Leamer on "The Kennedy Women" gives a very good account of a court presentation and its worth checking out.

  3. Your accounts are tremendous and very true to my mother's own stories. She described being driven along the Mall but got into trouble with her mother because the waving crowds peering in through the window gave her the giggles! The hairdresser came to her house to fit the ostrich feathers into her hair with so many pins that it took even longer to undo it all at the end of the day! It took 3 lessons to learn how to do a successful deep court curtsey.