Presentation at Court

by Ellen Micheletti

For many years in Great Britain, a young woman of good family was not considered to be an official member of Society until she had been presented to the monarch at Court. The actual presentation took less than one minute, but it was planned with more care than a corporate takeover, and surrounded by more rules than the most zealous bureaucrat could dream up.

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Who could be presented? Wives and daughters of peers, members of Parliament, officers in the armed services, wives and daughters of the gentry, barristers (but not solicitors), and a few other select groups could be presented. Actresses were barred, wives of men who were in trade could not be presented (although that prohibition was loosened over the years), and no one who been divorced could be presented. Later on, the innocent party in a divorce was allowed to be presented which allowed Wallis Simpson, the future Duchess of Windsor, that privilege (she was still married to Ernest Simpson at the time of her presentation). The young woman being presented had to be sponsored by a woman who had herself been presented. Theoretically, that would be her mother, mother-in-law, or another relative but some women of noble birth, but slim pockets would for a fee, bring out a young woman who had no relatives at Court.

The actual ceremony was quite simple. The young woman would have her name announced by the Lord Chamberlain, she would walk forward to where the monarch was seated and make a deep curtsy. She would then curtsy to any other royal personages and then back out of the royal presence, all the while trying not to drip over her train.

For her presentation the young woman had to wear court dress which sometimes followed fashion and sometimes did not, but whether court dress was in or out of fashion, a train was always part of it. During the time of King George III and Queen Charlotte, court dress did not follow fashion. Dresses had become high-waisted and simple, as we see in movies based on Jane Austen's books, but court dress was elaborate with old fashioned hoop skirts. At one point an attempt was made to combine hoops with the fashionable high waist but the result looked ridiculous. George IV banished the hoops and from then on, court dress was a variation on the stylish evening dress of the period. Despite what was in style, there were some rules for court dress that did not vary. White was the preferred color for a young unmarried woman (black was permitted if one was in mourning). Married women to be presented could wear more color, but most of them wore pale colors or white. A court dress had to be low cut - no exceptions to that rule (unless you presented a doctor's certificate to the Lord Chamberlain that a low cut dress was injurious to your health) and it generally had short sleeves. Some women who had married into court circles had their wedding dresses modified into court dresses, thereby saving themselves a couple of guineas. If the woman being presented was not married, she would sometimes modify her court dress into a wedding dress upon her marriage. The dress had a separate, shoulder-hung train which was often very elaborate with more color and lavish embroidery and trimming. The length of the train varied from year to year, sometimes three yards long or even longer. Managing the train took practice. Usually the girl would pin a tablecloth on her shoulders and practice moving around until she could manage all that fabric with grace and not get tangled up in it.

Along with the prescribed court dress, the women being presented had to wear a prescribed headdress. At various times, the headdress incorporated elements such as veils, lappets, and jewelry but it always had feathers as a feature. During Queen Charlotte's time, a single towering ostrich feather was in style, but as time passed the number of feathers increased. Queen Victoria hated small feathers and the Lord Chamberlain issued orders that Her Majesty wanted to see the feathers as the girl approached. Later, in Victoria's reign and in the court of Edward VII, the prescribed headdress called for three feathers arranged in a Prince of Wales plume, the center feather being higher than the two side ones, and the whole arrangement was to be worn slightly on the left side of the head. A veil hung from the back of the head and married women wore tiaras. King Edward VII insisted on tiaras and would scold those who did not wear them. The feathers had to be white (black while in mourning) and it was difficult to keep them in place.

The young woman often went to a class to learn how to curtsy. A class to learn how to curtsy? How hard can that be you might wonder. Well, this curtsy was no slight dip of the knees. It was a full court curtsy where the woman had to bend her knee almost to the floor, hold it while making a low bow and then stand up again being sure not to trip over her gown, stumble over her train, or drop her flowers or fan. Also she was probably praying that the feathers in her headdress wouldn't fall out. Then after the curtsy, the young woman had to back out (still trying not to trip) because you do not turn your back on the monarch.

When the day came, the young woman to be presented accompanied by her sponsor made their way to the palace with an official card that gave her name. All the ones to be presented waited in a hallway that was usually cold (or hot) and crowded, especially so if they were being presented at a time when the crinoline was in fashion (not to mention those long trains). When it came the young woman's turn to be presented, she had her train spread out by a gentlemen in waiting and gave her card to the Lord Chamberlain who announced her name.

The young woman walked forward, curtsyed to the monarch, then curtsyed again to any other royalties present, stepped back, the gentlemen in waiting threw her train over her arm and she backed out. That short ceremony made her a full fledged member of Society with all the privileges attending.

After World War II, the presentation to the monarch took place in the afternoon at garden parties. Full court dress would have looked odd, and Great Britain was under an austerity program so the young women dispensed with court dress, train and feathers and wore an afternoon dress and hat. They still took lessons in how to curtsy, but things were much simpler. In 1958, Queen Elizabeth II abolished presentations. The queen still has garden parties but the old formal rite at court is no more.

I have found descriptions of court presentations in a number of sources, but these are the best:

  • Ceremonial Costume : Court, Civil, and Civic Costume from 1660 to the Present Day by Alan Mansfield. Barnes & Noble Books, 1980 (This book describes many types of costume and is filled with pictures. Want to tell a duke from an earl when they have on their robes? With this book, you can.)
  • 'In Society' : the Brideshead Years by Nicholas Courtney. Pavilion, 1986. (This book concentrates on the years following World War I when customs at court began to be seen as very out of touch. )
  • The Women We Wanted To Look Like by Brigid Keenan. Macmillan, 1977 (This is mostly a book about fashion, but it has a chapter that describes the last of the court presentations. It also has a picture of a class on how to curtsy.)

* LLB: What did you learn in your research about the Court mantua - that hoop skirt which was wide side to side but almost flat from front to back? When I went to the UK this summer, my husband and I went through a fashion museum exhibit at Kensington Palace (see page 3 of my trip diary). It used dress from the 1700's through early 1900's to show how what was worn reflected on societal mores at the time for the nobility. For instance, we learned that the amount of brocade worn on a man's jacket indicated how powerful, important, and wealthy he was. We also learned about the mantua, those very wide hooped skirts that were essentially flat from front to back (see photo, right). I understood that they came into fashion in the 1700's and were kept as part of Court presentations for about a hundred years, even though they were "out of fashion" outside of Court. What else can you tell me about this?

Ellen: The manuta was an anachronism for a long time in court dress. Even after it went out of style, it was mandatory for court. The author of Ceremonial Costume referred to the continued presence of the mantua at court long after it went out of style, as a good example of the "fossilization" of court dress and there's a picture of one in the book. Gad, how ugly! King George IV banished it and court dress for women became more in style (say what you will about Prinny, but he did have good taste). From the early 1800's fashion went from the elaborate mantua, to the simple dresses we associate with Jane Austen, but the mantua persisted at court. When George IV banished it, from then on, court dress and evening dress were pretty much the same, with the exception of the requirement for low cut necklines in court dress. If fashion called for a high neckline - sorry - court rules were rules.

However, men's court dress remained fossilized. Even into the 20th century, the rule was for knee breeches at some functions. The American ambassadors to the Court of St. James were famous for their refusal to wear them, and the monarch had to give in.

 

Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants



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