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British Asian debutantes on friendships, traditions and learning about privilege


SOCIAL GRACES: Debutante Carolina Lanz, 16, (R) adjusts the dress of Shrishti Mishra, 16 (L) at Leeds Castle during the Queen Charlotte's Ball
SOCIAL GRACES: Debutante Carolina Lanz, 16, (R) adjusts the dress of Shrishti Mishra, 16 (L) at Leeds Castle during the Queen Charlotte's Ball

by LAUREN CODLING

TWO debutantes have praised the tradition for helping to create friendships and global connections, as the latest ball is set to take place on Saturday (8).

Debutante balls have been a social tradition since 1780. It symbolised a rite of passage for generations of the British aristocracy and upper classes.

Organised by the London Season, it aims to teach social etiquette and cultural protocol
through a series of events.

The highlight is the Queen Charlotte Ball, which is held at the end of the season and is
attended by girls from around the world.

The event was originally the only way for young women to make their debut appearance
in British upper-class society, but today has a strong focus on supporting charitable
causes.

This year’s Queen Charlotte’s Ball will be held at Dartmouth House, the former London
home of Lord Dartmouth, in Mayfair.

Fatima Khan, 20, and Shrishti Mishra, 17, were participants in last year’s London Season.

They took etiquette classes and attended the ball last September, and both said it was a positive experience for them.

Khan, from Buckinghamshire, told Eastern Eye she was told about the season by a family friend. It was during her gap year and she was keen to get involved.

She revealed she found the notion “captivating”, especially as it had been an old idea
which was now relevant to modern society.

“Today, you’ve got so many girls who are career driven,” the debutant said. “In the London Season, you learn about social graces and how to handle yourself in a professional capacity as well as in society.

“I thought it sounded like a great opportunity and it was so interesting how the whole concept had changed over the years.”

Debutante Fatima Khan, from Buckinghamshire, poses by a window at Leeds Castle during the Queen Charlotte’s Ball

Girls need to be selected before they can partake in the season’s activities. They are expected to attend an ‘interview’ with Jennie Hallam-Peel, a former debutante who is
the chairman for the London Season.

Khan admitted she found the experience “daunting”, but it spurred her on to succeed.

“I initially thought, ‘I’m not going to be any good at this,’ but that was all the more reason to get involved,” she said.

Each challenge was new and exciting, she explained, so it taught them to adapt. Mishra agreed, remarking how she found the prospect of an interview “nerve-wracking”.

The aspiring doctor was asked about her ambitions for the future, her career prospects and her interests in charity.

“I told Jennie about my extra-curricular activities and why I wanted to be involved in the season. We talked about the importance of ambition and good causes in the world,” London-born Mishra told Eastern Eye. “It was more like a casual chat, really.”

Mishra has taken part in the London Season twice. Initially only attending the Queen Charlotte Ball in her first year, she said her second year was much more rewarding as she was able to attend etiquette classes.

Debutantes arrive at Leeds Castle for the Queen Charlotte’s Ball

“I didn’t go to any other events [besides the ball] in my first year, which I think set me back a little,” she said. “My second year was so much better, even though I had made strong bonds and friendships both years. I felt like I learned a lot more.”

Once the girls had been accepted, they were selected to attend an array of events. These could include sporting events, luncheons, cocktail parties or etiquette classes.

There are no fees required to become a debutante. However, tickets to attend the Queen Charlotte Ball costs £500. According to Hallam-Peel, it is not possible to buy a ticket without a personal invitation.

The money is donated to charity, alongside funds raised by raffles and silent auctions
held at the event.

Last year’s proceeds were donated to charity Children with Cancer UK.

In preparation for the day, the girls began to get ready around 9am. Last year, dresses were provided by Berketex Bride, which is coincidentally run by Mishra’s mother.

The girls were helped with hair and make-up, and dress fitters were on hand in case anyone needed their dress altered.

There are around 20 girls involved, usually aged between 16 and 20.

“It was a little stressful as there were so many girls, but everyone handled it very well,” Khan said.

By 4pm, everyone was transported to the main event. Last year, they were taken to Leeds Castle in Maidstone, Kent, via a double decker bus where they enjoyed afternoon tea.

Debutantes sit at tables laid with cakes and sandwiches on the top deck of a Routemaster bus before leaving Boughton Monchelsea Place for the Queen Charlotte’s Ball

“It was really relaxed,” Mishra added. “Jennie said she wanted us to meet new people,
have a good time and make connections.”

Parents are not required to attend the ball, but some do to see how their children have progressed. Some girls are escorted by their fathers. They are seated for dinner, where they can practice their newly-taught table manners.

Afterwards, they are encouraged to dance and enjoy themselves with their fellow debutantes and other guests.

Although the girls only spend a limited amount of time with one another, the bonds built are strong. According to Mishra, the friends she has made are for life.

“I met a girl called Rebecca from America and we FaceTime every day,” she said.

“I don’t have any siblings, but Rebecca is like my sister. At the start, everyone is so nervous but from my experience, you form such close friendships. You can go to any of
the girls for help and they are always there for you.”

Khan agreed, explaining how meeting girls from around the world has helped “globalise” her.

“You could be learning cultural traditions and mannerisms from Saudi Arabia or Hong Kong,” she said. “That is something I will always remember.”

The girls say they have formed close bonds with one another since their debutante experience

Talking about the lessons she learned, Khan believes the experience has changed her positively. As a young woman coming from her background, she said, life could be very self-obsessed.

“It [her lifestyle] was very selfish,” she admitted. “But then you are suddenly put in these situations where you are forced to consider other people.”

She believes the experience has given her an awareness and idea of her place in society
and the privilege which she and the other girls have.

“With that comes responsibility for other people and I think I was made more acutely aware of this during my time with the London Season,” she said.