Racegoers attending Royal Ascot in England before the First World War.

The social season, or season, refers to the traditional annual period in the spring and summer when it is customary for members of the social elite of British society to hold balls, dinner parties and charity events. Until the First World War, it was also the appropriate time to be resident in the city (generally meaning London) rather than in the country in order to attend such events.

In modern times in the United Kingdom, "the Season" is known to encompass various prestigious events that take place during the spring and summer. According to The Sloaney magazine's online guide "Sloaney Season", it starts with Cheltenham Festival (March), and includes the Grand National (April), The Boat Race (April), Badminton Horse Trials (May), Chelsea Flower Show (May), Epsom Derby (June), Royal Ascot (June), Test matches at Lord's (July), Wimbledon (July), Henley Royal Regatta (July), Edinburgh International Festival (August) and others, ending with Goodwood Revival (September).[1]

Social season of London

1870 cartoon satirising the coming of the London season.
Henley Royal Regatta, 2003
Royal Ascot, 2006
Wimbledon, 2007
Polo, 2009

The London social season evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, and in its traditional form it peaked in the 19th century. In this era the British elite was dominated by families of the nobility and landed gentry, who generally regarded their country house as their main home, but spent several months of the year in the capital to socialise and to engage in politics. The most exclusive events were held at the town mansions of leading members of the aristocracy. Exclusive public venues such as Almack's played a secondary role. The Season coincided with the sitting of parliament; it began some time after Christmas and ran until midsummer, roughly late June.[2] Some sources say it began at Parliament's Easter session break.[3]

The social season played a role in the political life of the country: the members of the two Houses of Parliament were almost all participants in the season. But the Season also provided an opportunity for the children of marriageable age of the nobility and gentry to be launched into society. Debutantes were formally introduced into society by presentation to the monarch at royal court during the Court Drawing Rooms and Queen Charlotte's Ball until the practice was abolished by Queen Elizabeth II in 1958. Queen Charlotte's Ball ceased to function in 1976, but has been relaunched since, by former debutante Jennie Hallam-Peel, without the monarch's involvement, and with more limited uptake; debutantes instead curtsy to "Queen Charlotte's Birthday Cake".[4]

The traditional Season went into decline after the First World War, when many aristocratic families gave up their London mansions. From then on, more society events took place at public venues, making it harder to maintain social exclusivity.[citation needed] The opulent coming-out party held for the 17 year-old Lady Sarah Consuelo Spencer-Churchill on 7 July 1939 at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, less than two months before World War Two was declared, has been styled by some as "the last season ever".[5] Socialite Henry (Chips) Channon noted in his diary: “I have seen much, travelled far and am accustomed to splendour, but there has never been anything like tonight”.[6]

Many events that take place far from central London (though generally within the Home Counties) came to be regarded as part of the social season, including Royal Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta. The events that now constitute the London social season are increasingly hosted or sponsored by large companies (i.e. "corporate hospitality"). Western dress codes still apply to certain events in the season, especially those in which the King maintains an official role.[citation needed]

Arts

Horticulture

Equestrianism

The Crown

Sport

Although several of these events are not actually held in London, such as the Hurlingham Polo Association at Guards Polo Club, the organisers of most events attempt to avoid date clashes, so it is generally possible to visit all of them in the same year.

The traditional end of the London Season is the Glorious Twelfth of August, which marks the beginning of the shooting season. Society would retire to the country to shoot birds during the autumn and hunt foxes during the winter before coming back to London again with the spring. For some time there was also the "Harrogate Season", where members of the upper classes would stop at Harrogate Spa to take in the waters on their way from London up to their shooting estates in the north.[7]

Dress codes

Many events of the season have traditional expectations with regard to Western dress codes.

In popular culture

London is the capital of shops and of speculation, the government is made there. The aristocracy inscribes itself there only during sixty days, it there takes its orders, it inspects the government kitchen, it passes in review its daughters to marry, and equipages to sell, it says good-day and goes away promptly ; - it is so little amusing that it supports itself only for the few days called the season.

Notes

  1. ^ "Cheltenham Festival marks the start of Sloaney Season". The Sloaney. 13 March 2018. Archived from the original on 27 March 2018. Retrieved 26 March 2018.
  2. ^ 'The Social Character of the Estate: The London Season in 1841′, Survey of London: volume 39: The Grosvenor Estate in Mayfair, Part 1 (General History) (1977), pp. 89-93.
  3. ^ "From balls to Bridgerton: a brief history of debutantes and the social season". BBC. 19 February 2021.
  4. ^ "In pictures: Debutantes at Queen Charlotte's Ball". 30 October 2013. Archived from the original on 30 March 2019. Retrieved 23 August 2019 – via www.telegraph.co.uk.
  5. ^ Anne de Courcy. 1939: The Last Season (1989)
  6. ^ Henry (Chips) Cannon, ed. Simon Heffer. The Diaries 1939-42 (2021), p. 594, 1039, 7/7/1939
  7. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 1 November 2023. Retrieved 1 November 2023.((cite web)): CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. ^ "Royal Ascot 14-18th June 2011". Royal Ascot. Archived from the original on 16 September 2010. Retrieved 23 September 2010.
  9. ^ Bergin, Olivia (1 July 2009). "What to wear: Henley Royal Regatta". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 6 July 2009. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
  10. ^ Wardrop, Murray (2 July 2009). "Student falls foul of Henley Royal Regatta dress code wearing Ascot outfit". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 11 July 2010. Retrieved 23 May 2010.

Further reading