OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.
January 24, 1958
Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, red letter days on the British social calendar marked royal levées and “drawing rooms” when aristocratic men and women met and socialized with the monarch.
Levées, from the French word lever meaning to rise, had their roots in the old tradition of men attending the sovereign when he got up in the morning. To be present when the king used the chaise percée a.k.a. toilet was a great privilege for the up and coming courtier whose future could be made should the royal visage look favourably upon him.
Intimacy meant power.
Conversely, a courtier’s future could be dashed if he made some unpardonable faux pas, such as pointing and laughing.
Like their masculine counterpart, “drawing rooms” were occasions for women to mingle with the sovereign, and became an opportunity for a young girl, or debutante, typically in her late teens, to be lancée, (literally thrown) into high society by being presented to the sovereign. Over time, the distinction between a levée and a drawing room faded.
These highly stylized rituals reached their zenith during the ancien régime in France prior to the Revolution in 1789, though Napoleon was no slouch in the etiquette department either. Courtiers attended every function of French royal life, bodily or otherwise.
In Britain, Queen Elizabeth the First apparently mingled with commoners in the gallery at Greenwich Palace during the sixteenth century, with the practice become more regular and formalized by the reign of Queen Anne in the early eighteenth century.
But it was during Queen Victoria’s reign that the tradition of presentation parties for young debutantes reached its peak. As anybody knows from watching Downton Abbey, coming out to Society, which had a very different meaning in those days, was a once in a lifetime event for a young aristocratic girl. It marked her emergence into adulthood—a sort of secular, Anglo bat mitzvah. It also marked the start of the social season, which included such events as the Royal Ascot, the Henley rowing competition and the yacht races at Cowes, as well as a constant swirl of parties and receptions. The aim of all these activities was the acquisition of a suitable husband, preferably one with a title.
In republican United States, the lack of a king or queen was only a minor hindrance. Debutante balls and cotillions were regularly held to launch young women into the upper ranks of American society. For those seeking a royal imprimatur, American heiresses with the right connections and heaps of money could be presented at the Court of St. James’s in London. Once presented, they could troll for a suitable British husband who had the right forebears but was short of cash to maintain the family pile.
Here in Canada, we were fortunate that there was a vice-regal “court” that followed the same traditions as in London. Governors General held levées and drawing rooms just as Queen Victoria did.
Indeed, Lord Elgin held a levée in Bytown in 1853 when he visited the town to check it out as a possible capital for the new Province of Canada. By the time of Confederation, the presentation of debutantes to the Governor General was in full swing with “drawing rooms” held in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill.
At one such drawing room held in February 1870, guests were given specific instructions. Sleighs were to enter Parliament Square from the eastern Elgin Street gate, proceed past the East Block and set down guests in front of the Senate entrance which was lit by red lights. Sleighmen were then to exit via the central gates. Parliamentarians with wives and daughters were to enter via the House of Commons door which was lit by green lights. All guests were requested to provide two cards with the name of the person legibly printed, one for the aide de camp at the door and the other for the presentation aide. Presentations would end precisely at 10 p.m.
In little Ottawa, this was the social highlight of the winter season and received considerable newspaper coverage. More than one thousand people might attend these events. The names of participants were listed in the newspapers complete with descriptions of what the ladies wore and their jewellery.
A whole industry developed to dress ladies attending the drawing rooms, and to provide deportment lessons to the aspiring debutante who was, understandably, stressed about literally putting the wrong foot forward. Girls would practise in the privacy of their bedrooms curtseying before chairs. (For those who need to know, the proper style is to put the right foot in front, left behind, make a deep knee-bend, hold out the right hand, and go down very slowly while maintaining eye contact. Then rise and retire without turning your back on the important personage.)
While many wanted the social cachet of being presented to the Queen or Governor General, some saw the whole rigmarole as excessive or a waste of time.
As early as 1863, the satirical magazine Punch called the Queen’s Drawing Room “The House of Detention for Ladies.” In 1896, an American debutante said in the press that “it was vulgar to come out. Boys never come out. What is the reason of it all, I should like to know? Isn’t it really to announce to the world that we are a marriageable age and that we are on the market? It is perfectly intolerable. I think we are like victims decked out for sacrifice.” Instead of spending thousands on dresses and dinner parties, she asked her father to give her the money to start a business.
By the time of the more egalitarian 1950s, the idea of being presented at Court seemed out-of-date.
In November 1957, Buckingham Palace announced that presentations of debutantes would cease the following year and would be replaced by garden parties. This would allow the Queen and the Prince of Edinburgh to meet a wider range of people in a less formal setting. The announcement was widely applauded.
“The selection of the privileged few [had] become increasingly difficult and even invidious” said one newspaper.
The news led to so many girls applying to be presented that additional presentations had to be laid on in 1958 to accommodate everybody. The last presentation of debutantes in London occurred in July 1958 with the Queen Mother officiating as Queen Elizabeth was ill.
The last debutante presented was a Canadian, 20-year-old Sandra Seagram.
The Buckingham Palace announcement led Vincent Massey, Canada’s Governor General, to also end the custom of debutante presentations in Ottawa which by this time had long left the formal environs of Parliament Hill, and replaced by a charity event held at a major hotel.
The last official presentation of Ottawa debutantes occurred on January 24, 1958.
Five young girls were presented to Governor General Massey in the context of gala charity dinner and ball hosted by La Ligue de la Jeunesse Feminine (the League of Feminine Youth). The event, held at the Château Laurier Hotel, was called Le Bal des Petits Souliers (the Ball of the Little Shoes) with funds raised going to buy shoes for underprivileged children living in Ottawa, Eastview, Hull, Pointe Gatineau and Aylmer.
Called the Fiesta Espanola, the Château was Spanish territory for the evening. Tickets were $15 per couple.
Guests at the Fiesta entered through a wrought-iron portico where they were met by life-sized manikins of toreadors and ladies wearing mantillas. The ballroom was decorated in red and yellow—the national colours of Spain with wide streamers radiating from the central chandelier which was lit by tiny red lights. The head table was decorated with black lace fans and red carnations. Other tables boasted centrepieces made of straw baskets filled with lemons and red carnations. In the corridor outside of the ballroom, guests could go shopping for Spanish handicrafts, refresh themselves at a Spanish-style café equipped with small tables and umbrellas, or try their luck in the games’ alley. Usherettes were dressed as Spanish dolls in colourful costumes.
The evening started with a reception where the Governor General was welcomed by the president of the League and members of the organizing committee. Later, seated at the head table with the Governor General Massey and senior members of the League, were the Spanish Ambassador and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. Eduardo Propper de Callijon, and Mr. and Mrs. Lionel Massey. Lionel Massey was the Governor General’s nephew and Secretary. Lionel Massey’s wife Lilas was acting chatêlene of Rideau Hall as the Governor General was a widower. The five lucky debutantes were: Miss Isabel Larrabure, the daughter of the Peruvian Ambassador, Miss Louise Brisson, Miss Pierrette Larocque, Miss Pierrette Vachon, and Miss Catharine Woollam. Each girl was given a fan of white Spanish lace with red carnations and streamers courtesy of the League.
Spanish-themed entertainment was put on during the evening with Don Quixote, alias comedian Roger Aucouturier, making an appearance with his pantomime horse Rocinante to poke fun at Ottawa. Lively Spanish dances were also performed by a troupe of dance students while a group of “non-so-little boys in berets and short pants” staged a comedic chorus. Dance music was supplied by Fred Quirouet and his orchestra. A strolling guitarist played Spanish tunes throughout the evening. At the end of the night, Mr. and Mrs. J.A. Roy of 351 Nelson St. won two airline tickets to Madrid in a charity draw.
While the 1958 edition of Le Bal des Petits Souliers was the last presentation of debutantes to the Governor General made in Ottawa, the tradition staggered on in other cities for a few more years.
In Montreal, Governor General Massey greeted 28 debutantes at the annual St. Andrew’s Day Charity Ball held in early 1959. The Artillery Ball in Toronto, where the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario greeted debutantes, was continued for another year. The last official provincial presentation of debutantes in Canada occurred at Nova Scotia’s St. Andrew’s Day Ball held in 1965.
Notwithstanding the withdrawal of regal support, the tradition of debutante balls continues to this day, especially in the United States, but also in Canada.
The most prominent ball is New York’s biennial International Debutante Ball that began in 1954. This is an invitation-only event for the daughters of wealthy, well-connected New York society families. The daughters of U.S. presidents have been invited as have carefully chosen debutantes from Canada and other countries. Candidate debutantes are selected by previous debutantes and must be accepted by a committee. They also have to be able to afford the presentation fee of $22,000 USD. While the ball has traditionally been held in the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, the event moved to The Pierre while the Waldorf-Astoria undergoes a major renovation.
Since 1994, Ottawa has had its own fairytale ball where teenage girls and boys can pretend to be princesses and princes for the evening.
Sponsored in part by the Austrian Embassy, the Viennese Winter Ball is held annually in March. In addition to fostering a love of Austrian culture and ball-room dancing, the Viennese Winter Ball raises funds for charity. Single tickets will set you back $400, while $5,000 will purchase an eight-guest corporate table. Discount student and young adult tickets are available for as low as $150. Teenagers aged 16 to 18 years of age eager to participate must apply and write two short essays, the first on why they want to participate in this year’s ball and the second on themselves—their community service, charity work, goals and interests. The Ball Selection Committee will then review and interview the applicants, and invite them to a dance practice. (Apparently, kids practise waltzes, fox-trots and polkas for weeks leading up to the big day.) Twelve debutantes and twelve “cavaliers” will be chosen. The dress code is a white, full-length formal gown for the girls, with white comfortable shoes. Complementary long-white satin gloves will be provided. Hair and make-up must be neat and polished. The boys must wear a black tuxedo with a white shirt, black bow-tie, cummerbund and formal, wrist-length, white gloves. Their hair must be trimmed.
Unlike debutante balls one hundred years ago, the Viennese Winter Ball is open to all Ottawa youth. For those unable to afford it, financial assistance is available.