Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Coming Out

In the nineteenth century, teens didn't date, or hang out, or hook up.

They came out.

Hey, stop giggling. I know what you're thinking.

"Coming Out" had nothing to do with sexual identity, though in a way it did have something to do with sex...more specifically, with marriage.

In Regina's last entry, we heard about the Season--non-stop party time in London and in smaller cities around Britain...though a Season spent anywhere but London was unthinkable if you had any social ambition. A major part of the Season was basically a marriage market: young women (as young as 16) meeting men in search of wives.

So when a girl was deemed "ready" at somewhere between age 16 and 19, she would go to London with her parents or other near relative and spend a ridiculous amount of time and money at dressmakers' shops having dresses made for every possible social occasion: ball dresses, dinner dresses, evening dresses, morning dresses, walking dresses, carriage dresses, riding habits, promenade dresses...and one very important Court dress.

Once her wardrobe was full to bursting with neatly folded dresses (hangers didn't come into use till later), a young woman of the proper social standing was then able to go to the Palace of St. James on one of a handful of designated afternoons or evenings, dressed in her Court dress with a train that could be as long as eight feet and tall, nodding white feathers in her hair...and be presented to the Queen. That meant she and a gaggle of other girls her age got to walk carefully into a room where the Queen and throngs of other people waited, curtsey carefully to whatever members of the royal family were there and kiss their hands. If her daddy was someone like an earl or a duke, the Queen kissed her on the forehead.

And that was it...except she couldn't just say "toodles" and go skipping out. No, she had to curtsey again and walk backwards from the Queen's presence--wearing that train, mind you. There were several court officials who spread her train out for her when she arrived and others who lifted her train for her on a long stick and tossed it to her...so she had to back out curtseying, catch her train over one arm, and keep walking backwards till she made it out the door.

After that, she was officially an adult. If Mom and Dad felt like it, they might throw her a ball or some other event to mark the occasion and announce more clearly that she was now entering the marriage market. She'd made her curtsey to the Queen and had Come Out, and could now party to her heart's content.

And wear all those dresses, of course.


Marissa Doyle said...

In case you're interested, the two pictures shown are from "Ackermann's Repository," a popular magazine of the early 19th century. The first picture shows a Court dress from June 1822 and the second a Promenade dress from October 1828.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I've always thought the idea of having to back out was extremely ridiculous, that whole thing of never turning your back on the monarch, but at least in England, a young woman didn't have to kick her train out of the way, the way she did in France.

Jimmy, Jennifer, Evelyn June and Arun Bradbury said...

I wish we still wore dresses like those--just the fit, though. This blog is a like a soiree every day!
Thanks for posting,

Sarah Prineas said...

The Season and the Court presentation...what a nightmare.

Interesting post!

Gabriele Goldstone said...

This is so interesting!
Love it.