The idea of a lady entering society, in Victorian times, represents the time when the girl ‘blossoms’ into a lady and is looking to become a bride.
In Victorian times the role of women was restricted and for the “well to do” this meant playing a supporting role (wife and mother) to a successful man.
For the upper and middle classes, finding a suitable husband or wife (marrying well) was of paramount importance for the individuals to be successful and accepted in Victorian society.
Victorian ‘society’ consisted of a group of people that were considered superior (or upper class). Although the term Society (in the UK) was applied to royalty and others closely connected, the new middle class (Doctors, Lawyers, business owners etc.) operated on the same model as the upper class in that society represented an exclusive privileged ‘club’ that had rules (etiquette) for inclusion and remaining a member of.
The idea of a lady ‘entering society’ meant that at a certain age, typically 18, a young lady would be introduced to the eligible bachelors of ‘society’ (be that the upper or middle class flavor of the term). In fact, for the upper class (society, with the capital S) the lady’s ‘coming out’ began with a visit to Queen Victoria herself. There was a whole procedure for this ritual, which began the young lady’s ‘introduction to Society’.
Whether or not the young lady ‘coming out’ was of upper or middle class, at some point during the ‘season’ (a term used for the season of events that society took part in) the young lady would have her own ‘coming out’ party.
The Victorian coming out party could be equated to a coming of age party today (i.e. 16, 18, 21) but for the Victorian lady the party was more than just a coming of age but the chance to display her virtues as a suitable wife to society’s most eligible bachelors.
What did the Victorian coming out party look like?
The party itself would usually take place as the form of a ball; this event was referred to as the debutante’s coming out party (the term debutante refers to the young lady entering society).
Greeting guests would be the first opportunity the eligible bachelors had to be formally introduced to the debutante. The guests would arrive and a host (or hostess) would introduce the guests to the family members and other dignitaries that were in attendance. The last person in the ‘receiving line’ would be the debutante and her mother would introduce her to the guests.
Having been ‘formally introduced’, the eligible bachelors might then ask for a dance (using dance cards to reserve a given dance). The ball would then proceed with the debutante being the center of attention.
Following the coming out party formal ‘visits’ or meetings would be set up, followed by a formal courtship, engagement and hopefully a wedding. There were many rules and points of etiquette (behavior) to be followed by both the bachelor and debutante, including being chaperoned, during the courtship and engagement but at the end of the season the aim of the lady coming out would be to become engaged.
If the unfortunate debutante did not attract a suitable bachelor she could enter society a second and third time. After 3 tries, however, she was tagged a failure and would typically not be formally re-introduced to society again although (I am guessing, given human nature) she might still find a suitable mate down the line.
Although it is difficult to recreate a formal coming out party today (given the essence of the event itself) an authentic Victorian Tea Party can be hosted which follows the traditions, manners and etiquette of those bygone, elegant times.