The Royal Enclosure at Ascot

A very superior Season

Today’s Season may be more democratic and international than the old, but those in the know still cherish the hot tickets that guarantee exclusivity

This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“Women these days have better things to do than bow to a cake.” Thus said Peter Townend, former social editor of Tatler and gatekeeper of the vestigial debutante scene, before his death in 2002. Despite Townend’s apres moi le deluge predictions, the London Season has not only endured but apparently flourished, particularly after two years of lockdown restrictions. More expansive, international and inclusive, the modern Season now extends far beyond its traditional sporting-based fixtures, including anything from Glastonbury to Art Basel. Extravagant hats, unwashed Henley blazers and buckets of lukewarm Pimms have been supplemented, if not superseded, by architecture installations and superstar DJ sets. Yet might it have lost a little polish in the process?

Extravagant hats, unwashed Henley blazers and buckets of lukewarm Pimms have been supplemented by architecture installations and superstar DJ sets

The concept of the “Season” began to coalesce around the Restoration court in the seventeenth century, essentially coinciding with the presence of the Royal Family in London and the sitting of Parliament, though its rituals were not formalized until 1780 with the first ball in honour of Queen Charlotte’s birthday, when “coming out” meant a woman’s official presentation to society.

The codes and rules of the Season were essentially an upper-class mating ritual, ostensibly guaranteeing a girl’s pedigree on her launch onto the marriage market. By the nineteenth century the calendar was rigidly established from April to August, running from the private view of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition through to Cowes Week, after which the toffs could hightail it back to the Highlands for the Glorious Twelfth.

The codes and rules of the Season were essentially an upper-class mating ritual, ostensibly guaranteeing a girl’s pedigree in the marriage market

By the Edwardian era, Seasonal events had swelled to a positively exhausting timetable including the Boat Race and the Berkeley Dress Show, the Royal Windsor Horse Show, the Queen’s Cup, Glyndebourne, the Badminton Horse Trials, Chelsea Flower Show, the Derby, Royal Ascot, the 4th of June, Commem Balls at Oxford and May Balls at Cambridge, the Henley Regatta, Wimbledon and Newmarket.

If all that wasn’t enough, the real business of the Season was contracted at coming-out balls and Saturday-to-Monday parties in country houses. Upper-class mothers took their tiaras out of the bank and resigned themselves to the peculiar martyrdom of women of their class — chaperonage. While the matrons nodded on hired gold chairs, the gels learned to kick out their white satin trains, attended luncheons and cocktail dances, drank fruit cup and sat out to eat ices, year after year, until the Queen attempted to put a stop to the whole daft business in 1958.

It was all supposed to be tremendous fun, of course, though Deborah, the late Duchess of Devonshire, recalled her own deb season as less than dazzling:

“Rather a small square room to dance in and too many people in the doorway and on the stairs …

The chinless horror: I think this is our dance

Me: Oh yes, I think it is.

CH: What a crowd in the doorway.

Me: Yes, isn’t it awful?

The CH clutches me round the waist and I almost fall over as I try to put my feet where his aren’t.

Me: Sorry.

CH: No, my fault.

Me: Oh, I think it must have been me.

CH: Oh no, that wouldn’t be possible.

Then follows a long and dreary silence sometimes one of us saying ‘sorry’ and the other ‘my fault’. After a bit we feel we can’t bear it any longer so we decide to go and sit down.”

Perhaps it’s lovely that all the nonsense has now been dispensed with and the season is just about enjoying oneself, but how do the new fixtures on Society’s calendar measure up to the traditional hats-and-horses affairs?

Music festivals are major newcomers to the season scene. That well-known bible of edginess the Telegraph lists 33 events between May and September this year, from the positively veteran Isle of Wight to chilled family-friendly Wilderness and twee little Latitude in Suffolk, which “promises to be filled with artisan street food … and Instagram opportunities”. That pretty much says it all. Even if you don’t believe that the season went to the dogs when the Royal Enclosure at Ascot started admitting divorcees in 1955, you have to concede that music festivals are for typicals (if you don’t know the term you probably are one).

There are so many, many reasons not to be caught dead at one, unless you’re under 25 and high. Superannuated stars forced back on the road by Spotify. Yurts. Fairy lights in yurts. Being stuck in the queue for the cesspit next to the ageing crusty who needs to tell you how it’s all gone downhill since they started building turnkey camps in Black Rock City. And they go on for days. As far back as 1863, The Era’s introduction to the Season remarked on “a recent affliction of concerts of an awful length” and the sets haven’t got shorter. Please, please, leave the festivals to the kids. It’s kinder to everybody.

The Serpentine Summer Party. The nearest London gets to the fashion meets “philanthropy” ghastliness of the New York Met Gala. Essentially an opportunity for the children of people who were famous in the Nineties to get content for their Insta feeds. (No seasonal event is now complete without a selection of Insta-friendly backdrops where the unknowing villeins of surveillance capitalism can pay their tithes. Parties now start half an hour early so that influencers can “get pictures” before actually attending.) But you might get to glimpse a celebrity hairdresser, or Anna Wintour. Next.

Natasha Poonawalla attending The Serpentine Gallery Summer Party on June 30, 2022

Which brings us to art fairs. In the past, the equine-centric focus of many Seasonal events required newcomers to distinguish between a forehead and a fetlock, but art fairs have obviated the necessity for any pretence to knowledge of pretty much anything. All you need to join the caravanserai of contemporary art socialising that carries on through the Venice Biennale in spring through to London’s Frieze in autumn is money.

Discernment, knowledge and skill are required of neither conceptual art maker nor conceptual art buyer, the parties are really snazzy and your wife can wear her Louboutins without being mortified by having to tread in the divots. Art is the new cultural capital for those who haven’t got any and if you’re prepared to spend big you can do a year-long circuit without having to come within a Maurizio Cattelan sculpture’s length of a polo mallet.

Art also provides an opportunity to hop in at one or more of the other new Seasonal staples, Islands. From Mykonos to Lipari there’s now a contemporary art space next to practically any port deep enough for a 100 metre Mariotti.

The more obvious bits of the Med are still going strong, but Menorca is cooler than Ibiza thanks to Hauser and Wirth, whilst the hottest ticket in the Aegean is the Slaughterhouse Deste party on Hydra in June.

The opening night crowd for an exibition at the Deste Foundation on Hydra

Do literary festivals count as part of the Season? Possibly Hay in early summer, but Cliveden and Cheltenham fall just outside the calendar. Cliveden attracts the smartest writers in every sense of the word, but it’s probably too brainy to count, which latter is the conundrum of the modern season.

Unless it’s Glyndebourne, which has aristocratic chops, gatherings which are culturally enriching are nonetheless missing an essential element for Seasonal inclusion, which is snobbery.

“The Season doesn’t have a future” opined Melissa Knatchbull of Harpers & Queen at the beginning of the twentieth century. Perhaps she meant that the Trad season was melding too indiscriminately with the New, that a phenomenon which had been perceived as quintessentially English had become too cosmopolitan, too international; county girls in unflattering taffeta ballgowns being ousted by corporate-sponsored Euroglam? Or maybe she was referring to boundaries, without which neither Season can properly exist and which, on the evidence of the crowds at Henley and Ascot, is nonetheless thriving?

The whole point of the Season is the original velvet rope, the VIP area which admits Us but not Them

People think of fomo as a contemporary phenomenon, but in terms of the Season it’s been around since the first batch of ostrich-plumed debs queued in their carriages along the Mall. The whole point of the Season is the original velvet rope, the VIP area which admits Us but not Them. It might stem from the uniquely British drive to inject class into everything, but exclusivity and differentiation are what transform a picnic in a car park into the invitation of the year.

Feeling that you’re the right person in the right place doesn’t work unless someone else isn’t. If you’re not actually into polo or eventing or racing, much of the pleasure of the season derives from being on the “right” side of the paddock, of being au fait with the arcane vocabulary and regulations that insidiously separate PLU from People Like You. Why else the love of dress codes, the annual Daily Mail slaver over regatta stewards measuring skirt lengths? Why the continued proliferation of guides for awkward latter-day Prufrocks which peddle the kind of knowledge that only counts if you’ve never had to learn it?

Allodoxia is the term given to the phenomenon of experiencing heterodoxy as if it were orthodoxy, the undifferentiated reverence which mistakes the imitation for the genuine article. Distinguishing between a Seasonal event as opposed to simply having a jolly time in sunny weather provides an essential satisfaction beyond the pleasure (or not, see music festivals above) derived from the event itself. And here the New Season falls short. It may be exclusive from a financial perspective, but it lacks a crucial element of angst. Dressing-up lists, badges, regulations reinforce the divide between those in the know and those who think they are, and in that sense Mr Townend was dead wrong. Anyone can attend a festival or an art fair but only those who know, however amorphous that group may have become, care that the White’s tent is the smartest place to be seen in the Royal Enclosure. Whether it’s the Queen’s Cup or the Badminton Horse Trials, the trussed-up Trad Season still possesses something the New Season doesn’t. That is, the capacity to make the excluded feel inferior.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover