Season (society)

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The social season, or Season, has historically referred to the annual period when it is customary for members of a social elite of society to hold debutante balls, dinner parties and large charity events. It was also the appropriate time to be resident in the city rather than in the country, in order to attend such events.

The Seasons in London

1870 cartoon satirizing the coming of the London season

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 landowning aristocratic and gentry families who generally regarded their country house as their main home, but spent several months of the year in the capital to socialize 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 and began some time after Christmas and ran until midsummer, roughly late June.[1]

The social season also 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. Women were formally introduced into society by presentation to the monarch at Court.

The traditional Season went into decline after the First World War, when many aristocratic families gave up their London mansions. From this time on an increasing number of society events took place at public venues, making it harder to maintain social exclusivity.

Many events that take place far from central London came to be regarded as part of the social season, including Royal Ascot and the Henley Royal Regatta. The presentation of débutantes at court was abolished by Queen Elizabeth II in 1958. The events which now comprise the London social Season are increasingly hosted or sponsored by large companies (i.e. "corporate hospitality"). Dress codes still apply to certain events in the season, especially where the Queen plays an official role.

Today there is no official organization of the Season, although most of the traditions and customs remain to this day.[dubious ]

Events in the London Season

According to the peerage guide Debrett's, the traditional social season runs from April to August.[2]


Glyndebournethe PromsRoyal Academy Summer ExhibitionWest End theatre


Chelsea Flower Show


Royal Ascot — the Cheltenham Gold CupBadminton — the Grand National — the Royal Windsor Horse Show — the Epsom DerbyGlorious Goodwood

The Crown

Trooping the Colour — the Garter Service


The Boat RaceHenley Royal RegattaPoloWimbledonCowes Week — the Lord's Test Match

Although several of these events are not actually held in London, such as the Hurlingham Polo Cartier International 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.

Dress codes

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

  • At Royal Ascot, for example, hats are a must and to be admitted to the Royal Enclosure for the first time one must either be a guest of a member or be sponsored for membership by a member who has attended at least four times. This continues to maintain a socially exclusive character to the Enclosure. If permitted to enter the Royal Enclosure, gentlemen are required to wear either black or grey morning dress, including a waistcoat, with a top hat. A gentleman may remove his top hat within a restaurant, a private box, a private club or that facility's terrace, balcony or garden. Hats may also be removed within any enclosed external seating area within the Royal Enclosure Garden. Ladies must not show bare midriffs or shoulders and must wear hats.[3]
  • At Henley Royal Regatta, in the Stewards' Enclosure gentlemen must wear a jacket and tie. Rowing Club colours on a blazer or cap are encouraged, as is the wearing of boaters. A lady's skirt hem must reach below the knee and is checked before entry by the Stewards' Officers. Hats are encouraged but not required for ladies.[4] When a student protested being denied entry to the Stewards' Enclosure for failing to meet the dress code, saying she had worn the dress "in the Royal Enclosure at Ascot and nobody said anything," a spokesman defended the dress code saying "The intention is to maintain the atmosphere of an English Garden party of the Edwardian period by wearing a more traditional dress."[5] Members must display their enamel badges at all times. Anyone found using a mobile phone is asked to leave immediately and their Stewards' Enclosure host, identified by the number on the guests badge, may have his membership withdrawn as a result.[citation needed]
  • At polo matches, it is usual for gentlemen to wear a blazer and always white trousers. Ladies should wear flat shoes, as the tradition of "treading in the divots" precludes wearing heels. The famous Club House at Guards Polo Club in Windsor Great Park is for the use of Club members only, who wear individually made gold and enamel badges. Members' guests are given special gold-embossed tags.

The Season in literature and popular culture

*Honoré de Balzac's novel The Muse of the Department contains a description of the London Season.
" 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."


  1. '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.
  2. "Traditional Season". Debrett's. Retrieved 23 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. "Royal Ascot 14-18th June 2011". Royal Ascot. Retrieved 23 September 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Bergin, Olivia (July 1, 2009). "What to wear: Henley Royal Regatta". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved May 23, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Wardrop, Murray (July 2, 2009). "Student falls foul of Henley Royal Regatta dress code wearing Ascot outfit". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved May 23, 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Florence Adele Sloane (ed. Louis Auchincloss): Maverick in Mauve: Diary of a Romantic Age, Doubleday, 1983.
  • Kate Simon: Fifth Avenue: A Very Social History, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.

External links