16 September 2019

Tiaras and Cake at Lancaster House

Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

It's September, which means it's time once again for Queen Charlotte's Ball, a recent revival of an old British society tradition.

Debutantes bring in the birthday cake at Queen Charlotte's Ball, held at the Dorchester Hotel, May 1931 (Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

The original Queen Charlotte's Ball tradition began in May 1780. The event was held to mark the birthday of Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III. Charlotte stood next to a large birthday cake, and the debutantes in attendance curtseyed to her. For years after Charlotte's death, other British royals carried on the tradition of hosting the ball, which continued to have a large birthday cake as its centerpiece. The event became a central part of the "Season," the yearly slate of society events held in London in the spring and summer.

Debutantes descend the staircase at Grosvenor House during Queen Charlotte's Ball, May 1950 (Keystone/Getty Images)

After World War II, the tradition of debutante balls started to lose popularity in Britain. Queen Elizabeth II ended the presentation of debs at court in the late 1950s, and the original run of Queen Charlotte's Ball ended in 1976.

Jennie Hallam-Peel poses with Melody Zhao, the Debutante of the Year, at Queen Charlotte's Ball, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Various versions of the ball (including Bunty Lewis's revival in the 1980s and 1990s) have been held in the years and decades since, often in aid of various charities. Ten years ago, the ball was relaunched once more; Jennie Hallam-Peel, a former debutante, is the chairperson of a company called "The London Season," and the ball has been revived as a part of that enterprise. The company's website states that the ball helps today's debutantes in "developing their confidence, career networking and etiquette skills." The London Season has also trademarked the name "Queen Charlotte's Ball" in Britain, presumably to prevent others from also trying to revive the old tradition.

Queen Charlotte's Ball is held at Lancaster House, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

This year's ball was held at Lancaster House in London. Originally built as a royal residence, the mansion was later the home of the Duke of Sutherland, and is now owned by the government and used for receptions. (It's also where scenes set in Buckingham Palace were filmed for The Crown.)

Debutantes at Queen Charlotte's Ball, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

This year's debutantes wore gowns loaned by Ritva Westenius, and diamonds were again loaned out by David Morris at Harrods.

Debutantes at at Queen Charlotte's Ball, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

As is so often the case at this event, the young women could benefit from more than a bit of jewelry editing. But I suppose it's hard to blame them for wearing lots of pieces -- after all, the firm has loaned them specifically so that they'll be worn (and earn the maker a bit of publicity). They may have simply been handed the jewels they should wear.

Melody Zhao, Debutante of the Year, at Queen Charlotte's Ball, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

The Debutante of the Year for 2019 was a young woman named Melody Zhao.

The Hon. Lady Alexandra Roche and Melody Zhao at Queen Charlotte's Ball, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

The debutantes were received at Lancaster house by the Hon. Lady Alexandra Roche. She's the daughter of the 3rd Viscount Selby and the wife of Sir David Roche, 5th Bt. (She and her husband are both listed as "honorary patrons" on the website of Hallam-Peel's London Season company.) Alexandra is also descended from the famous Grey family (Earl Grey, etc.), making her a cousin of lots of different prominent Brits. I quite like Alexandra's diamond star jewelry, which she also wore with this gown last year at the same event.

The annual cake cutting at Queen Charlotte's Ball, September 2019 (Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Most of the old glamour of the Season is long gone, but one thing remains at Queen Charlotte's Ball: the birthday cake. (Queen Charlotte's birthday was in May, and the event is now held in September, but we'll go with it.) This year, the rather unusual pink and gold cake was provided by Laduree of Harrods, that famous purveyor of macarons. No word on who sponsored the sword used to slice it.