For a story about presentation at court written by one such girl from her own perspective, please click here for part one and here for part two. And because Tumblr has eaten the scans of the illustrations from La Petite's first-hand account of presentation, I have re-scanned and added them here. :) Although as an edit to the edit on one of those pages - I'm now not certain whether the illustration is of La Petite, as the description of the dress doesn't match (it's lilacs instead of La Petite's lilys of the valley). But it's still a good depiction of the general costume mandated.
Her Majesty generally holds four Drawing-rooms in the course of the year; two before Easter, two after, and seldom later than the month of May. As a rule, young ladies are presented by their mothers. Even if they are only presented themselves for the first time the same day as their daughters, it is still en regle that they should make the presentation. But it is necessary - absolutely necessary - that the lady who undertakes the duty shall be present at the same Drawing-room, though she may not even see the young girl, and, except in the case of relatives, they rarely go together, and do not for a moment think of passing the Royal presence together. In asking any lady to make a presentation to Her Majesty it must be recognised as a great kindness and favour, for she is personally responsible. Unmarried ladies do not exercise the privilege of making presentations.
As soon as it is determined at which Drawing-room the young lady is to make her debut, the mode of proceeding is as follows. A card is sent in to the Chamberlain's office, Stable Yard, St. James's, on which is written the name of the person to be presented and the person presenting, thus: 'Miss Smith, by her mother, Mrs. Smith," accompanied by a letter from Mrs. Smith giving necessary particulars as to address, etc., and saying that it is her intention to be present at the Drawing-room of the date fixed. This must be done two clear days at least before the Drawing-room. The names having been submitted for Her Majesty's approval, on application at the same office, two pink presentation cards will be given, on which must be most legibly written, as before, "Miss Smith by her mother, Mrs. Smith," and these must be taken to the palace. One will be given to the page-in-waiting on first arriving at the top of the stairs, and the other handed to the Lord Chamberlain, who stands beside Her Majesty, when the Royal presence is reached, and from this he will read, in a loud, clear voice, the names to the Queen.
The proper Court dress is the next important consideration. A young girl, on her presentation, wears white, and every lady attending the court must have a train, lappets, Court plumes, and a really low dress. So strict are the laws with regard to this, that people are appointed to prevent ladies passing who fall short in any of these requirements. I was myself accompanied to a Drawing-room two or three years ago by a friend who had had her dress from Paris. It proved too high on her shoulders for regulation; moreover, she had only one small piece of tulle in lieu of lappets, and before entering the presence of Her Majesty she was compelled to tear some tulle trimmings from her dress and pin this on as another lappet, and to have the bodice cut down on the shoulders and turned in. These lappets may be either really lace or blonde, with the ends hanging at the back, or two pieces of tulle, which young ladies find more becoming. The width is mostly split in half, one end gathered on a thread, and so pinned on. White plumes are essential - three for married, two for unmarried women - placed in such a manner that they can be distinctly seen in front. The train must be at least three yards long, and is generally four. It is sometimes cut in one with the bodice, sometimes attached by braces to the shoulders, sometimes plaited on the shoulders, but young ladies generally have it sewn on at the waist. Just now white satin and brocade is most used, with tulle skirts and a profusion of white flowers. Pearls are considered the most appropriate ornaments for a debutante. The dress must be well made and all the details well carried out. Many-buttoned gloves are worn, but when presented, before appearing in the Queen's presence, the right hand one must be removed, and this is generally simplified by not being put on at all. Having a handkerchief, a fan, the one glove, and the card to hold, it is far better not to carry a bouquet, especially as the end of the train, neatly folded, has to be borne on the left arm.
The mode of proceeding at a Drawing-room is as follows; - The palace doors generally open at two, the Queen entering the Throne-room at three. Of late years Her Majesty's health has not permitted her to remain throughout the reception. Therefore, in order to pass before her, it is well to go early, especially when presented, as it is only in a case of presentation that the Queen's hand is kissed, and this ceremony is not gone through if the Princess of Wales or any of the Royal Princesses have taken her place. Then you merely pass courtseying low, as you would if you were only attending a Drawing-room, though the presentation thus made is in every respect equivalent to actual presentation to the Sovereign. But being an event that will hardly happen more than twice in a woman's life, it is advisable to do it thoroughly. Once presented, you can annually attend one Drawing-room for the future, and will only require to be re-presented when you marry, or you attain some title. People anxious to arrive early leave homes mostly at half-past twelve to one, being content to wait patiently in the line of carriages down the Mall or Buckingham Palace-road, and endure the eager inspection of a dense crowd, who, wet or fine, line the roadway, peer into the carriages, and often laugh and make audible remarks about the inmates. There is, however, no lack of amusement. The beefeaters, in their quaint scarlet Tudor dresses, bedizened with gold, their ruffs, and low-crowned hats, encircled with red, white and blue ribbon, march, halberds in hand, to Buckingham Palace to take up their stations along the corridors and staircases. The Gentlemen-at-Arms troop in by twos and twos, in scarlet uniform, gold helmets, and white, waving plumes. They are also on duty within the palace. You see them in each room guarding the barriers, and preventing the entrance of more people than will comfortably fill them.
In the room adjoining the Throne-room, they stand in a line ready to act as a veritable body-guard to the Royal Family if required, and another line divides off the lower end of the picture gallery, forming a sort of corridor to the Throne-room. There is no better place for seeing the dresses. I always make a rule of getting close behind these Gentlemen-at-Arms, as soon as I have passed the Royal presence, and so, peering between their shoulders, see the rest of the company pass in single file, their trains flowing behind them. One or more of the Household Troops are on duty in the Court-yard, and act as escort to the Royal personages who attend the Drawing-room, and it is a very pretty sight to see the bandmen in their gold coats march through St. James's Park, to take up their position and play throughout the reception. I have never myself heard them in the palace, but in some of the rooms you can and when "God Save the Queen" is played, you know that Her Majesty has entered the Presence Chamber. The equipages of ambassadors, ministers, and other distinguished people also flit to and fro, but they do not fall into the line, having the privilege of the entree which entitles them to enter the palace by a special entrance to occupy the first Drawing-room, next to the Throne-room, and to pass before the Queen first.
At last, after a long waiting, the line of carriages begins to move slowly, and in time you pass through the fine gateway into the inner quadrangle, and alight at the steps of the grand entrance. Here you will see some few scarlet-coated servants and officials, and much crimson carpeting. You cross the really magnificent hall, paved with variegated marble, the ceiling supported by white marble columns, with Corinthian capitals of mosaic and gold, and up a few steps reach a dining-room, where cloaks and wraps are left. Leaving this, you ascend the staircase, enter the picture gallery, leave one of the two cards with which you are provided with the page-in-waiting, who stands by a raised crimson-coloured desk, and then hurry on through the concert-room into the furthest of the suite of drawing-rooms not yet filled. There is the Blue Drawing-room, hung with blue silk panelled in gold, with Winterhalter's portraits of the Queen and Prince Consort; the Dark Blue Drawing-room and the Red and Yellow Drawing-rooms; they all command a view of the beautiful gardens of Buckingham Palace, where the fountains are generally set playing. They are filled with rows of chairs and as soon as these are occupied the Gentlemen-at-Arms cross their halberds, an no more are admitted, and so on till all the rooms are filled. People sit chatting to their friends, and thus while the time away. There are only a few gentlemen present, and they must be in attendance on ladies, and do not generally pass the Royal presence, but are nevertheless occasionally presented with their wives.
After a time there is a rustle and a rush. The "Entree" has passed the Queen, and the rest of the world are about to do so in turn; the stream moves through the suite of rooms in single file, until they reach the end of the picture gallery, lined with the Gentlemen-at-Arms. Here the Queen's pages remove the train from the right arm, spread it on the ground, and thus you walk across the gallery to the Throne-room. The door on the left-hand side is glass, and scarcely any one passes it without looking how her trains set. When you enter the Presence Chamber you find a narrow half-circular alley left, down which you are to proceed. Quite in the background is the Throne and its canopy. IN front of it are the ladies and gentlemen in attendance on the Queen and other Royal personages, and in front of them are the Royal Family. Near the doorway next the Queen is the Lord Chamberlain, then Her Majesty, the Princess of Wales, and the other Princesses, and then the Princes. The general circle fills the rest of the room. Just in front of you will be the end of the train of the lady passing next before you. In case of mother and daughter the mother would go first. You have no longer to think about your own train; your glove, fan, and handkerchief hold in your left hand, your card in your right. As you pass through the doorway give this to the Lord Chamberlain. You will find his hand ready to receive it. As soon as he mentions the word "presentation" the Queen will put out her right hand, then courtesy very low, place your own right hand beneath it, and bend and kiss it. When you rise courtesy low to each member of the Royal Family, and walk along this semi-circular alley sideways, being careful on no account to turn your back; but by the time you have well passed the Royalties, you will find your train being placed on your arm, and, the crowd intervening, you leave the room by the centre doorway without any necessity for further backing. You make your way at once to the picture gallery, which is now thronged. You can look at the pictures which are worth seeing, including gems of Greuze, Wilkie, Maas and others. But the beautiful people and beautiful dresses will distract your attention. By-and-bye you will proceed to the great entrance hall, and, having obtain your cloaks, wait there until your carriage is called, a tedious process, for if it happens to come up before you are ready, it goes to the very end of the rank.
I should advise all young girls about to be presented to rehearse the actual ceremony well beforehand, for I notice at many drawing-rooms how badly it is done. It is necessary to remember that courtesies made to Royalty must be very low. Avoid, above all things, "fluster," and do not be alarmed at the idea of having to walk backwards with your train on the ground. You really hardly have to do this at all, it is a crab-like sideway movement you have to execute. The important points to bear in mind are - to have your hand ungloved, to place it beneath the Queen's, and to make separate and distinct courtesies to every Royal person in the circle.