The English Social Season: Key Events and Dress Codes

The English Social Season: Key Events and Dress Codes

The English Season is the name given to a number of social and sporting events that take place during the spring and summer. This calendar of prestigious events attracts Royalty, celebrities and high society as well as visitors from all over the world. Think Pimm’s, strawberries, fascinators and picnics at regattas, festivals, concerts and races.

The Season has strong ancestral roots and until the 1950s it marked the coming-out of high society daughters at debutante balls and fair-weather events. The upper classes would follow the court to London during the summer months, back when all the significant families had both town and country houses.

The Season traditionally ended on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ of August, which marks the start of the shooting season.

These are the key events to book into your summer calendar – Glyndebourne, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, the Henley Royal Regatta, Wimbledon, Cowes Week and the Last Night of the Proms – and what you need to know about your wardrobe and what else to bring to fit in.

MAY

Glyndebourne, East Sussex

Glyndebourne (pronounced Glyne-bourne, with a silent ‘d’) is an English country house near Lewes and the venue for the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera since 1934, playing classics from La Traviata to Cosi Fan Tutte to a backdrop of the South Downs. It runs from May until August.

There is no official dress code but evening dress is customary, according to the website, as a mark of respect to the performers; most men wear black tie. While the operas take place indoors, picnics are traditionally consumed in the 90-minute interval out on the lawns, either brought from home or pre-ordered and picked up on site. It’s not cheap, at up to £250 for a seat, but there are some standing tickets for £10 and £30 deals for the under-30s.

Glyndebourne

RHS Chelsea Flower Show, London

Held by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, the century-old Chelsea Flower Show is said to be the world’s most prestigious flower show. Over 150,000 visitors attend over the five May days, including members of the Royal Family, and it is broadcast on the BBC.

The Duchess of Cambridge, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie and The Countess of Wessex have been known to hit the horticultural displays, mingling with celebrity guests such as TV chef Mary Berry, designer/ model Alexa Chung and Bond girl Gemma Arterton.

There is no official dress code, but women tend to wear day dresses (often with a floral pattern) while men are advised to go for smart-casual outfits such as chinos with a polo-shirt or a collared shirt and blazers. The less crowded Hampton Court Palace Flower Show follows in July

Chelsea Flower Show

JUNE

Royal Ascot, Berkshire

Ascot is the pinnacle of the English Social Season. The 300-year-old event has been attended by the Queen every year since 1945. It is the most formal event in terms of its dress code, although even that is being relaxed – jumpsuits are now allowed in the Royal Enclosure for women. Skirts must still be worn just above the knee or longer, with straps no less than one inch wide and headpieces with a “solid base”. Men must wear black or grey morning dress with a waistcoat and a tie wider than 7cm with black or grey top hat and black shoes.

In the Queen Anne and Village Enclosures, formal day dress is required – meaning lounge suits for men and hats or fascinators for women. But it’s not all about the horses or the clothes… over 50,000 bottles of champagne are consumed each year, enough to fill almost 500 baths. 

Royal Ascot

Henley Royal Regatta, Oxfordshire

Straw hats and stripy blazers are the order of the day at Henley-on-Thames, where the rowing races – with 600-plus boats, often containing Olympic champion rowers – have been taking place on the river since 1839. A staggering half a million spectators watch the Henley Royal Regatta annually today.

The best place to be is the Stewards’ Enclosure, where men must wear suits or rowing blazers and women cannot wear trousers – but you will have to wait 10 years to get on the members’ list.

Henley Regatta

July

The Championships, Wimbledon, London

Wimbledon – time for Pimm’s and strawberries while watching some decent tennis at the oldest tournament in the world, played on outdoor grass courts. The dress code is aimed at players (mainly white) rather than spectators.

However, if you are attending a match on the Centre or Number One court with members of the Royal Family present (The Duchess of Cambridge, a keen tennis player, is patron of the All England Club since the Queen stepped down from the role), you may want to wear a summer dress (women) or blazer and tie (men). Women should avoid hats. And bring an umbrella – rain is unfortunately traditional in Wimbledon week.

Wimbledon Tennis

August

Cowes Week, Isle of Wight

The oldest and largest sailing regatta in Europe takes place at the end of July or in August and sees 100,000 visitors head south to the Isle of Wight to compete in or watch the Cowes Week races.

Apart from the yachts racing on the Solent there are bars and bandstands on the shoreline and air and fireworks displays for the guests, who often include Pippa Middleton, Zara Phillips and Mike Tindall and Duran Duran frontman Simon Le Bon.

Cowes Week

September

Last Night of the Proms

While it may come after the Glorious Twelfth, there is nothing quite so patriotically British as the Last Night of the Proms, the pinnacle of the Promenade (Prom) concerts in the Royal Albert Hall which take place over the eight weeks of summer.

Expect rousing renditions of Rule Britannia and Union Jack outfits (there is no formal dress code) at the Last Night. Remember the terminology: if you go, you are said to be ‘promming’. Due to high demand, most tickets for the Last Night are allocated by ballot to customers who have bought tickets to at least five other Proms concerts.

Last night of the Proms

Other events that could be considered part of the Season include:

• The British Grand Prix Formula One race at Silverstone
• Festivals such as Wilderness and Port Eliot
• The Badminton Horse Trials
• Cartier Queen’s Cup Polo
• Trooping the Colour
• The University Boat Race.

To experience one of the English Summer Season events in true VIP style, sign up to one of our Season Experiences. We will organise every aspect of the day, providing private transport to and from the venue and, when appropriate, we bring our own butler to cater for all your culinary needs. Prior to the event we will advice on appropriate dress codes and the day will also include a talk on the history, traditions and etiquette of the Social Season.

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