Planning a vacation around Britain's springtime weather is never not a challenge. But the Social Season, traditional events that happen annually in and around London, makes the journey worthwhile. Plan your travel dates, pack up your florals and your fascinators, and join the Ton for high society's Social Season!
For those who have never watched Bridgerton, never mind, it bears little matter to the crux of this post. In the Netflix show, the action revolves around the Ton, or high society, and the Social Season. While Bridgerton is entirely fictional, because everyone in it is super sexy and gorgous, the Ton and the Season were not. Beginning in the 17th century and until the First World War, it was customary for British Society to leave their country estates and converge on London where they attended balls, dinners, and sporting and charitable events. The Season took place between April and August and was the time when children of marriageable age were presented to royalty and launched into society with the objective of securing marriage proposals.
In modern times, the season no longer resembles an auction of suitable female debutants to prospective bachelors, but some activities and traditions of the Season remain. Dress codes maintain very modern 19th-century guidelines, and mobile phones are always frowned upon. Highlights from the 2022 Season, according to the luxury lifestyle publication, the Sloaney ( a magazine I thought would have folded when people stopped wearing slouch socks and penny loafers) include the Queen’s visit to the Chelsea Flower Show and the Badminton Horse Trials.
The events of the Season can be organised in two ways, either by month and date or by categories including arts, horticulture, equestrian, the crown, and sport. The Modern season includes events, mostly in London, but many further afield. I will organise things by date, so grab your diaries (calendars), and start jotting down dates!
The Social Season begins with the Cheltenham Festival, a four-day horse racing festival with prize money second only to the Grand National. Suits, dresses and suitable footwear are required.
The Boat Race is the annual set of rowing races between the Cambridge University Boat Club and the Oxford University Boat Club. (Feel free to humph). One must stake out a spot near the river, sport some casual leisure wear that includes jackets and ties and excludes any trousers or culottes for women and enjoy some posh toffs rowing a boat.
The Grand National is an annual steeplechase horse race held at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool. The race is four miles, with 30 jumping fences, and is the most valuable jump race in Europe. There is no official dress code, but respect people, it is an occasion for dressing up. Smart casual and countless hats.
Badminton Horse Trials is a four-day equestrian event featuring Dressage, cross-country, and show-jumping. Dress code: consult the Sloaney magazine.
The Coronation of His Majesty, King Charles 111 takes place in Westminster Abbey on Saturday 6th May. King Charles will hold clench the Crown Jewels for three days of pageantry, pomp and prayer. Neighbourhood street fairs with the traditional Coronation Big Lunch will be encouraged, and concerts, choirs and light shows will be broadcast on TV. You can get yourself down to the Mall and wave a few flags around, but I feel the best way to experience the Coronation will be at home, in front of the television. Dress code: jammies, all day long.
Royal Windsor Horse Show is another horse show, this time in Windsor, featuring Dressage, jumping, and endurance. Organisers require smart dress; trainers, jeans, sports attire and gentlemen without collars and jackets will be turned away. However, the images on the website are far more casual, they even have a child pictured! Capital!!
Glyndebourne is an English country estate that has for the last 89 years has been the venue for the annual Glyndebourne Festival Opera. It is customary to pack a picnic for the event, though if you can’t be bothered, there are restaurants onsite. Formal dress is still the order of the day, though sitting in evening wear on a picnic blanket seems not all that civilised. Pack an extra layer for those chilli English evenings.
The RHS Chelsea Flower Show is held on the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and showcases gardens created by the country’s leading horticulturists and garden designers. It attracts over 140,000 visitors annually and is covered on TV by the BBC. Trainers are encouraged at the Chelsea Flower Show, as long as they are paired with flowing, floral fabrics. Think about packing a folding stool, as seating is a premium.
Cartier Queen’s Cup, held at the Guards Polo Club in Windsor, is one of the top five polo matches in the world. This event has been attended by HM the Queen since 1960, and there are no doubts that the new king will follow suit. Smart casual applies at the Guards Polo Club, with more strict rules for the Royal Box.
The Epsom Derby, The Derby, the Greatest Flat Race, or, unfortunately, now the Cazoo Derby, takes place annually at Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey. This is a flat, one-mile race that first took place in 1780 and despite it now being sponsored by Cazoo, an online car-selling platform, dressing for the Derby is a formal affair. On Ladies' Day, If one is invited to the Queen Elizabeth 11 stand enclosure, one must sport a jacket, collar and tie if male, and a hat if female (though mention of required clothing below the neck is not mentioned on the organiser’s website). On Derby Day, one must wear a formal day dress (tux, tails, and hat) and a dress with a hat or fascinator. Absolutely never trainers, jeans or sleeveless vests, though one must question if sleeveless vests are ever appropriate. Anywhere.
Queen’s Club Tennis Championship is a warm-up tournament to the men’s Wimbledon championships. There is no dress code, but smart casual is always nice.
Call the Milliner! Royal Ascot is the pinnacle of the Season when the finest horses from around the globe come to Ascot for the Royal races. The racecourse scene from My Fair Lady was plucked out of the ‘how-to’ guidebook from the invitation-only Royal Enclosure. Exquisite fashion and fabulous headgear are the trademarks of this event. Dress codes vary from enclosure to enclosure, but it is safe to plan formal wear and hats, if not for anything but the joy of dressing up for the event.
The Henley Regatta is a six-day rowing event that has taken place in Henley-on-Thames each June since 1839 and attracts local and international crews. The most important event of the regatta is the Grand Challenge Cup for Men’s Eights, which has been staged since the very first regatta. Like many other events during the Season, there is a dress code that applies to the different enclosures along the route, but stripped blazers seem to be the rage. The Steward’s Enclosure is open to members and their guests only, and there is a strict dress code. The Regatta Enclosure is further downstream, but open to anyone with a paid ticket. There is no dress code at the Regatta Enclosure, nor is there one if you choose to sit on the banks of the Thames and watch the boats roll by.
Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world and is largely regarded as the most prestigious. Held at the All England Club in Wimbledon, it is the only major tournament played on grass. Tickets are awarded through a public ballot system, but one can also queue for tickets for the outside courts and a day full of atmosphere, Pimms and strawberries and crème. The players must wear all white, and for people lucky enough to be invited to the Royal Box or the Player’s Restaurant, jackets, collars, and ties apply. Hats at Wimbledon are not needed, please, as they block the view.
Glorious Goodwood is the final great horse racing event of the Season. This is a five-day event filled with sport, style, and entertainment. There are two restaurants and three enclosures in the Richmond enclosure, gentlemen are required to wear jackets, collars and ties, and a Panama hat. Women are required to wear a garden-party look. Hats seem optional, though most people pictured are sporting them.
Cowes Week is one of the UK’s longest-running sporting events. Held in early August every year since 1862 except for during the World Wars and the pandemic, this sailing event attracts over 60,000 visitors to the seaside town of Cowes on the Isle of Man.
The Glorious Twelfth is the 12th day in August and the official end of the Social Season. High Society now leaves their city houses and returns to their country estates to shoot grouse, which season starts on the 12th and ends on the 10th of December.
It is important to always consult current event calendars while planning a trip or purchasing tickets. Dates can change and anything can happen! In 2023, dates have been shifted for certain events due to the coronation. These, I'm sure will change again next year. Happy Planning!