The Honourable Credenza Buffet-Smythe was nothing if not a leader in fashion, within the bounds of what was considered tasteful at Miss Whistle’s School For Ladies, of course. She was sadly also bound by horrible, horrible rationing, even after four years of so-called ‘normal availability of goods’, and even with her father’s pots of money. Filthy lucre, that subject no well-brought up gel talked about, as Miss Whistle reminded them all sternly at every possible opportunity, was no guarantee of a magical horn of plenty in a nation still straitened by a struggle to return to the boom and glamour of pre-40s Britain.
Credenza’s only downfall, in her eyes at least, was a lack of a title. Oh, yes, she was an Honourable; but, really, they were two a penny when it came down to it. What she coveted was to become Lady Something – preferably the Duchess of X, or Marchioness of X, as opposed to say, the Countess of, or (shudder – heaven forfend) a Baronet’s wife. That would be scraping the barrel, and not even in the peerage, for pity’s sake.
She knew her duty, and her duty was to marry up. For Queen, Country, and bally well the chance to make every other girl at Miss Whistle’s look back with envy and say “do you remember Creddy Buffet-Smythe that was? My goodness, what a splendid marriage she made! Jolly marvellous, talk of Queen Charlotte’s she was, the way she swept Muzzy Beauclerk orf his feet, what?”
For this young whippersnapper was Credenza’s prime target. Murray de Vere Beauclerk, current Earl of Burford, heir apparent to the Duke of St Albans. She was pretty, she was well-connected, and most of all, thanks to Daddy’s munitions business in the war, she was loaded – and the Beauclerks had eight crumbling piles across the United Kingdom that needed serious maintenance.
And this year was the last big opportunity to nab a duke – well, the old-fashioned way at least. Because after this year, there would be no more debutantes bending their knee to the Queen at Buckingham Palace. Like the dodo, as soon as Princess Margaret – in what could be seen as a stroke of irony, considering her future behaviour – declared that “we had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in” – the debutante season was being officially brought to a halt.
So Credenza had to seize the day. Carpe diem, as it were. And bring honour to the name of Buffet-Smythe for ever more.
But the best laid plans of mice and mendacious misses are often brought awry at the last minute, one finds… especially when said miss is not a particularly nice individual, and when she has perhaps counted her greedy little crinolined and white silk gloved chickens before they have hatched.
Three months before the beginning of the deb season, and coincidentally three months before the heaving pubescent bosoms and mostly pimple free faces of Miss Whistle’s graduating class were let loose on an unsuspecting London, there was a huge stir at the front door, and naturally, said faces craned to look from their flower-arranging window. In vain did their timid mistress, who also taught them how to arrange menus for twenty, call them back.
Pulled up in the neatly gravelled driveway was the most enormous Rolls-Royce. It was so shiny, so rich looking, it made the dull British countryside look shabby, and tired, as though an old peasant woman had accidentally strayed into shot with a film star. Out of it stepped a girl with bright, almost white blonde hair, done up in a sort of high pony-tail. She was wearing the widest, frothiest, fullest skirt they had ever seen, with a tiny waist, and she had a cardigan casually draped around her shoulders.
It had a poodle embroidered on it. She was wearing sunglasses.
She looked up. They were all too gobsmacked at her glamour, her beautiful, fresh, clear, lightly tanned skin, to even think to move back out of sight.
She seemed to be chewing something. Suddenly, she blew a bubble out of her mouth, and waved, cheerfully.
The bubble popped, and she giggled.
The girls couldn’t help it. They giggled back. She was infectious.
All, that is, except Credenza.
She scowled, and retreated to her desk.
Miss Whistle quickly made her new prize pupil known to her classmates.
“Gels” she said importantly, “Ay’d laike you to meet Carolaine Van Sluyt, of the New York and SaythHampton Van Sluyts.
“Carolaine. These are the gels.”
Caroline winked at them.
“Hiya, girls”, she said, cheerfully, and extremely unaffectedly, unlike Miss Whistle, who seemed to find vowels unknown to man every time she spoke.
“Call me Caro. Everyone does.”
“How gracious, Carolaine!” trilled Miss Whistle. “What a kaind gel you are!”
And out she swept, leaving them all, as she said, to get “further acquented”.
Caro found herself at the centre of a cluster of interested, slightly sweaty and fairly dumpy teenage girls.
“I say”, said Lady Virgilia Blythe-Thompson-Arthurson-Frost, blinking slightly, and stammering, “I do like your hair, er, Caro. It’s so shiny, and er, bouncy, don’t you know”.
“Gee, thanks, honey” said Caro, kindly, recognising shyness when she saw it.
“How do you er, get it to stay up like that?” said Virgilia, feeling emboldened at someone not telling her to shut up, Virgie, you stupid er, twit.
“Oh, a hella lot of bobby pins. I was real fortunate, I got to be an extra in this new movie that’s coming out, thanks to my Papa, some of his well, I guess less reliable business connections, as Mother used to say, and this gorgeous girl who’s the star, Sandra Dee, she showed me how to do my hair. The movie’s called Gidget, it’s coming out real soon.”
“Ooooohhh” was the collective sound, as girls gathered even closer.
“They’re called Kirby Grips, not bobby pins, and if you were in a movie, I’m the Empress of China”, came a sole disdainful drawl from the corner.
The Ooooohhh Collective turned as one.
“Take no notice of old Credenza” whispered Virgilia, with new found courage, to Caro. “She’s a bit of a queen bee around here.”
Caro knew exactly what she was looking at. Not a queen bee; a wasp. The same thing she faced every time her Papa was moved to a new diplomatic posting. They’d had two years – two tragic, blissful years – at home in New York, whilst her mother was unsuccessfully treated for cancer, but now, the appointment as Ambassador to the Court of St James… it was a chance for them both to get away. To try to if not forget, then at least not be as close to her dead mother’s still-present scent, laugh, voice in their own house.
She narrowed her eyes, but smiled, sweetly. It was the smile of a World War Two ace as they narrowed in on an unsuspecting bomber over the North Sea.
“Well, we call them bobby pins. I guess it’s just a language thing, right? And when in Rome… so I shall call them – what did you say – Kirby Grips? But as for the movie thing? That, I can prove easy enough. But later, of course, because I think I am being discourteous, and holding up class.”
With this final smack of good manners, Caro swept out of the room, arm in arm with an ecstatic Virgie, a comet trail of admirers behind her.
Credenza spent the next three months grinding her molars to molehills. Because it was soon evident that Caro had been in a movie with this Sandra Dee flibbertigibbet, and several extremely good-looking young American chaps. More to the point, she was extremely wealthy – easily as rich as Credenza, from an extremely good and old New York family, and unlike Credenza, not only was the money hers, rather than her father’s, but she was exceedingly generous with both her time and her possessions. She handed out lipsticks, records, brand-new nylons and the much-debated packets of bobby pins like they were water, and soon had a devoted following.
Most of all, she was kind, especially to Virgilia, which is not something anyone could accuse Credenza of.
Credenza and her few remaining henchmen took to calling her ‘Lady Bobby Pin-Gidget’ to make a point of the stupid name she had for the hair ornaments, even though since that very first day, Caro had called them nothing but Kirby Grips. Caro took it all in seeming good humour, although if her mother had still been alive, she would have recognised the glint in her eye for what it was.
A promise of revenge.
Credenza still yarped loud and long about how she was going to make Muzzy Beauclerk fall for her the minute she came down the stairs at Queen Charlotte’s Ball. Her followers nodded obligingly, even as they yawned behind their hands, and prayed for the end of term, and deliverance.
Finally, they were free. It was time for them all, as Miss Whistles tearfully told them, to shed their cocoons, and become beauyoootiful, ladylaike butterflaies.
London didn’t know what was about to hit it.
Madame Vacani’s tutelage in the curtsey passed in a blur. The presentation at court, done in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, without knowing what had happened, it was time for Queen Charlotte’s Ball.
Credenza had originally been smug in the knowledge that even if Caro was attending the round of the Season’s events, she wasn’t to be presented. She had been sadly wrong in this, when she first went to Madame Vacani’s and saw Caro sweep a perfect court curtsey, and found out her mother had been Lady Bella Anstruther-Wickham before becoming Lady Bella Van Sluyt, and thus Caro was well and truly eligible to make her knee before Her Majesty. Never mind; she, Credenza Buffet-Smythe, in her genuine Hartnell, would smack the eyes and the bloody bobby pins off bloody Caro Van Sluyt at Queen Charlotte’s. After all, she had wangled her way to lead the debs down the staircase!
Unfortunately Mr Hartnell had been rather busy with the Queen’s wardrobe and had left Credenza’s dress up to one of his young apprentices. As a result, it was rather… frilly. White, naturally… but to say ‘meringue’ would probably be the best description. She was not an unattractive girl, or as Miss Whistle would say, gel, but this did not do her justice. If one had put a few strawberries and some whipped cream on her, she could have done double duty at Wimbledon.
However, being an egotistical monster, pride, for Credenza, along with several dozen bobby pins, was to come before a fall. She stood, triumphant, at the top of the stairs. She could see young Muzzy at the bottom, his admiring – no, his awe-struck gaze – turned upwards, to her. Heavens, he looked as though it was love at first sight! She must remember to wear Hartnell for her wedding! She started down the stairs, not noticing as she went, that Virgilia, whom she had cruelly said resembled nothing more than a big shaking blancmange, stealthily pulled the first of the stiffly hair-sprayed bobby pins from her hairpiece.
She reached the bottom, and proceeded, smiling graciously, towards the Earl. She saw him hold out his hands, and in a dream, moved towards him.
He walked past her, and as she whipped around, her hair whipped with her, spraying bobby pins and eventually ending up somewhere over her left eyebrow.
Spluttering, she saw him move towards Caro, who, dressed in cool, cool, slipper satin Dior, unadorned by anything except her own natural beauty, hair pinned simply by two pale gardenias, smiled, and held out her hands towards him, and accepted his kiss.
Credenza couldn’t believe it. That – that tramp!
Caro looked over, and grinned.
It was the Red Baron, as they took out the last of those pesky wanna-be heroes.
“Oh, Credenza… I don’t think you’ve met my fiancé, the Earl of Burford. My Lord, this is Credenza Buffet-Smythe. Creddy, I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know Virgie has kindly agreed to be my maid of honour.
“Oh, and Creddy…”
There was that glint in the eye again.
“I think some of your Kirby Grips have come loose.”
As they moved off, into the future, Credenza heard the Earl say “who on earth calls their daughter after a piece of furniture?” and possibly worst of all, Caro saying with genuine reproach, words that would haunt her for the rest of her life:
“Muzzy, don’t be unkind.
“After all, she didn’t name herself, did she?”
And the girl baptised plain old Caroline – yes – the ultimate irony – slunk away, into the powder room, and put every single bloody bobby pin, and that bloody hairpiece, into the bin.
Kato’s Handy Historical Notes For Nerds:
The time-honoured practice of the debutante presentation at court was indeed discontinued in 1958, and yes, HRH Princess Margaret did make that statement. To be presented, one had to – up until a certain point – have had a mother or close family member who had been presented to be eligible. It became a bit more ‘open slather’, hence Princess Margaret’s less than kind comment.
Madame Vacani’s was ‘the’ place to learn one’s court curtsey for presentation to the Queen and Prince Phillip.
There is a wonderful book written about this (fiction) by Julian Fellowes called Past Imperfect. There are hundreds of auto/biographical tomes available. One of the best of these is Last Curtsey: The End of the Debutantes by Fiona MacCarthy.
Rationing in Britain finished in 1954.
The first Gidget movie was released by Columbia Pictures in 1959, and it starred Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson and James Darren.
Bobby pins are generally still known as grips in the UK. Kirby grips was their formal name, after the Kirbigrip brand.