Almack's: Seventh Heaven of the Fashionable World
by Susanne Dietze
It’s a Wednesday night during the Social Season in early nineteenth century London. What’s a well-bred miss to do? If her Matchmaking Mama has her way, our young lady would attend Almack’s, of course.
|The First Quadrille at Almack's|
After all, that hallowed space was THE place to go to be seen, to network, to gossip, to find a wealthy husband, and, oh yes, dance--but only a select few were invited into its halls. Holding a voucher to Almack’s meant a world of difference between being part of society and being part of Society, if you get my drift. Almack's was the popular girls' table in the cafeteria, the cool kids' party. It was, as contemporary Captain Gronow put it, "the seventh heaven of the fashionable world."
Almack’s Assembly Rooms were located on King Street in St. James’s, opened in 1764 by a Scotsman named MacCall. Apparently Mr. MacCall thought flipping the syllables All and Mac made for a more appealing name for his Assembly Rooms (and a coffee house, too, which eventually became the famous gentleman’s club, Brooks’s).
|Almack's Assembly Rooms|
Constructed in the Palladian style, the exterior was not as ostentatious as I’d always imagined. The inside, however, must have been astonishing. There were supper rooms, gaming rooms, and of course, the ballroom, which was some ninety feet by forty feet, decorated with gilt columns and mirrors. By 1814-1815, it was lit by gas.
|George Cruikshank (1792-1878)|
An orchestra played from a balcony at once end, and the Lady Patronesses—the powerful arbiters who decided who could enter Almack’s—sat on a dais to acknowledge the guests (these snooty gals deserve their own post, so check back soon).
The Patronesses did not want anyone drunk on their Wednesday evenings, so liquid refreshment was limited to lemonade, orgeat, or ratafia to wash down thin-sliced bread and butter, and cake without icing. Naturally, this meant that more than a few gentlemen arrived already deep into their cups.
Balls were held on Wednesday evenings for twelve weeks during the Social Season (approximately March-June). No one was admitted after eleven p.m., not even the Duke of Wellington, who was embarrassed to be turned away. Until 1814, only country dances were allowed, but later, quadrilles and the waltz were permitted, although maidens had to receive the permission of a Patroness before she waltzed.
|Caricature of Countess Lieven waltzing at Almack's, by Cruikshank. Note the gentlemen in the background have chapeau bras tucked under their arms.|
Of course, such an exclusive place came at a price. For an annual fee of ten guineas—around £350 today—one could become a member of Almack’s. Then one would need to acquire a voucher, like a ticket, for admission, which cost ten shillings each (£17 in today's money). One could purchase a membership and voucher if one was first approved by the Patronesses, of course. And such a thing was very difficult to achieve. Connections, wealth, political influence, and prestige were all taken into account by the Patronesses when making their decisions.
|A real-live Almack's voucher, displayed at the Huntington Museum in California. Photo by otronto. Used with permission.|
Naturally, once one held a voucher, one would dress for the occasion. Ladies wore fashionable ballgowns, and gentlemen donned something of a uniform: navy or black coat, white cravat, black knee breeches, silk stockings or black pantaloons, worn with black pumps and a chapeau bras carried under the arm. Wider trousers or other colors would get a dandy turned away at the door!
Almack’s eventually faded in popularity, and by the 1870’s it went by a new name, Willis Rooms. The building was bombed during World War II and by 1944, it was completely destroyed. Today, an office building stands on the spot, with a plaque commemorating its fabled past.
Would you have enjoyed attending Almack's for an evening, just to see what it was like?
Susanne Dietze began writing love stories in high school, casting her friends in the starring roles. Today, she writes in the hope that her historical romances will encourage and entertain others to the glory of God. Married to a pastor and the mom of two, Susanne loves fancy-schmancy tea parties, travel, and curling up on the couch with a costume drama and a plate of nachos. She won first place in the Historical category of the 2011-2012 Phoenix Rattler, and her work has finaled in the Genesis, Gotcha!, and Touched By Love Contests. Susanne is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of The Steve Laube Agency. You can visit her on her website, www.susannedietze.com.