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Culture : British Elite Savors Season in the Sun : Is the class system dead in England? Hardly. It thrives in the Ascot racing boxes, on the River Thames and at Wimbledon Center Court.


LONDON — It starts with a London flower show and ends with races and regattas around the Isle of Wight--a 10-week social whirl that still says a lot about who you are and who you know in a country supposedly becoming less concerned about class.

To Britons, it's known simply as "The Season"--a series of colorful spring and summer events and festivals that mostly resembles a rolling outdoor party centered on the Royal Family.

Last week's Royal Ascot horse racing extravaganza and the Wimbledon tennis tournament this week and next are among the season's highlights--golden opportunities for Britain's upper classes, and those who aspire to such status, to alert each other that they are still alive and well. And well-connected.

"The key to the season," commented one friend of the royals, "is not so much to see but to be seen. And the closer you are seen to the queen or the royals, the better. It tells the world you're still in the swim. . . ."

"Everyone says the season is not what it used to be, but everyone still manages to turn out," added another observer of Britain's aristocracy. "We all agree that the events have been commercialized, cheapened and even tarnished. But still the season carries on: It's the place to see your chums from other parts of the country."

Prime Minister John Major--the son of a trapeze artist and a dance-hall singer who dropped out of high school--preaches against Britain's "ingrained, entrenched, damaging (class) attitude" and says his goal is a "genuinely classless society."

Meanwhile, however, the vast amount of media space and money devoted to the season testifies that while the concept of class may be slowly changing, the country is still very class-conscious.

Originally conceived as a series of independent events patronized by the Royal Family, the season soon developed into an institution through which members of the aristocracy and the upper classes could show off their eligible daughters to suitable prospective mates.

"It was really the debutante season," recalls a well-born lady, "when one was presented to the queen. But in recent years that concept is pretty much passe."

Adds social historian Martin Jacques: "The season was about defining social groups and difference in an (Edwardian) era of very rapid social change and the spread of mass democracy. The Royal Family sought to reach outwards and downwards, the upper middle classes upwards and away from. The season was a perfect device."

Today, the tradition of fancy dress, which defines social status, carries on. There are men in morning suits and women in hats at the Royal Ascot racing week; boater hats and women's skirts below the knee at the Henley rowing races; men in black tie and women in full evening dress at the Glyndebourne Opera, and suitably nautical blazers at the Cowes Regatta.

The food is almost as noteworthy as the fashion--thousands of pounds of salmon, strawberries and cream at Wimbledon and countless bottles of champagne (15,000 at Ascot alone).

The season revolves around the queen, the Royal Family and the aristocracy, who by their presence and patronage give cachet to more than a dozen events. And the presence of such a royal nucleus attracts thousands of others who attend the events to bask in what remains these days of the royal glow.

In fact, the season has also come to be an indicator of who's in and who's out among Britain's hard-pressed royals. For instance, the ostracized Duchess of York, who is separated from her husband, Prince Andrew, did not receive a royal invitation to Ascot this year and has lost her place in the royal box at Wimbledon--sanctions duly played up in the popular press.

And Princess Diana, who reportedly made herself available for at least one day at the royal box at Ascot, was not issued an invitation from the queen--though the palace insisted it was not a direct snub.

Each event during the season has its own pecking order, with the masses in the grandstand or outer reaches and the favored in their inner sanctums: the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, the Steward's Enclosure at Henley, the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes and the All-England Club at Wimbledon.

The events run heavily to sports: horse racing, polo, tennis, yachting, sculling, cricket. (Forget soccer, darts, snooker or rugby, which are viewed as somewhat lower class.) However, there are non-sporting events as well, such as the Chelsea Flower Show, the Buckingham Palace garden parties, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and the Last Night at the Proms at Albert Hall.

Among those attracted to the social whirl are many well-to-do Americans who rent apartments in London for the festivities.

For some, the season is a reassuring social anchor in a world sometimes run amok. "Ascot is one of these events which suggests great permanency in our society, no matter how much the meeting changes superficially," wrote diarist Peter McKay of the Evening Standard.

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