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Saturday 20 December 2014

What is the haut ton?

The first quadrille at Almack's c1815 from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
The first quadrille at Almack's c1815
from The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow (1889)
An obsolete expression

If you read a Georgian or Regency romance, there is a very good chance that you will come across the term ‘haut ton’ or simply, ‘ton’. In the first of The Merry Romances, A Perfect Match, set in 1788-9, I refer to the ton in the opening paragraph. I have read so many period romances that talk about the ton that I did not think twice about using the word. Until, that was, my husband, who has not read a great many Regency romances (if any), asked me what it meant. It prompted me to add a glossary to my book! So what does the phrase haut ton or ton mean?

What is the haut ton?

According to The Chambers Dictionary, ton is a noun meaning fashion or people of fashion. Haut means high, and so haut ton means high fashion or people of high fashion.

The phrase haut ton is derived from the French and literally means high tone. According to etymology online, the word tone has meant the ‘prevailing state of manners’ since 1735 and ton has referred to the ‘prevailing mode, style, fashionable ways’ since 1769.

Who were the haut ton of Georgian London?

The haut ton or ton, were the fashionable elite of Georgian society. They exhibited the high tone and refined manners which characterised those of good breeding and fortune. They represented that part of society that was able to live in luxury and spend a large amount of their time pursuing pleasure. They were families with rank, connections and wealth.

The Opera House from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
The Opera House from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
A definition from 1823

John Bee’s dictionary of slang of 1823 provided the following definitions:
The haut ton: The highest orders of society, who see life; they are so denominated by the bon-ton and bon-genre, and are all of high breeding and large fortune. Money alone does not confer the haut-titre, nor giving a ball in a fine house; nor commanding a play, nor driving four-in-hand, but these together may constitute haut-ton with very little trouble.
The bon-ton: Highflier Cyprians, and those who run after them; from Bon – good, easy – and ton, or tone, the degree of tact and tension to be employed by modish people; frequently called ‘the ton’ only. Persons taking up good portions of their hours in seeking pleasure, are of the Bon-ton, as stage-actors and frequenters of play-houses, visitors at watering-places, officers, &c &c.

In Paris they are both called le bon genre. The appellation is much oftener applied than assumed. High life, particularly of whoredom: he who does not keep a girl, or part of one, cannot be of the Bon-ton; when he ceases, let him cut. Bon ton – is included in haut-ton, and is French for that part of society who live at their ease, as to income and pursuits, whose manners are tonish, and who, like other divisions of society, employ terms of their own, which rather sparingly they engraft on the best King’s English. Mascul et Fem Terms which denote the ton: ‘The go, the mode, or pink of the mode; bang-up, the prime of life, or all prime; the thing, the dash, and a dasher; quite the Varment – a four-in-hand, a whip, a very jarvy; a swell, a diamond of the first water.’ None can expect to attain perfection in all these, unless he could obtain the same assistance that Faustus had, viz Leviathan; and then he could not begrudge to meet the same end.1
A masquerade at the Pantheon from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
A masquerade at the Pantheon from The Microcosm of London (1808-10)
Under his definition for life, John Bee went on to say:
Life: To live joyously, is ‘life’. ‘Seeing life’, is said of the boarding-school miss, when she is first introduced to a ball-room. ‘Going up to town, to see a bit of life’, is a common expression with those who come up to visit the theatres, piazzas, and shows. ‘Life in its varieties’, high and low life, but chiefly a softened expression for the latter.

‘High life’, is properly – living among the great and titled ones. ‘A bit of high life’, would be a visit to Almack’s or the masquerade, and taking a stroll into – a hell.1
He went on to say that:
No two pursuits can differ more than ‘Life' in the several classes of society: with the haut-ton, routs, cards, and up-all-night, constitute 'life’; whereas the cobbler's wife considers no higher enjoyment of life exists, than taking a drop of heavy-wet on a St. Monday with her dear Mr. Lapstone, while he plays at skittles and blows a cloud.1

Playing cards

Headshot of Rachel Knowles author with sea in background(2021)
Rachel Knowles writes clean/Christian historical romance set in the time of Jane Austen. She has been sharing her research on this blog since 2011. Rachel lives in the beautiful Georgian seaside town of Weymouth, Dorset, on the south coast of England, with her husband, Andrew.

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1. Quotes from John Bee's Slang, a dictionary of the turf, the ring, the chase, the pit, of bon-ton and the varieties of life (1823).

Sources used include:
Ackermann, Rudolph and Pyne, William Henry, The Microcosm of London or London in miniature (Rudolph Ackermann 1808-1810, reprinted 1904)
Bee, John, Slang, a dictionary of the turf, the ring, the chase, the pit, of bon-ton and the varieties of life (1823)
The Chambers Dictionary (1998)

Etymology online

All photographs ©


  1. Wonder whether my mother's expression came from this? Remarking on someone wearing the latest fashion or classy outfit she'd say ''Oh very toney!"

    1. I've not heard that one before, but the derivation would fit, wouldn't it?

  2. The illustration of the First Quadrille is actually a French illustration it is from Quadrille Plate from showing the poule step. It was published again as an illustration of Gronow's book in the 1860's- 70's. The names were added with the publication of Gronow's book. The original had no names and when the illustration was used in a different English book, the names under the people were different.

    1. Thank you for the information. It doesn't surprise me that the illustration was not original to Gronow's book and that the names were added at that time. I should have guessed after discovering all the problems with the 1815 Almack's picture that I wrote about here.

  3. The haut ton figures prominently in my novel Liberty Bazaar, to be published in May. The story is about a real historical bazaar in Liverpool during the American Civil War in the 1860s. Some members of the haut ton helped to raise £20,000 - a huge amount for the time - in aid of the Confederacy, while others opposed them by backing events in support of Abraham Lincoln's Union. I have taken the phrase to represent the 19th century equivalent of the jet-set - although even this has a 1960s connotation. Perhaps super-rich is more appropriate in the 21st century, but doesn't convey the idea of loose association that comes with haut ton and even jet set.

    1. In Regency London, there were certainly members of the haut ton supporting both the Whigs and the Tories. I think the important thing about members of the haut ton was that they were not just rich - they were of good birth and well-connected.

  4. Absolutely, blue blood and old money were the essential requirements. By the mid-19th century, self-made 'millocrats' of the industrial revolution were unable to acquire haut ton status, despite their fabulous wealth.

  5. Possibly the strength of the British gentry and aristocracy is that people could rise up the social scale and go down. Obviously someone in trade would not be seen as socially desirable but the money they earned could gain them and their descendants access to high society.
    Many of the haut-ton would have derived their income from commercial ventures such as mineral extraction on their estates and through investment in plantations & the slave trade.

    The Regency period was a golden time for land owners as the long running wars with France increased the demand for agricultural products and hence the value of land. The existence of the Corn Laws protected farmers and land owners from foreign competition and maintained their income.
    The importance of land owning to gain social status and influence in the community is why so many industrialists invest in landed estates once they have made a fortune.

  6. I have read numerous books published in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries,some set in the US and others in UK, in which "tone" is used in a similar way to "class." Statements are made such as, "If she attends, it will give tone to your party."