The History of Fancy Dress Part III

We finished the last episode of the history of fancy dress with prudish-nineteenth century morality putting an end to the rather debauched pleasure gardens. Then, of course, came The Victorians and boy, did they like dressing up, just in a rather more sanitised way.

In accord with the new mood of decorum, fancy balls became the fashion, these were held either in private houses or as large-scale civic fund-raising events. Masks disappeared, removing the element of disguise and costumes reflected fashions in art, literature and historicism including Romanticism and Medievalism. Many women simply wore fashionable evening dress with fanciful trimmings, to represent a character or idea. For more elaborate costumes and for men’s dress, firms specializing in making and hiring fancy costumes advertised widely and London firms (such as Nathan’s) would rent temporary premises in provincial towns where a ball was planned.

Costume balls were widely reported in newspapers of the period, with a great deal of attention paid to who was wearing what. An idea of the type of costumes worn can be gleaned from the report of an extravagant fancy dress ball held at Brighton Pavilion in 1868 (Kentish Gazette)

Starlight – “a black tulle dress, gold starred, a necklace of star-set pearls, a coronet of the same gems, flowing hair, and black gloves.”

Several “Watteau Shepherdesses”

Many ladies in “Hungarian” costume

A woman dressed as Titania from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Two women dressed as “Winter” in gowns of “swan’s down flakes.”

A woman dressed as a telegraph—unfortunately her costume is not described

Most in uniforms

“the Charleses and the Cavaliers” were well represented

Several men came dressed as Mephistopheles

One man came in the guise of a “Bedouin sheyk.”

Assorted Zouaves and Highlanders

“a sprightly silken-clad Jester.”

The fashion was helped along by Victoria and Albert who were strong proponents of the fancy dress ball and even hosted several of their own including the Bal Costume (1842), the Bal Poudre (1845) and the Stuart Ball (1851) at which Albert wore:

a coat of rich orange satin brocaded with gold, and with a green sprig; the sleeves turned up with crimson velvet, embroidered in gold and silver, with pink satin epaulettes upon the shoulder. A baldric of gold lace, embroidered with silver, and edged with a fringe of pink silk and silver bullion, carried the sword. The breeches were of crimson velvet with pink satin bows and gold lace; lavender stocking and a sash of white and gold completed the picture (Illustrated London News)

After the death of Albert, Queen Victoria did not hold any more balls but in 1874 the Prince and Princess of Wales threw their own fancy dress ball at Marlborough House with a range of historical and fairytale themes and Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee inspired two of the most lavish fancy dress balls of the century. The Devonshire House Ball given in London by the duchess of Devonshire and attended by royalty and the cream of London society and The Victorian Era Ball, given in Toronto by the governor general of Canada, Lord Aberdeen, and Lady Aberdeen.

The Devonshire Ball was remarkably well publicised and documented – there are a number of surviving descriptions in newspapers and many of the royal and aristocratic guests were photographed in their costumes by the Lafayette Company. Out of 700 guests, 200 or so were photographed, (see the lovely example of Mr Henry Holden as Will Somers, Queen Elizabeth I’s court jester in the header image)

Such was the popularity of fancy dress that many magazines started to cater to the interest, Ladies’ periodicals included fashion plates, regular columns were produced and advice meted out. In 1879, Ardern Holt, a columnist for The Queen wrote Fancy Dresses Described: or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls which provided a list of suggestions for women’s fancy dress. The book ran to six editions (the final was published in 1896) and each one was revised and expanded. As the editions progressed suggestions became more diverse, detailed and less literal in line with wider trends

Here are some of her more inventive ideas:

“SPELLING-BEE. Orange skirt striped with black velvet, the letters of the alphabet in black carried round in a double row ; the low square black velvet bodice, trimmed with orange, displays the names of dictionaries, such as Webster, Johnson, &c. A bee on the head

TIME. An evening dress of black and white tulle; with cuirass bodice, and red Dutch clocks hanging at the side ; the several hours in Roman letters round the tunic ; an hour-glass and scythe for chatelaine.

TOILET-TABLE. White muslin dress over pink calico, made with low bodice, long sleeves, and fichu, trimmed with lace ; a looking-glass suspended from waist, with brush, combs, scissors, &c. ; powder-puff in hand ; cap, like pincushion, stuck with pins ; ribbon epaulettes, with scissors, &c., attached.”

As the nineteenth century progressed the opportunities for fancy dress wearing diversified and fancy dress moved downwards through the class system with children’s parties and clubs’ and works’ parties choosing dress up themes. Some celebratory parades or pageants also developed a fancy dress element (in certain cases from rural traditions such as the May Queen) and these trends became more pronounced in the twentieth century

After a brief period of austerity during WW1 fancy dress had a resurgence in popularity in the 1920s when it fitted the mood and social scene. In young artistic circles the most admired outfits were outrageous or bizarre. In wider society theme parties became popular: Greek parties, baby parties, Wild West parties, and circus parties were all held in London during the 1920s and, later, fancy dress balls became annual events at universities and colleges and a popular feature of holiday cruises and at holiday camps.

Fancy dress also became an act of subversion in some circles, but I think I’ll save that for another post.


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