The History of Fancy Dress Part IV

Here’s the fourth and final installment about fancy dress (catch up with Part III here) – in this one we’ll be focussing on the way in which fancy dress was used to subvert the societal norms of the early twentieth century. During the 1920s and 1930s fancy dress became associated with some pretty raucous parties many of which were part of the emerging, but illegal gay scene (homosexuality remained illegal until 1967). The fancy dress themes drew together like-minded individuals and helped to create a safer space for types of self expression and behaviour that were deemed unacceptable in wider society at the time. The two most famous events of this kind were:

Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball
This fancy dress ball was started in 1923 as an opportunity for servants to have a night of dancing and socialising at a reasonable cost. As it expanded it changed venue eventually taking root at the Albert Hall. Towards the end of the 1920s it became a fixture of the gay scene in London. This worried the organisers and in 1935 they issued the warning that “No Man Impersonating a Woman …… will be admitted”.

It is interesting that this is deemed a matter for concern as cross-dressing (both male to female and female to male) had occurred at fancy dress events throughout the eighteenth century (and considerably earlier on the stage). Although falling out of favour from the 1830s, it became popular again in the 1920s and was completely normalised by the 1950s.

In 1936 a Metropolitan Police report went further, noting that:

“Officers have reported young men of the effeminate type in coloured silk blouses and tight-hipped trousers, their faces rouged and powdered, dancing in the most objectionable way.”

As a side note, I would love to know what ‘objectional dancing’ looks like, maybe it is something I could cultivate? Due to this scandal and the increasingly ‘undesirable’ reputation of the event, the last ball was held in 1938

The Chelsea Arts Club Ball
Founded in 1891 The Chelsea Arts Club is a private members club based in London. The club held its first fancy dress ball in 1908 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden to raise funds for artists (the header image depicts the event in 1912 and is taken from the centre-fold of The Sphere). The event was a huge success, and attracted many celebrities, socialites, and leading actors. A larger venue was sought, and from 1910, the Chelsea Arts Balls were held in the Albert Hall and for the next thirty years the Chelsea Arts Balls were the Bohemian centrepiece in London’s social season.

Held on either Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve, the Balls were extravagant affairs with over 100 performers, lavish decorations and 7000 attendees, themes included: Egyptian, Noah’s Ark, Arabian Nights and Sun Worship. Revellers would dance into the early hours until a breakfast was served at 5am. In 1958 the balls were banned from the Albert Hall owing to their reputation for rowdiness, nudity and public homosexuality. Subsequently, private functions were held at the club with similarly lavish decorations and themes. The difference between this and Lady Malcolm’s Servants Ball was that the organisers were more liberal in their attitudes and consequently a more permissive culture was fostered over a number of years.

Although not directly related there is also an interesting parallel to be drawn between this type of subversion and the use of fancy dress at the Bauhaus. The Bauhaus was a German art school operational from 1919 to 1933, it combined commercial manufacture with crafts and the fine arts and became known for the alternative teaching methods, approach to design and focus on living and working together as a community.

Costume parties became an important part of Bauhaus life. These began as improvisational events, but later grew into large-scale productions with costumes and sets made by the school’s stage workshop. There was often a theme to the evenings and these included: ‘dragons’, ‘lanterns’ and ‘beard, nose and heart’. The most famous, however, is probably the Metal Party of 1929, where guests donned costumes made from tin foil, frying pans, and spoons. Attendees entered that party by sliding down a chute into one of several rooms filled with silver balls. – Everyone gave free reign to their creativity for the events, all preparing their own costumes, which could be realistic or abstract but which competed to be original. These parties promoted contact between the college and the public, as well as a common spirit and the development of the ‘play instinct’ a force that was believed to reinforce creativity through non-purposeful activity.

Fancy dress parties and pageants declined from the end of the 1950s. There was, however, a revival of fancy dress in the 1980s with a focus on smaller scale events. New themes also became fashionable – notably school uniform (I wrote part of my PhD thesis on this subject, so this might be a whole other post at some point). Themed parties remain popular to date and royal balls continue as well – Prince William celebrated his twenty-first birthday in June 2003 with an Out of Africa themed ball at Windsor Castle.

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