Have you heard about 19th century Fancy Dress Balls? They were a leisurely pastime for mostly upper-class Victorians. Inspired by the masquerades of the previous century, fancy dress balls allowed attendees to express something about themselves, to project an idealized self, or to show off their immense wealth and resources. Victorian fancy dress balls were invite only, held in private homes, and attendees were normally of the same social sphere.

Figure 1 Mora (b.1849) Miss Kate Fearing Strong (later Mrs. Arthur Welman) 1883. Museum of the City of New York.
Figure 2 H.S.H (Daisy, Princess Henry of Pless) nee Mary Theresa Olivia Cornwaliis-West 1873-1943. At the Devonshire House ball. July 1897.
Figure 3 The Duke of Marlborough Dressed as the French Ambassador to the Court of Catherine the Great. Devonshire HouseBall, 1897.

Costumes could be created at home by hand, rented from specialized services, purchased through a department store, or could be designed by courtiers. Charles Frederick Worth, and his son Jean-Philippe, created a number of expensive, handmade gowns for fancy dress balls. Worth’s gowns were labor intensive and included costly raw materials. Jean Phillippe Worth recalled creating a bespoke gown that included a jeweled embroidery of hand sewn pearls and diamonds that “kept the girls busy for almost a month.” (Russel Harris, A Great Ball in 1897.)

Figure 4 Fancy Dress Costume Design for Charles Frederick Worth, 1880s. Victoria & Albert Museum.
igure 5 A Turkish style fancy dress costume designed by Charles Frederick Worth, circa 1870.

“How To” manuals like Fancy Dress Described (Arden Holt, 1887), Characters Suitable for

Fancy Costume Balls (Marie Schild, 1881), and Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose It

(Holt, 1882) provided detailed costume ideas and instructions on how to recreate them. These

manuals also provided advice and guidance on how to choose an ensemble that would

complement one’s stature and natural coloring.

Figure 6 An excerpt from Fancy Dress Described by Ardern Holt; Debenham & Freebody, Wyman & Sons, London.

As the 19th century came to a close, fancy dress balls began to fall out of favor, luckily lots of photographic evidence exists of the 19th century balls, like the Devonshire House Ball of 1897 and the Vanderbilt Fancy Dress Ball of 1893. Two Fancy Dress Balls that were truly the last of their kind!

Figure 7 Lady Randolph Spencer-Churchill in Byzantine costume as Empress Theodora. Taken at the
Devonshire House Ball of 1897.
Figure 8 Mora (b. 1849) Mrs. Wiliam Seward Webb. Taken at the Vanderbilt Fancy Dress Ball of 1883.

Happy Halloween!