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.
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.)
“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.
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!