Illustration from Characters Suitable for Fancy Dress Costume Balls, 1881.
The on-trend Christmas party goer in 2016 is wearing something made of velvet, a high-low combo of luxe sweatpants and sequins, or a glittery co-ord (matching top and skirt/trousers – keep up). Time-hop back 160 years and the picture was very different. Our Victorian ancestors saw parties not just as a reason to get dressed-up in their finery, but as an opportunity to become someone else for a night. Fancy dress was all the rage, the more whimsical the better.
Fancy dress balls had been popular in the eighteenth century, but it was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who applied the royal seal of approval. From that moment on, no costume was too outrageous. Fancy yourself as an imperious regal fashion plate? Do what Daisy, Countess of Warwick did and try a Marie Antoinette costume on for size, in a dress of rose and gold with a sky blue velvet train, embroidered with gold fleurs-de-lis. Feel the need for something a bit more abstract? Come dressed as Night, and take your costume from Marie Schild’s book ‘Characters Suitable for Fancy Costume Balls’. All you need is a black dress embroidered with silver stars and a matching train, a silver coronet and, to finish it off, ‘owl earrings and brooch’.
© National Portrait Gallery, London. Frances Evelyn ('Daisy') Greville (née Maynard), Countess of Warwick as Marie Antoinette. By Lafayette (Lafayette Ltd), photogravure by Walker & Boutall
Perhaps these options sound a bit tame? Then the answer is obviously to come as an Aquarium. Mme Schild again comes to your rescue with a costume which includes scallop shells, seaweed and coral, worn on top of skirts of ‘..sea-green tulle or tarlatan [a fabric made of silk], ornamented with fishes either painted or worked in floss silk.’
There was no shortage of events at which to showcase this finery. Prestigious fancy dress balls were held in the grand houses such as Warwick Castle and Devonshire House, and while Prince Albert was alive Queen Victoria even held them at Buckingham Palace. Less glamorous were the many balls put on in country towns, and the Illustrated London News of 1881 even reports that one was held in a lunatic asylum.
Fancy dress wasn’t just an opportunity to pretend to be someone else, or even something else, but also allowed wearers to behave in a way that wasn’t otherwise acceptable in polite society, such as flirting outrageously. That’s certainly one thing that our ancestors would still recognise in 2016.
Author: Rhian Tritton, Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education