Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Going to a Fancy Dress Ball

By Lisa Karon Richardson

In 1897 the Duchess of Devonshire caused a stir of monsoon proportions among her many friends when she announced the intention of throwing a fancy dress ball in honor of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. For weeks in advance, the cream of the haute ton combed through London’s galleries and leafed through fables making lists of potential costumes and even sketching out their ideas. Eventually they found their way into the hands of modistes who spun lavish costumes from their airy daydreams.

Happily for us, the Duchess knew how to throw a party, and hired a photographer to memorialize the evening by taking pictures of her fabulously turned out guests. 

Mrs. Reginald Talbot as a Valkyrie

Sir Charles and Lady Hartopp as Napoleon and Josephine

Lady Margaret Villiers dressed as Monsieur’s wife, Madame, Duchess d’Orleans. 
The Ladies Churchill as Watteau shepherdesses.

Lady Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston Churchill’s mother) as the Empress Theodora, wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. 
Sir Edgar Vincent as a character from a painting by Franz Hals. 
There were hundreds of guests at the ball and costumes ranged from Britannia to Julius Ceasar. For an excellent site with tons of other pictures of the partygoers go here.

But I have to say that the Duchess wasn't the only one throwing fancy dress balls. In 1883, well before the Jubilee was a twinkle in the Duchess's eyes, Alva Vanderbilt threw an elaborate fancy dress affair that hosted the high and mighty of the US. Her sister-in-law, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt won the prize for uniqueness when she donned a yellow and shell-pink satin dress embroidered with tinsel, gilt and silver thread and came as Electric Light. The Vanderbilts' had their faults, but they most definitely weren't cheap. Mrs. Cornelius had her costume was designed by the great couturier, Worth. 

Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt as Electric Light, 1883
 And here is Mrs. Vanderbilt's amazing costume, beautifully preserved so that we can see it today.
Electric Light Costume
I've got to say that seeing so many sepia pictures made me forget how really lush and beautiful these pieces were. To make sure we don't forget again, here are a couple other costumes in living color so to speak.
A wine bottle costume worn by an unidentified lady. But how cute is that? I love the cap! 
A Turkish themed costume, designed by no less that Worth.
Do masquerades or fancy dress balls appeal to you? If you could go to a party dressed as anything in the world and the costume was guaranteed to look lovely on you, who, or what, would you go as? 

Influenced by books like The Secret Garden and The Little Princess, Lisa Karon Richardson’s early books were heavy on boarding schools and creepy houses. Now that she’s (mostly) all grown-up she still loves a healthy dash of adventure and excitement in any story she creates, even her real-life story. She’s been a missionary to the Seychelles and Gabon and now that she and her husband are back in America, they are tackling a brand new adventure, starting a daughter-work church in a new city. Her newest novel, The Magistrate’s Folly just released February 5th! 


  1. oh wow! what an incredible find! Not only did they have the costume, they put some attitude in those photos!

    Thanks Lisa, these are amazing. Love the electric dress. Gosh, can you imagine how much money went into those costumes for one night? well, they've lived on in many cases, haven't they?

  2. Lots and lots of money was spent on these gowns. But I guess it's not really all that different from today when an actress will spend many thousands of dollars on a gown to wear once to an awards show.

    I love all the props too. Like the Valkyrie's shield. Britannia's shield is beautiful too. Hm, wonder why I didn't include that photo.

  3. And, uh, so Deb money and figure are no object, what/who would you come to the party dressed as?

  4. Love it!!!!

    I love costume parties, but I have to admit that I haven't dressed in costume since I was in elementary school. The coward in me....

    Still, today if money was no cost, I'd love to dress as...

    Empress Josephine
    Greek aristocrat
    Princess Zelda
    the evil queen from SW&tH
    any costume from OUAT

  5. Great choices, Gina. I've been admiring the costuming on The Tudors. They did a brilliant job with that show.

  6. i don't think i'd have the courage to go to a costumed ball. i'm not very elegant. i did win money with a halloween costume once (i went as a Q-tip - like i said... not very elegant).

    i do like the wings concept of the Victoria's Secret models (just not the skimpy, almost there "clothing"). perhaps i'd go to a ball with flowing robes and wings...

  7. Ohmygoodnessgracious! Lisa, you had to know how excited I'd be by this. I love it. Love. It.

    I drool over Mrs. V's electric light costume every time I see it.

    Also, from the Duchess of Devonshire's ball, I really wish I could see the Byzantine costume in color.


    Thank you, Lisa. I've had a super busy stressful day and this just made me stop and breathe in. Love love love it.

    These are the things that make me wish I could time-travel.

  8. Those. Are. Fabulous.

    I am just overwhelmed with how cool this post is.

    The wine bottle costume? Brilliant!

    And how glorious to see "Electric Light" in full color and still amazing.


    Who would I be? If I didn't have to look like dumpy me? I dunno. Maybe the evil Jadis from Narnia. Or gorgeous Queen Susan. Or maybe one of the beautiful ladies from a Waterhouse painting. Happy sigh.

  9. DebH, I could see you as an angel. You know that is one costume I did not notice among the multitude, so you would even be unique. And I forgot to mention the unlimited budget and time traveling capabilities. No worries about having to be too elegant when you can hire someone like Worth to design your costume. That man COULD make a q-tip elegant!

  10. Thanks Suzie. I'm so glad the post brightened your day. I haven't been able to find that Lady Churchill's gown was preserved. But below is a link where you can get a bit more info about it and there are also a couple of different shots. Apparently she was so taken with her appearance she went and had some pictures taken of herself in the costume after the fact. And she did wear it again too.


  11. I can see you looking longingly out over the water DeAnna, wearing a medieval looking gown and waiting for your knight to return. Good choice!

  12. Oh, this is absolutely fabulous. I love the photos--but I imagine the Valkyrie didn't do much dancing in that headdress, LOL. The electric light costume is amazing!

    If money were no object, I'd become a total Regency-costume nerd.

  13. Susie, do you think hubby would be a good sport and dress up as Beau Brummell for you? I thought Sir Charles made a pretty good Napoleon to his Josephine.

  14. That's awesome. But any costume in the world? Just one? That's way too hard.

  15. I'm not picky, Dina! It's a virtual ball. You can have as many costumes as you want.

  16. Oh wow, Lisa, love the photos. Especially the ones that show the sepia original as well as the colored version. The detail is exquisite.

    I'm relieved to see you have Cleopatra near the top of your list, Gina. I'd hate to have all that fanning go to waste. After 2 and a half years, my arms are getting tired.

    Who would I be? I still haven't decided. But with my profile, I think I'd look better as Queen Victoria than Annie Oakley. sigh.

  17. Oh goodness! These are fantastic! It's funny how we think of people in history as being sort of two-dimensional and unimaginative (probably thanks to dry, dull history textbooks and equally dry, dull history teachers). And then you find things like this... Awesome, Lisa!

  18. Anita, I think you'd make a darling Annie Oakley. And I can totally see you sighting in on a target.

  19. Oh yes, Niki I love things that make history come to life and take on the complexion of people's personalities.


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