Ever since I was a little girl reading fairy tales, I’ve wanted to go to a ball. The real Cinderella type event, complete with glittering chandeliers, handsome beaux and – most importantly – beautiful ball gowns. The kind that features in most historical romances, especially the Regency ones. If only …
I have been to what passes for a ball these days – a couple of American high school Proms and a university ball – but I must admit they fell a bit short of the perfect vision I had in my mind. Possibly because my escorts weren't exactly ideal - one was a boy I didn’t really want to go with and another a boy I had to bribe as he didn’t really want to go! Not the stuff of fairy tales really, is it?
And my dresses? Well, they were very pretty and I was pleased with them at the time, but they weren’t what I would call proper ball gowns - I would have liked something a lot more glamorous.
So what should a real ball gown look like? To find out, I recently went to the Victoria & Albert museum in London where they have an exhibition at the moment called ‘Ballgowns: British Glamour Since 1950’. It’s right next to the section of antique clothing, where you can find real Regency ball dresses (like the one in this drawing), so I had a look at those first in order to have something to compare with. Then I headed into the new section and I wasn’t disappointed.
There were ball gowns in all manner of weird and wonderful styles – some stunningly beautiful, some downright strange and (to my mind) very unattractive. And although I found the Cinderella type dresses I’d longed to wear myself, I discovered that I actually liked the simple styles best. The kind of dress that flatters the wearer and enhances someone’s figure without being too over the top.
The materials used made a huge difference. Latex, ostrich feathers, silvered leather and knitted foil might make you look twice at someone, but were just too peculiar for words! Much more glamorous were dresses made of yards and yards of tulle with a silk under-skirt and bodice (the layers of tulle added depth and made for an ethereal quality – as in this drawing). Or the ones sewn out of just silk, which shimmered beautifully on its own or was enhanced by the addition of Swarovski crystals, beads or pearls. For me, silk and satin proved to be a definite must.
As the exhibition catalogue said, ball gowns have not followed fashion as much as other types of clothing, although I had no trouble pin-pointing which era the various dresses on show were from. What they all shared though was that extra effort the designer had made, as well as the costly materials and ‘wow-factor’ that showed they were to be worn only for a very special event. Even today, ball dresses are often hand made in order to make them unique and they incorporate the owner’s personal tastes.
We don’t often have occasion to wear such gowns these days, but it’s still fun to look at them and dream. There are debutantes every year, of course, and I sometimes take a peek at their outfits in various magazines just to see what this year’s styles are like. Movie premieres and events like the Oscars provide more chances for a few lucky ladies to show off stunning dresses and I admit I enjoy this vicariously. They help me to imagine what someone going to a real ball must have felt like in all her finery. And there are the royal occasions when visiting heads of state and their partners all dress up, providing some wonderful magazine spreads as well.
If you’re at all like me, in love with the idea of balls and ball gowns, I recommend seeing the V & A exhibition – it’s well worth a visit!
(Drawings © Josceline Fenton – the first one a ball dress ca 1820-25, English, and the second a dress in a similar style to some of the ones in the current exhibition where photography was not allowed)