4th Mo Co E, Women's Ball Dresses

 Period Ball Gowns

The silhouette was right, weighted by a large crinoline skirt. The contour; wide at the shoulders, came to a narrow waist. The effect elegant, decorated with masses of flowers and flounces.

This was the sought after look in the 1860's ballroom.

The Empress Eugenie surrounded by her Ladies in Waiting.

Painted by Franz Winterhalter; 1855

     Period ball gowns are to be worn over the proper period undergarments of the early 1860's. In order of succession, first the chemise, (a knee-length, light weight, open necked dress, resembling a nightgown), then the drawers, or pantalettes (not to be confused with bloomers, which were worn by women in the reform movement against accepted women's dress of the time). A fully boned corset was cinched over the chemise (smoothing the torso line for the fitted bodice), and a fitted corset cover was then placed over that. Most importantly, and finally the hooped crinoline (originally called a bustle, now called a hoop skirt) was secured around the waist of the wearer and several full petticoats (of light cotton or silk) were placed on top. Petticoats were necessary in order to hide all traces of the whalebone or metal hoops beneath the skirt; adding fullness to the final circumference and helping the over-all gliding effect of the wearer.

     Undergarments gave modesty underneath the large hoop in case of falls or accidents in a crowded room, protected the finer details of the corset and inside seams of a silk ball gown, and are pertinent for the proper look in the period ballroom.

     Ball gown bodices were fitted to perfection. Generally, they were cut in a low boat neckline falling from the edge of the shoulders and graced with a self-fabric bertha, or decorated liberally with the same trim used on the skirt. Sleeve seams at the armscye were dropped giving the fashionable sloped line from the base of the neck to the shoulders. Common sleeves were short "puffs", or full with, or without, a cuff to give balance to the large skirt and minimizing the appearance of the waist. Some also came to the elbow in a three-quarter sleeve with ruchings or layers of lace to correspond with the rest of the gown.

     The boned bodice came to the waist where the skirt began, and on some gowns the bodice dipped down several inches to a point in front. Formal ball gowns were closed with lacing or hooks and eyes, and on two piece gowns, the bodice dipped down to a smaller point in the center back as well.

     Ball gown skirts were elaborate and decorated in a variety of ways. Everything from tiers and ruffles to intricate trims and fine laces were used. Flowers and leaves are seen profusely on period fashion plates for ball gowns, as well as ruchings and sheer overlays. Skirts were nearly always pleated onto the waistband underneath the bodice. Trains also became popular in the ballroom, but had to be looped up over an angle-length underskirt and held in place by bands to accommodate dancing.

     The hooped crinoline reached its height in circumference by 1860, and gradually reduced its size throughout the decade. By 1866, the fullness in the skirt was visibly being pulled toward the back.

     Ball gowns were made from fine silk of all kinds - from taffetas to crepe. Satin ribbon was made from silk for trimming, as well as most laces. Care should be taken that the weight of the gown is durable for dancing, and that the skirt is not so long on the floor that it drags.

     Color is objectionable to personal taste. White and light colors were considered the height of fashion for the young and slender, while darker colors were in vogue among older women. Likewise, according to complexion, blondes should wear pale colors while brunettes are not lost in brilliant hues. Although these were the common guidelines, we note that the final decision in the end was entirely up to the wearer. As Thomas Hillgrove stated in his Hillgrove's Ballroom Guide and Practical Dancer in 1863, "Harmony of dress involves also the idea of contrast. A pale girl looks more pale, and a brunette less dark, contrasted with strong colors. But as the blonde and brunette are both beautiful in themselves, when the contour of the face and figure is good, a beautiful girl, blonde or brunette, may adopt either style, or both alternately..."

     It is also interesting to note that, following Queen Victoria's lead, black became both popular and accepted in fashionable society after Prince Albert died in 1861. Although no one attended a ball while in deep morning, ladies sometimes chose to attend a festive affair in a black gown, whether in morning or not, decorated with trims and flowers of a more lively color.

     Plainer ball gowns and party dresses might be made of good linen or cotton. Silk is always appropriate. These gowns could be closed in front or back by buttons and did not require a bertha, but retained the boat neckline, although somewhat higher. They also might have pagoda sleeves of the '50s commonly seen throughout the decade. Women and girls who could not afford a proper ball grown did what they could, and they often re-made older dresses to formulate new styles in simpler form.

     An invitation to a ball held excuse from the troubled thoughts of wartime and would permit a few hours of delight in preparation for it. Remember, women of the 1860s did what they could and wore their best; especially when the occasion called for it.


Written and compiled by Sara Gonzalez


With questions or comments, email Sara

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