Belle of the Ball: A 5-Minute Guide to Ball Gowns

Delicately and exotically trimmed, and made of luxurious fabrics, ball gowns are the most formal female attire for social occasions.

Trimmed with lace, pearls, sequins, embroidery, ruffles and ruching, the most common fabrics are satin, silk, taffeta and velvet.

Cut off the shoulder with decollete necklines, the ball gown shape hasn’t changed much since the mid-19th century.

Too Early by James Tissot, 1873
Too Early by James Tissot, 1873
Aristocrats gathering around Emperor Franz Joseph at a ball in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, painting by Wilhelm Gause, 1900
Aristocrats gathering around Emperor Franz Joseph at a ball in the Hofburg Imperial Palace, painting by Wilhelm Gause, 1900

The Regency Era

During the Regency era, ball gowns had the Empire silhouette, with a high waistline, short sleeves, and a fairly narrow skirt.

1820 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1820 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum

Widely adopted after the French Revolution, the neoclassic style originated from “chitons”—tubular garments of Ancient Greece that were draped over the shoulder and held in place with a brooch.

Drawing inspiration from the artistic notions of the Renaissance, the puffed sleeves resembled 16th-century “slashing”—a decorative technique of making small cuts on the outer fabric to reveal a brightly colored lining.

1820 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1820 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1820 Ball gown. British. Cotton plain weave with metallic thread embroidery and silk ribbons with metallic passementerie and tassels. LACMA
1820 Ball gown. British. Cotton plain weave with metallic thread embroidery and silk ribbons with metallic passementerie and tassels. LACMA
1820 Ball gown. British. Cotton plain weave with metallic thread embroidery and silk ribbons with metallic passementerie and tassels. LACMA
1820 Ball gown. British. Cotton plain weave with metallic thread embroidery and silk ribbons with metallic passementerie and tassels. LACMA

Embellished with gold thread or sparkling beads, these lavish gowns glittered in the candlelight of the dance hall.

Creating a soft dreamy look, the thin, gauzy materials were cooler to wear on the crowded dance floor.

1820 Ball gown. British. Silk satin and silk embroidered with metal. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1820 Ball gown. British. Silk satin and silk embroidered with metal. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1820 Ball gown. British. Silk satin and silk embroidered with metal. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1820 Ball gown. British. Silk satin and silk embroidered with metal. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1820 Ball gown. British. Silk satin and silk embroidered with metal. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
1820 Ball gown. British. Silk satin and silk embroidered with metal. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Victorian Era

In the Victorian era, skirts began to widen.

Layer upon layer of petticoats would provide the desired fullness but were hot and heavy to wear.

Undergarment frameworks called crinolines were developed to provide the flared look without the weight.

1842 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1842 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1842 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1842 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum

Inspired by the court of Charles II, this next ball gown was the most glamorous of all of Queen Victoria’s surviving clothes.

The rich brocade of the underskirt was woven in Benares, India.

A copy of seventeenth-century Venetian raised-point needle lace, the berthe (fichu) was likely made in Ireland and perhaps acquired at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Queen Victoria's Costume for the Stuart Ball 1851. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Queen Victoria’s Costume for the Stuart Ball 1851. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Queen Victoria's Costume for the Stuart Ball 1851. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Queen Victoria’s Costume for the Stuart Ball 1851. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Queen Victoria's Costume for the Stuart Ball 1851. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
Queen Victoria’s Costume for the Stuart Ball 1851. © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
1856 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1856 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1856 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1856 Ball gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1860 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1860 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1860 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1860 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum

Crinolines remained popular throughout the 1850s and 1860s, reaching a circumference of up to six yards.

1864 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1864 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1864 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1864 Ball gown. French. Emile Pingat. Silk. metmuseum
1868 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1868 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1868 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1868 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1869 Ball Gown. British. Cotton, silk. metmuseum
1869 Ball Gown. British. Cotton, silk. metmuseum
1869 Ball Gown. British. Cotton, silk. metmuseum
1869 Ball Gown. British. Cotton, silk. metmuseum

Beginning in the 1870s, a narrower silhouette came into vogue, and more attention was focused on the back of the skirt.

Trains would be drawn up behind the dress and fastened into a “bustle”.

1875 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1875 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1875 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1875 Ball gown. British. Silk, cotton. metmuseum
1876 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1876 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1876 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1876 Ball gown. French. Silk. metmuseum
1878 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1878 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1878 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1878 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1880 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1880 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1880 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1880 Ball gown. British. Silk. metmuseum
1887. French. Silk, Glass. metmuseum
1887. French. Silk, Glass. metmuseum
1887. French. Silk, Glass. metmuseum
1887. French. Silk, Glass. metmuseum

By the end of the 19th century, bustles had fallen out of favour and skirts took on a simple bell-like appearance.

1898 Ball gown. French. Jacques Doucet. Silk, metal, linen. metmuseum
1898 Ball gown. French. Jacques Doucet. Silk, metal, linen. metmuseum
1898 Ball gown. French. Jacques Doucet. Silk, metal, linen. metmuseum
1898 Ball gown. French. Jacques Doucet. Silk, metal, linen. metmuseum
1900 Ball gown. French. House of Worth. Silk. metmuseum
1900 Ball gown. French. House of Worth. Silk. metmuseum

The Edwardian Era

In the Edwardian era, women’s ball gowns followed the distinctive “S-curve” silhouette.

1908 Ball gown. American. Cotton, linen, silk. metmuseum

Standing out from the crowd at a ball was a challenge even for the most well-heeled.

Densely sequined and beaded, this next gown worn by a member of the Astor family would have shimmered beautifully on the dance floor.

1910 Ball Gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1910 Ball Gown. American. Silk. metmuseum
1908 Ball gown. American. Silk, cotton, glass, metallic thread. metmuseum
1908 Ball gown. American. Silk, cotton, glass, metallic thread. metmuseum

The Roaring Twenties and Beyond

During the 1920s, hemlines rose and decorations became more showy.

After the horrors of World War One, people wanted to let their hair down.

Women found a new sense of liberation from the traditional expectations of their role in society.

Donning daring knee-length dresses, they flouted social and sexual norms—some becoming known by the pejorative term “flappers”.

Formalities would take a back seat for a decade, but the dresses still glittered with glamour.

1920s Evening dress. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk, metallic. metmuseum
1920s Evening dress. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk, metallic. metmuseum
1921 Evening dress. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum
1921 Evening dress. French. Callot Soeurs. Silk, metallic thread. metmuseum

Every party eventually comes to an end.

As the Roaring Twenties gave way to the 1930’s Great Depression, gowns became more conservative.

1930s Evening gowns. metmuseum
1930s Evening gowns. metmuseum

After the end of World War II, Christian Dior spurred a new era of decadence with his “new look” of nipped-in waistlines and full skirts.

1950's Ball Gowns. House of Dior. metmuseum
1950’s Ball Gowns. House of Dior. metmuseum

The 1950s was a golden age for ball gown design in Britain.

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