In the top image, the
couple struggles to clasp hands as the gentleman leans over, trying to
avoid stepping on his partner's dress. With dress circumferences reaching
more than twenty feet at the height of the Crinoline's popularity, it is
easy to understand how some mishaps may have occurred. The bottom image
suggests just how much clothing and preparation is required for the social
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Along with proper deportment and fine technique, fashion
was a crucial element of social dancing.
Clothing that was considered fashionable was undoubtedly
related to dancing styles and trends that were popular at a given time.
For example, women's shortened dresses and men's tight pants that
characterized the first three decades of the nineteenth century allowed
enough freedom of movement that the popular dances of the day, the
quadrille, the cotillion and the reel, could be executed without
impediment. While the once speedy waltz slowed down at the turn of the
nineteenth century, dress fashions changed from full and flowing skirts to
more narrow and restrictive dresses to fit this change. The images to the
left hint at the difficulties of some dance attire.
With the commercialization of leisure and profusion of
printed materials that came along with it, European fashion magazines
flooded into America by the middle of the nineteenth century. A much
larger public was now purchasing store-bought clothing and fabrics that
only the wealthiest citizens could once afford.
Much special consideration was devoted to
proper attire; in choosing an outfit for a ball or private party a lady
had to consider what would be appropriate not only for her age but also
for her position as either a single or married woman. While fine fabrics
such as silk were permissible for married women, unmarried women were
encouraged to wear dresses made of light materials, for example gauze and
In the mid nineteenth century, the crinoline, a
petticoat structured by rigid hoops to form the shape of a cage, came to
be the most widely worn style, though the ladies who wore it often had
difficulty sitting down or maneuvering in cramped spaces. Short and wrist
length gloves further characterized this look. This particular style
dominated ballroom fashion in the middle of the nineteenth century and is
easily recognizable due to its appearance in the popular film Gone with
Concerning the colors of dress, ladies
were advised to choose colors that would best complement their features.
Fair blondes were best suited to soft and delicate colors while brunettes
draped themselves in rich and vibrant colors. Excessive ornamentation was
discouraged; instead of extravagant jewels and adornments, ladies should
limit themselves to a single bracelet and flowers in their hair. The image
to the right shows not only frontal views of dresses, but also the
profiles, a view of the dress' back and proper styling of the hair.
This image from
Demorest's Illustrated Monthly depicts many of the fashionable
dance attires of the nineteenth century, ranging in both style and
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This illustration shows
the two versions of what a gentleman would typically look like at a ball.
Both men are attired in a manner that is simple, yet stately; no excessive
trimmings cover their black coats, black pants and white vests, and gloves
and top hats comprise their accessories.
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The making of dance attire
often involved a clothing house, the expertise of a tailor or a
seamstress. Trade cards, like the one above for Fowle's Clothing House,
were popular forms of communication as they displayed address, service,
and relevant business information. Their sheer small size also allowed
them to be invaluable advertising tools.
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Gentleman's clothing changed little over time. Simplicity
was key- a black dress coat, black breeches or trousers, and black or
white vest comprised the gentleman's ballroom "uniform." As with the
ladies, gentlemen were encouraged to keep jewelry at a minimum, wearing
only gold cufflinks and watch chains. Men too were expected to dress in
accordance with their own features, keeping in mind that a particular hair
style, coat color or cut of trousers could make one man appear dapper, and
another dowdy. The goal of the gentleman was to dress so well that he
would not be noticed; though it seems counterintuitive, a true gentleman
did not want to put on a display, rather he let his wife or daughters be
noticed for their elegant appearances.
While simplicity often
dictated one's manner of dressing, there were several accessories that a
fashionable ball-goer could not do without. Both ladies and gentlemen wore
gloves, and were expected to carry a second pair in the event that the
first became soiled. (Being seen with dirty gloves was a ballroom
blunder.) Men might also wear a top hat, while ladies carried parasols,
handkerchiefs or a fan.
appropriate dress was the goal of both men and women; while stylish cuts,
fabrics, and embellishments were highly sought after, it was considered
better to dress plainly than to overdress and run the risk of being seen