Going to the Ball: The Fancy Dress Phenomenon in Victorian Canada
Napoleon Bonaparte sprawls in an armchair refusing eye contact, although he may have his gaze on the alluring fish wife just down the row. Foot firmly planted on an overturned barrel, she is flashing a lot more calf than would normally have been appropriate in 1876. Just below them, a court jester capers for the camera while a Bronco Buster in chaps, ten-gallon hat and ice skates strikes a reflective pose.
“Capitain A.Wise dressed as a cowboy was taking this very seriously,” says Andrea Kunard, Associate Curator of Photographs at the National Gallery of Canada. Well he would, because beneath the layers of sometimes luxurious, frequently ribald and often downright bizarre costumes, fancy dress balls, costumed events and skating parties were serious business in Victorian-era Canada. The display The Fancy Ball explores this 19th-century social phenomenon through an eclectic selection of 22 photographs currently on view at the National Gallery of Canada from the holdings of Library and Archives Canada.
The first of four grand fancy dress balls was hosted by the Earl of Dufferin, the third Governor General of Canada, and his wife in Ottawa in 1876. Attended by 300 people, it was unlike any social event previously seen in what was still a raucous logging town. “The Governors General liked these balls because they were trying to cultivate social standards worthy of the Empire,” Kunard says. “Being invited meant your social status was confirmed or elevated. It became a way to climb the social ladder.” The Canadian society photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) snapped studio shots of each person attending the ball and then painstakingly cut out each figure and pasted it onto a painted reproduction of the venue. This composite of the event was then given to attendees as a souvenir and sold through his studio.
Cynthia Cooper, Curator of Dress, Fashion and Textiles at Montreal's McCord Museum, gathered more than 100 of these and similar photos from that era in her book Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada’s Governors General, 1876–1898 (1997). “People rarely had their photograph taken back then,” she notes. “The fact that the people attending the balls went to a studio, just like they may have had a wedding portrait done, indicates how significant these events were.”
It appears they also allowed a little liberty, even licentiousness in an otherwise tightly laced era. “The young woman with her foot on the barrel represents the Bonnie Fish Wife of New Haven, an operatic, mythologized peasant-like figure,” Cooper says. “Fish wives, working women, wore short skirts, which were considered quite racy. Wearing that costume was taking a liberty that might not normally be allowed in a young woman’s life.” Cooper was also keenly interested in the broad range of costumes from lavish to frugal. A woman named Grace Ritchie, on view next to "Napoléon", is dressed to portray chess and, according to Cooper, "obviously paid a great deal. Somebody drilled holes through all those chess pieces so she could string some around her neck and make a crown.”
Others were clearly making their own costumes. In another photograph, a woman identified as Miss L. Smith wears a hornet costume that appears to be patterned after an illustration in a popular manual of the day, Fancy Dresses Described. “When we look closely at this photo, we see some quite rough edges so I would guess this is something that is homemade,” Cooper points out. “In this case, the wearer has also re-configured the costume to be worn for skating.”
Photography, comments Andrea Kunard, proved the ideal medium to create something beyond the event: a community. The composites were both a confirmation of one's social status and a reflection of belonging to a certain sphere of society, very much as is happening in social media today through the sharing of photographs. "It's a confirmation of a larger public life. You can – and could – see one another in situations to confirm your social groups and status.”
The photographic display The Fancy Ball is currently on view in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.