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 dance scene.

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 lace.

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 the Wind.

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 flattering color.
                          HERE FOR THE ENTIRE ITEM

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.

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.

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.

Fashionable yet 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 as eccentric.

Introduction | Origin | Language | Types | Fashion | Opposition | Etiquette | Bibliography | About this Site

This site and all contents © 2007 American Antiquarian Society