The Berg Companion to Fashion Cover Image

The Berg Companion to Fashion


Valerie Steele (ed)

Berg Fashion Library

Table of contents

Ball Dress

Jane E. Hegland

Encyclopedia entry

Pages: 45–47

Ball dress is simply defined as a gown worn to a ball or formal dance. Beyond this fundamental description, there are remarkably intricate conventions related to appropriateness of ball dress. The most extravagant within the category of evening dress, a ball gown functions to dazzle the viewer and augment a woman’s femininity. Ball gowns typically incorporate a low décolletage, a constricted bodice, bared arms, and long bouffant skirts. Ball gowns are visually distinguishable from other evening gowns by their lavishly designed surfaces—with layers of swags and puffs and such trim details as artificial flowers, ribbons, rosettes, and lace.

Additionally, ball gowns permit a woman to inhabit more space, as the especially billowing and expansive skirts extend the dimensions of her body. Fabric surfaces vary from reflective to matte, textured to smooth, and soft to rigid. Through the decades, undergarments have played a vital role in reshaping the natural structure of the body into the desired silhouette, from the corsets and petticoats of the nineteenth century to the control-top panty hose and padded bras of the twenty-first century.

Historical Significance

Balls have existed for centuries among royalty and the social elite, dating back to the Middle Ages. During the mid-1800s, the ball re-emerged as a desirable manner of entertainment among the upper and middle classes. Through the 1800s, the ball served as a means to bring together people of similar social backgrounds, often for purposes of introducing young women and men of marriageable age. Coming-out balls, debutante balls, or cotillion balls became standard events by the mid-1800s, and have continued in some form or another into the twenty-first century, with the high school prom added as a more middle-class and democratized version of a coming-out ball.

As popularity of the ball increased, ball gowns materialized and developed as a category of evening dress. Fashions during the first half of the nineteenth century included expansive skirts and tiny waistlines, and these characteristics were incorporated into the ball dress. Bouffant skirts functioned beautifully in the ballroom, as women skimmed across the floor as if they were floating on air. At all social levels and through the decades competition for the most opulent gown has remained a central ingredient of the event, as the finest ball gown may possibly result in the attentions of the most eligible suitor.

Designer Madame Lucille fitting ball gown.

Designer Madame Lucille fitting ball gown.

Lavish works of fashion art, ball gowns are designed to emphasize femininity by drawing attention to the wearer’s décolletage, bare arms, and small waist.

© HULTON-DEUTSCH COLLECTION/CORBIS. Reproduced by permission.

Contemporary Use

As the most splendid among evening dresses, ball gowns represent the romantic dreams of young women. Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast are recognizable fairy tales that instill in children the magnificence and fantasy of the ball, complete with appropriate full-skirted gown and a handsome prince. These ideas are reinforced and incorporated into our cultural consciousness. The profile of the traditional ball gown is evident in gowns for such modern-day events as weddings (bride and bride’s attendants), high school proms, and the most elegant of evening occasions. Not surprisingly, designers of contemporary ball gowns continue to emphasize feminine curves while at the same time drawing from the nostalgic styles of expansive and lavishly decorated skirts, thereby establishing the wearer as a work of art.

See also Evening Dress.


Find in Library Boucher François. 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.

Find in Library Laver James. Costume and Fashion: A Concise History. London: Thames and Hudson, 1982.

Find in Library Milbank Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989.

Find in Library Payne Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Find in Library Russell A. Costume History and Style. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1983.

Find in Library Steele Valerie. Women of Fashion: Twentieth-Century Designers. New York: Rizzoli International, 1991.

Find in Library ——. Fifty Years of Fashion. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2000.

Find in Library ——. The Corset. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 2001.

Find in Library Watson Linda. Vogue: Twentieth Century Fashion. London: Carlton Books Ltd., 1999.