Ball Gowns

Emma Davenport


DOI: 10.5040/9781474260428-FPA318


Ball gowns are considered to be the most extravagant category of evening dress. Although balls date back to the Middle Ages, and historically were seen as dance parties to celebrate all manner of occasions, they reemerged as a popular way to introduce eligible women and men into marriageable society during the mid-1800s. Competition for suitors centered on the expense and opulence of a woman’s ball gown. Subsequently, ball gowns have continued to represent ideals of romantic femininity. On the catwalk, contemporary designers include a ball gown as a signature piece for their collection. Yet, since the 1970s, evening dress has become more diverse and so have ball gowns, with designers such as Ally Capellino and Christian Lacroix challenging the traditional conventions.

Dior, spring/summer 1997. Niall McInerney, Photographer © Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

History and Significance of Ball Gowns in Clothing

The term “ball gown” refers to a piece of clothing traditionally worn to a ball or formal dance. As most formal occasions take place in the evening, ball gowns are considered to be a type of evening dress. Ball gowns differentiate themselves from other evening dress by their construction and fabric. Typically, a ball gown includes a fitted bodice, low neckline, bared arms, and long, expansive skirting that is lavish in either surface detail or choice of fabric. Its extravagance draws attention to the wearer and, by doing so, can enhance or transform her social, cultural, and economic importance.

While balls date back to the Middle Ages, they became an important socioeconomic ritual for the European upper and middle classes during the mid-1800s. A ball provided the opportunity for marriageable men and women to be introduced. Female guests were expected to dress up and display themselves in an effort to gain the attention of a wealthy suitor. In Britain, during “the season”—which took place mainly in London during the summer months, young female debutantes would be presented to the monarch and introduced into aristocratic society at Queen Charlotte’s Ball. All debutantes were required to wear a white ball gown with a tight bodice and a long, full skirt made up of several layers of organza and net. The color white was favored because of its cultural associations with purity and innocence.

The typical ball gown silhouette—bouffant skirt and a small waistline—emerged during the 1800s and Jane Hegland, a dress historian, suggests that this reflected the everyday fashion for expansive layered skirts and corseted torsos. Furthermore, the preference for white ball gowns during the same period coincided with certain ideals in art and literature that emphasized romance, passion, and sentiment. Subsequently, the white ball gown became a European and North American cultural symbol of romantic femininity and an enduring template for bridal wear as well as other formal events. Ball gowns denote a sense of occasion because they focus on transforming the wearer in a manner reminiscent of a fairy tale—and Oriele Cullen, a dress curator, observes that this is a transformation achieved through traditional dressmaking techniques. Even the European fairy-tale character Cinderella tends to be illustrated dressed in a full-skirted gown as her story reaches a happy ending. Furthermore, historical examples of royalty dressed in ball gowns—from France’s Empress Eugenie in a diaphanous tulle dress in the mid-1800s to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II in an embroidered ensemble for her coronation in 1953—reinforce the fairy-tale element.

Private formal balls continued in certain countries, such as Britain, right up until the mid-twentieth century. However, the traditional ball gown was increasingly considered outdated by young debutantes and fashion designers found it challenging to attract customers with their couture work. While some began to establish ready-to-wear collections that were more in step with fashions of the day, others rejected the historical conventions of the ball gown to create more contemporary versions. One such example was the French designer Hubert de Givenchy, who deconstructed established ball gown styles to create evening dresses that were both minimal and ornate.

From the 1970s onward, charity balls and “red carpet” events that celebrated the entertainment industries of film, television, and music became ubiquitous. While such events still provided opportunities for the wearing of ball gowns, their geographical and socioeconomic diversity signaled a more relaxed dress code that often reflected fashionable trends of the day. A new wave of designers, such as Zandra Rhodes and Yuki, began to dress celebrities and aristocrats. They understood the importance of having a high-profile wearer appear in a statement outfit as a platform for their designer identity in an increasingly global fashion market.

Since the mid-twentieth century, the traditional ball gown form has continued to be adapted by fashion designers in response to shifting cultural ideas about romance and femininity. However, it still remains the most popular template for weddings and high school proms. Its laborious construction and potential discomfort provide the wearer with an experience that is fantastical, transporting her into an imagined fiction. Because of this, ball gowns have a special place in the fashion world.

Ball Gowns on the Catwalk

Evening dress became more diverse in the second half of the twentieth century, but the ball gown continued to feature on the catwalk. Its reference to couture dressmaking, its full-length skirt, and its sense of occasion provide a designer with the opportunity to create something monumental. From a fashion historical perspective, this also means that ball gowns will always reflect more than just the fashion concerns of the day.

Despite an increasing emphasis on ready-to-wear lines and celebrity culture, fashion designers understand the importance of extravagant pieces as a way to help potential customers identify their collections. The ball gown lets a designer create a signature or statement for their particular approach to fashion. This is why both upcoming and established designers have consistently continued to create ball gowns. While some choose to subvert its traditional conventions in an effort to reflect fashions of the day, others embrace these to create nostalgia for its formal tailoring and sense of occasion. Alternatively, others adapt the form to make it conform to their own aesthetic approach.

During the 1980s, the ball gown’s emphasis on couture techniques and luxurious surface detail answered a renewed demand for a way of displaying wealth and social status across North America, Britain, and Europe. At the time, British Vogue reported “a great new demand for truly flattering dress-up-to-the-nines dresses.” The economic boom also led to a cultural reinvigoration of royalty and aristocracy. It is not surprising that Princess Diana, wife of the British heir to the throne, Prince Charles, became a fashion icon. For the couple’s wedding in 1981, she wore a white taffeta ball gown with a lace train designed by Elizabeth and David Emanuel. Much was made of the fact that Princess Diana was not from a royal background, so her marriage created the ultimate fairy-tale ending. For ordinary women, the wearing of a ball gown puts her on display in such a grand manner that it suggests a transformation into a bride or princess.

Some designers declared that women wanted to wear big dresses because this traditional extravagance continued to identify the wearer with socioeconomic wealth and importance. As a cultural symbol of success, the ball gown’s conspicuity, with its excessive use of fabric and expensive production, was still as relevant in the 1980s as it was in the mid-1800s. It was not until an economic downturn in North America, Britain, and Europe in the 1990s that dressing up appeared at odds with an increasing emphasis on minimalism, grunge, and environmentally aware fashions. However, the 1990s was a complex decade, witnessing great diversity across fashions of the day. The early part was defined by what Marnie Fogg, a fashion writer, has described as “high-voltage fashion,” which was then superseded by luxury minimalism and eventually, at the end of the decade, by what others describe as “antifashion.” So, while the slip dress epitomized much of contemporary evening wear during the last decade of the twentieth century, ball gowns did return to the catwalk in the mid-1990s. Yet, unlike their 1980s counterpart, these ball gowns were lauded for their understatement and their ability to “produce a look for evening that is young, soft and absolutely romantic,” observed US Vogue in March 1995. Designers used pale colors and instead of heavily ornamented or layered skirts, and the emphasis was more on weightless fabrics that made the garment appear light and airy. Designers such as Carolina Herrera and Ally Capellino adapted the traditional fitted bodice, replacing it with a looser vest top that required fewer fittings and so gave the ball gown a more democratic demeanor: it was no longer deemed necessary to submit to couture fittings, a process perceived by some to be elitist.

Notable Collections

Yves Saint Laurent often included ball gown forms in his collections during the 1970s. They offered him a brilliant opportunity for theatricality, whereby he could apply his interest in ethnic folklore to a dramatic silhouette. His Spanish-inspired ball gowns resembled flamenco costumes, while Russian-inspired ball gowns contrasted velvet bodices with vibrant colored skirts. Although his later creations during the mid-1990s appeared more understated, with their monochrome palette, the giant bows still managed to add a bit of costume drama to the overall impact. Opulent details that reference the exotic or the ethnic can also be seen in dresses by Jean-Louis Scherrer and Oscar de la Renta in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One designer who went slightly further with his reference to costume history was Christian Lacroix, whose embellished designs eventually came to influence Western club wear in the 1990s. His “Le Pouf” ball gown, which appeared in the mid-1980s, adapted the length of the traditional long skirt to become a short, puffy skirt that revealed the wearer’s legs. To some extent, he made the ball gown into a contemporary cocktail dress by adapting it to the fashions of the day.

While designers such as Lacroix were choosing to make simple structural adaptations to the ball gown form, other designers were wholeheartedly rejecting its conventions. Zandra Rhodes’s “Modern Renaissance” collection in 1981 featured a gold lamé, black satin, and black tulle evening dress that came with separate, interchangeable bodices and skirt panniers instead of layered underskirts. Rhodes’s deconstruction was thoroughly postmodern in approach as she drew upon historicism and consumerism to create a novel ball gown form. In 2000, Jean Paul Gaultier presented his “Romantic India” collection, which included a Breton striped silk gown with ostrich feathers. Gaultier frequently referenced French naval uniform in his designs, exploring cultural symbols of sexuality and identity. Making an association between the uniform and the ball gown created what could be described as a branded dress that immediately identifies the wearer with the designer. The increasing emphasis on red carpet events during the 1990s gave designers like Gaultier the opportunity to present their work to a global audience when photographs of the event were widely disseminated. This is why many dress and fashion commentators agree that the red carpet gown has become the most important stage for a designer to communicate his or her vision.

References and Further Reading

Find in Library Baudot Francois. A Century of Fashion . London : Thames & Hudson, 1999.

Find in Library Coddington Grace. ““Fashion: Strictly Ballroom.”” Vogue (US), March 1995: 390–393 .

Find in Library Cullen Oriele, and Stanfill Sonnet. Ball Gowns: British Glamour Since 1950 . London : V&A Publishing, 2012.

Find in Library Ffoulkes Fiona. How to Read Fashion: A Crash Course in Styles, Designers, and Couture . New York : Rizzoli International Publications, 2013.

Find in Library Fitzgerald Tracey, and Taylor Alison. 1000 Dresses: The Fashion Design Resource . London : Thames & Hudson, 2014.

Find in Library Hegland Jane E. ““Ball Dress.”” In The Berg Companion to Fashion , edited by Valerie Steele, pp.45–47. Oxford : Berg, 2010 .

Find in Library O’Hara Georgina. The Encyclopedia of Fashion . London : Thames & Hudson, 1986.

Find in Library Woods Vicki. ““Last Dance for the Ball Gown?”” Vogue (US), February 1991: 328–335 .