The History of Ballroom Costumes – Part 1

One of the greatest aspects of dance is the wonderful opportunity to look like ‘Prince Charming’ and/or a ‘Princess’ at the ball. It has been that way from the beginning of ballroom dance and its competitions, and hasn’t changed at all in respect to glamour. It is especially true for women. Ballroom dancing is just not complete if a woman isn’t wearing a beautiful dress or costume when competing. Fashion is a very important element in social dancing. It is interesting to note, that while women’s costumes have changed constantly through the years, the men’s attire has basically stayed the same. Part of the reasoning behind this fashion thinking is, “ballroom dancing shows off its costumes to heighten the competition factor and make the dancers stand out from each other. “ No better way, than a woman wearing a beautiful costume, “you just can’t take your eyes off.”

Because costumes are a huge part of “dance culture,” I’d also like to split these blogs into Part 1 and Part 2. Costumes will be broken down by years and centuries, so you can fully see the changes that occurred. I will also be writing about other helpful aspects of costumes too! So continue to hang in there with me, and I think you will learn a lot about ballroom couture and how it may affect you, as you progress in dancesport competition in the coming years.

Now I will go back in time and show you how ballroom dance costumes have changed through the years. I’m mainly going to concentrate on women’s ballroom dresses. You see, even from the beginning of time, men’s clothing changed very little. With men’s costumes, the element of simplicity was always the plan.   Usually a man would wear a black dress coat, black breeches or trousers and a black or white vest. Men wore very little jewelry, wearing only gold cufflinks and maybe a watch chain. It was important for men to dress in accordance with their own features. A particular hairstyle, coat color or cut of trousers could make one look dapper or dowdy on the dance floor. You could say, “that men should always look sleek and refined on the dance floor.” “But the truth of the matter is, they are really playing it down to allow the woman to be the center of attention.” One other thing I’d like to mention for both men and women in early dance, it was customary to wear gloves. Gloves were a definite fashion accessory no ball-goer would be without. Both men and women were even expected to carry a second pair in the event that the first pair became soiled. Men might also wear a top hat, while ladies might carry parasols, handkerchiefs or a fan.

Let’s start with the 1700s, as ballroom fashion showed one’s standing in society. Women’s gowns were very confining and cumbersome. Most gowns were ornate in design with many layers of clothing and hoop skirts. In those days, women needed help getting into the many layers they wore.  Along with a lavish dress was an ornate hairstyle to go with it. Women wore high wigs with jeweled adornments and lots of ribbons. Upper class women wore gowns that were low-necked over a petticoat open-fronted. Gowns were worn with something called a stomacher. A stomacher is a piece of fabric covering the torso from the neckline to the waist. Stomachers were highly decorated with embroidery, jewels and/or pearls. The gown’s sleeves were tight fitting to the elbows with lace pinned to the cuffs. If a lady ballroom dancer decided to wear a more daring neckline, she would then tuck a fichu – which is a decorative, transparent fabric into the neckline of the gown. Black pleats would hang down loosely from the neckline. Women would also wear an under dress that was tightly fitted in the front.

By the end of the century, gowns had lost all fullness and no longer required hoop skirts. The fashionable gowns to wear in this period had a bustle worn with a sash or bow. This style of ballroom dress was called polonaise (same as the dance). Some women chose to wear this type of dress straight down with no bustles or adornments. Petticoats were still worn, but not quite so many as before. The waistline of gowns of this period rose up to meet the bust line to enhance the bosom. Necklines would still be cut low but the sleeves of the gowns were now down to the wrist with plain white cuffs. The colors of the gowns were not as bright as those of previous eras. The colors were mostly blues, pale pinks, white and silver cotton.

Dress historians say that evening dress became a distinct category in the mid-1820s. It is also the same time that the Romantic Movement in art and literature became a major influence in European and American cultures. At this time in dance history, there was an increase in fabric production, a flourishing textile industry and an expanding ready made clothing industry resulting in greater access to resources. In the 1820s, fashion became a rage, especially in Paris and America. Fashion magazines began to be popular among women in the United States and Europe. During the last 80 years of the nineteenth century, women’s fashions evolved from an X-shaped silhouette (1820s) to the introduction of the cage crinoline (1850) through the bustle period (1870 – 1890) and ended with an hourglass silhouette (1890s), and in each era the evening dress took its profile from current styles of the day.

The difference between evening dresses and ballroom dresses was the use of opulent and supple gauze and satin fabrics. The ballroom dresses were cut so the neckline was low or off-the-shoulder (short sleeves) and embellished lavishly. Skirts were rich in ornamentation. They had layers of swags and puffs with trim details. These details could be artificial flowers, ribbons, rosettes and lace.

Yes, the first half of the 19th century you could always see expansive skirts with tiny waistlines on dancers who could easily and quite elegantly move around the dance floor with ease. Stay tuned for more highlights on ballroom attire and costumes – as we dance our way, well into the 20th century!

Thought Of The Week:

“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.”   – Friedrich Nietzsche



Shane Meuwissen is the Media Specialist for Fordney Foundation.  He is a former dance instructor who know works with his company Slow Motion Dance Videos capture the beauty of dancing. If you would like to learn more about Shane and his video work, visit his website