The History of Ballroom Costumes – Part 2

Ball gowns and costumes of the 1900s were meant to be ornate and elegant and only worn by the richest women in society. Ball gowns and costumes were also meant to dazzle the viewer while emulating the physique of the woman wearing the costume. Always long and exquisite, the gown would conceal the entire leg. The bottom of the dress was flared to accent the motions of ballroom dance with its turns and sways. The hems on these dresses were hooped, meaning a fish wire was sewn through it. A dress could also have a ruffle or another layer at the hem. While the lower half of the dress was loose (for dancing), the upper part is snugly fit to the body.  It was the end of the Victorian era and women were still wearing corsets in structured gowns. It was very much admired that women have a tiny waist. Although the corset was still worn, even that eventually had to change with the new century and new fashions. The corset slightly changed by being fastened very tight over the waist. It was meant to push hips back and create the S-bend shape that became a feature of Edwardian dress created at the start of the 20th century. This also thrust the bust upwards, with gowns often featuring folds or sheer fabric over the front of the bodice to further accentuate this pigeon-chested effect. Costumes featured a tight bodice over a corset and a trumpet skirt, often times having a train. Bodices and skirts were usually made in separate pieces and hooked together when worn. This was a much simpler version of ballroom dress then the 1800s type of dress with bustles and puffs. Harper’s Bazaar then claimed that women who wished to dance should do away with the train, so that their ball gown would not interfere with dancing. And so, it was meant to be!

Ball gowns in the 1900s were usually two colors, with the main shade either pale or bright. New synthetic dyes of the Victorian era meant that fabric could be colored in a range of hues. The darker and richer colors would be used as edging or contrast. In summer the gowns could be lighter than those in the winter. Popular shades were lilac, lemon, turquoise, red, violet and rose. Bare shoulders were considered acceptable style for a dance gown. The front of a dance gown would slope off of the shoulders and down into a shallow scoop neck. Sleeves were short and could have fine, floaty chiffon that came above the elbow. And of course, long gloves were still worn, with white kid being the most popular. It is interesting to note, that in Europe at this time, from the 1890s to the outbreak of war in 1914, ball gowns were the most lavish clothing of the day (for those who could afford luxury). There was lots of trim and decoration on gowns, which may include, ribbons, bows, embroidery, silk roses, ornate beading, rhinestones and teardrop crystals. Fine layers of fabric, such as tulle and lace, provided the romantic look of the period.

From 1930 going forward, there started to be slight variations in evening wear costumes. Necklines tended to be deep and wide, sleeves were short or were mere straps on the shoulder, skirt lengths varied according to fashions and frequently involved complex floating panels, draping, or layers. Fabrics were extravagantly pliant chiffons and satins and luxuriant velvets and taffetas and exquisite knits.  Pleating, embroidery, lace, beading, fringe, braid and ruffles decorated the dresses. Evening gowns were designed in bias-cut styles and were usually constructed with an open back with fabric skimming the body to the hips and flaring out to the floor.

In the 1950s, women wore very formal gowns that swept the floor for a dramatic look. The hourglass figure was the most prized in the 1950s and gowns were made to create such a silhouette. To further enhance this silhouette, stiff crinoline petticoats were worn under gowns to give them

their distinctive bell shape. However, it was also not unusual to see tea-length gowns being introduced with hemlines that could be any length from the calf to the ankles frequently worn. Hemlines did not rise above the knee. It was essential in ballroom dance to keep the knees covered, creating a demure effect. At that time dresses were made from luxurious fabrics like satin, silk and taffeta. They used plenty of tulle back then as graceful embellishments. Some gowns featured lace overlay with a bold hue beneath. Necklines on ball gowns were varied. A very popular style was the strapless neckline or the strapless sweetheart cut paired with fashionable sleeves to complete the look. The off-the-shoulder gowns and high necklines were definitely in vogue.

By the 1960s and going forward, saw the last of a singular fashion for ballroom dance. New looks took hold on the dance floor with a more rounded shoulder look, a nipped waist and an exceptionally full skirt. Ballroom dresses generally paired strapless bodices with full rather than narrow skirts (easier to dance in) and it was not unusual for skirts to be floor-length. From the 1960s going forward, dance costumes started to have options. You might see a mini-skirt made from metallic fabrics or a brilliant patterned fabric with dress surfaces trimmed with sequins, beads, or plastic bits. But, by the late 1960s and into the 1970s, pantsuits with full-legged trousers and palazzo pants paired with a coordinating top became quite popular on the dance floor. In the mid-1970s, fashionable dance wear was typically long and made from soft fabrics that were more body clinging. In the 1980s, the glamour of the evening dress was back in, introducing bright and vibrant colors with lots of glitter, embroidery, sequins and beading. Also, wide-skirted short styles called mini-crinolines were also popular. By the late 1980s, costumes were made from elasticized fabrics that hugged the body and were short, strapless or had tiny shoulder straps. In the early 1990s, basic slip dresses made from soft crepe fabrics became popular. And by the mid-1990s, full-skirted, short, strapless evening gowns reemerged.  Also fashionable on dance floors were lace or elaborately decorated bustiers and fitted evening gowns. Black was the color of choice.

It’s kind of fun to see how fashion has defined dancers through the centuries. As you can see, dance wear has evolved, while still weaving its deep and impassioned past into our future. I hope you will stay with me here, for I have one more blog to share with you about costumes. I think, as up and coming dancers, you will find it to be fun and useful at the same time. And, I include you boys as well.

Until then,

Thought Of The Week:

“Dance is the hidden language of the soul.”   –  Martha Graham



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