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Balls (In the 19th and Early 20th Centuries)

By Karine Rousseau

Balls are special occasions normally attended by the members of "high society." In the 19th and early 20th centuries, numerous balls of all types were held in public halls and private homes. There were for example charity balls intended as fundraisers, balls organized by societies and associations, and costume balls, which though less frequent were wildly popular. Finally, there were debutant balls at which young women "came out," or were presented to society.

Rules of the game

Balls were particularly popular during the Victorian era (1837-1901). It was a time when society was governed by strict moral precepts, and legions of guides were published on how to behave correctly, how to dress appropriately and what to say in various specific situations. Manuals on etiquette and dancing also abounded.

The 1866 British manual The Ball-Room Guide gives advice on how to draw up the invitation list to a private ball. We are told, for example, that one should generally invite more people than can comfortably be accommodated because it's rare that everyone invited will show up. And to ensure that the dance floor is filled, one should invite more men than ladies.

Frills, fans and formal wear

The ballroom was always richly decorated and lit, in honour of the distinguished guests. The men dressed elegantly of course, but the women were always especially resplendent, their beautiful gowns enhancing the rich decor.

A French manual from the 1880s written by Eugène Giraudet describes what one must wear to a ball: "For the ladies, a light-coloured gown with a décolleté revealing the shoulders and arms, very long gloves and light pumps. They must carry in one hand a fan made from ivory or mother-of-pearl and also have their dance card. Many ladies prefer, as do I, a bodice in a shallow square-cut or heart-shape to a very décolleté gown . Sometimes the exposed neckline and tops of the arms are covered with gauze or tulle. [...] The men should wear a black suit or tailcoat, white tie, black trousers and polished shoes [...] White gloves are by far preferable; if however one wishes to wear gloves dyed a cream or pearl-grey colour, one must be careful that the warmth of the hands does not cause the dye to bleed onto the bodice of the dance partner."

Married women were free to wear flamboyant gowns, hairdos and accessories. But young ladies being presented to society had to dress and coif modestly. Modesty, just like purity and discretion, were highly valued qualities in young ladies, whose primary calling was to find a husband!

The fan was an indispensable element of ladies' finery: It allowed them to express themselves without words. Depending on whether it was closed, open or fluttering, it could convey a refusal, interest or excitement.

Ballroom etiquette

There was a strict protocol surrounding dancing in the Victorian era. A man could invite any young lady of his choice to dance, while the latter had to sit demurely awaiting such an invitation. A gentleman nonetheless had to wait to be recognized by a young woman before stepping up to speak to her. The young lady's chaperon, often her mother, was never far away, and she made sure that the rules of decency were never overstepped. A young lady's dances could be reserved in advance, in which case the name of the young man was recorded on her dance card. It was not acceptable for a man to dance more than once with the same partner. And if his invitation to dance was refused, he should never press his point. However, unless she had serious reason to, a young woman was never to refuse a dance invitation. Finally, nothing was ruder than for a man or a woman to forget that he or she had promised a dance to someone.

During private balls the host had to make sure that none of the girls were left twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines. He had to invite anyone who had not yet danced onto the dance floor. In general, it was expected that every man invited to a ball would get up and dance, out of basic courtesy to the hosts.

Magnificent gatherings of elegant and richly dressed men and women in colourful and brightly lit settings - balls were rich fodder for the imagination. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they were an extremely popular form of entertainment. For, despite their numerous constraints, such events provided the perfect opportunity for strangers to touch - to hold one another by the waist and by the hand. Balls were of course great fun for those in attendance, but they were also an occasion to find a husband or wife, to make connections and to affirm membership in a certain social class.


Giraudet, Eugène. "La danse, la tenue, le maintien, l'hygiène and l'éducation, seul guide complet approuvé par l'Académie, Paris. [1885?] -1900, vol.1," [online] [] (page consulted October 16, 2006).

Sherwood, Mrs. John. Manners and Social Usages. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1887, [online] [ ](page consulted October 16, 2006).

The Ball-Room Guide. London: F. Warne and Co., 1866 [online] [] (page consulted October 16, 2006).

Joannis-Deberne, Henri. Danser en société : bals et danses d'hier et d'aujourd'hui. Paris: C. Bonneton, 1999.

Cooper, Cynthia. Magnificent Entertainments. Fancy Dress Balls of Canada's Governors General 1876-1898. Ottawa: Goose Lane Editions, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1997.


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