Fancy Dress Balls: All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go
Miss Stevenson, as "Photography", Montréal, QC, 1865
William Notman (1826-1891)
1865, 19th century
Silver salts on paper mounted on paper - Albumen process
8 x 5 cm
Purchase from Associated Screen News Ltd.
© McCord Museum
Keywords: female (19035) , Photograph (77678) , portrait (53878)
Keys to History
Miss Stevenson attended a fancy dress ball in Montreal in 1865 at the Theatre Royal, given by the officers of the garrison. She dressed as "Photography", complete with a camera on her head and photographs adorning her dress, shoes, bracelets and fan. Miss Stevenson copied this dress from a printed fashion plate, which frequently offered images of fancy dress costumes. The almost identical costume in the Parisian plate is bright green. Books of fancy dress ideas and suggestions were also widely available.
Fancy dress allowed men and women alike to flout some of the strict dress conventions of the 19th century. Miss Stevenson's short skirt reveals her ankles, which at an ordinary ball would be quite scandalous. A widely distributed manual on fancy dress concluded its introduction: "There are few occasions when a woman has a better opportunity of showing her charms to advantage than at a Fancy Ball."
Ardern Holt, Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls, 5th ed. (London: Debenham and Freebody, 1887), p. xiii.
Cynthia Cooper, Magnificent Entertainments: Fancy Dress Balls of Canada's Governors General, 1876-1898 (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions & Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1997), pp. 28-29.
Heinz K. and Bridget A. Henisch, The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: Images and Attitudes (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), pp. 60-67.
This photography costume is probably green silk, with rows of photographs edging the skirt and neckline, and photograph medallions on the fan, shoes, ankle and wrist bracelets. A camera on the head is softened with a sheer veil.
While Miss Stevenson wore the dress in Montreal, a Parisian fashion plate and later an American one illustrated the same one. Fashion information was very far-reaching, even by the middle of the 19th century.
In 1865 Miss Stevenson took inspiration for her dress from a Parisian plate from 1864. The same plate was later copied by the American Godey's Lady's Book in 1866.
Miss Stevenson's first name is lost to history. Her mother or sister-in-law, Mrs. Stevenson, also attended the ball as the same character.