Ballroom Etiquette for Females in the Victorian Era

Balls were frequent occurrences in the Victorian Era, and proper ballroom etiquette was always required when attending one. The first thing a guest had to deal with occurred before the ball began. It was the invitation. Requests to attend a ball were almost always formal and usually in the form of a handwritten invite, although sometimes engraved invitations were delivered by a servant or hired man.

Ballroom etiquette - attending a ball

Attending a ball. Author’s collection.

Once an invitation was received, a response was expected to be returned posthaste. Florence Hartley, author of The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, noted, “You must send your answer as soon as possible, accepting or declining the civility.”[1] To achieve an agreeable evening civility included more than mere “graceful forms of the fair, and the spirit-stirring strains from the orchestra cadenced to the wavy motions of the dancers.”[2] It also included a “good supper.” Therefore, to enjoy the evening fully, guests were expected to arrive at the ballroom no later than “a little after ten o’clock [in the evening].”[3]

What to wear the ball had to be decided, and “dress, though often considered a trifling matter, [was] one of considerable importance.”[4] Ballroom etiquette determined what should and should not be worn at a ball. Edward Ferrero mentioned in his book The Art of Dancing, Historically Illustrated that it was a “studied simplicity of apparel … Indeed, simplicity is the grand secret of a lady’s toilet.”[5] To be more specific as to what a woman should wear, Hartley maintained that at a costume ball:

“[A woman should] choose something very light. Heavy, dark silks are out of place in a ball room, and black should be worn in no material but lace. For a married lady, rich silk of some light color, trimmed with flowers, lace, or tulle; white silk plain, or lace over satin, make an exquisite toilette … for the young lady, pure white or light colors should be worn, and the most appropriate dress is of some thin material made over silk, white, or the same color as the outer dress.[6]”

Ball Dresses of 1841, Author's Collection

Ball Dresses of 1841. Author’s collection.

This also meant that whatever a woman chose to wear was not necessarily expected to be on the cutting edge of fashion. Etiquette books advised that women should not just simply adopt the latest style or discard an old style without some forethought. In fact, it was suggested, a woman should use an abundance of caution and choose something that would “harmonize” with her figure.

The importance of woman’s overall appearance at a ball cannot be overstated as mentioned by :

“The desire of exhibiting an amiable exterior is essentially requisite … for it indicates cleanliness, sweetness, a love of order and propriety, and all those virtues which are attractive to their associates, and particularly to those of the other sex.”[7]

Ballroom etiquette also included making sure a woman choose the right ornamentation and accessories for her wardrobe. Thus, women were told to “wear boots or slippers of satin, white, black, or the color of the dress,”[8” but of all the slipper choices, white was “the most appropriate; [and] black, the most becoming to the foot.”[9] The most indispensable of all the accessories a woman might choose, were supposedly kid gloves, a lace trimmed handkerchief, and a fan.

There were also ballroom etiquette rules for married and unmarried women. For example, married women were allowed to select appropriate jewels, and they could also wear feathers in their coiffure. But a young lady’s coiffure was said to be best ornamented by “flowers or ribbons, never feathers, and but very little jewelry.”[10] In addition, nothing was more “annoying than to have the hair loosen or the head-dress fall off in a crowded ball room,”[11] and, so, to prevent such a disaster, it was suggested hairstyles or headdresses be firmly secured to a woman’s head.

After arriving at the ball, a woman was not to create any type of sensation upon entering the ballroom. Rather she was expected to blend in with the crowd and be on equal footing with other attendees. She was also to be polite because “in an assemblage of truly polite people, all evil seems to be unknown … [and] neither rank, talents, fortune nor beauty can dispense with this amenity of manners.”[12] A guest was also expected to greet and speak with the hostess immediately upon arrival and to even do so before talking to other guests.

Greeting a Hostess, Public Domain

Greeting a hostess. Public domain.

At a private ball females guests were advised to not “refuse an introduction to a gentleman.”[13] Refusing an introduction was seen as an insult to the hostess and implied her male guests were not gentlemen. However, not all etiquette books agreed with the suggestion. One book claimed “a gentleman should not introduce himself to a lady in a ballroom, as a general rule … [although] there are houses in England where the foreign etiquette is allowed.”[14] If a female guest did not like a gentleman after the introduction, she still could not be rude. It was still her duty to accept at least one dance with him if he so requested. However, after the ball, as no relationships were binding, she could easily “drop the acquaintance.”

Dancing required certain etiquette too. Females had to be extremely careful not to offend a gentleman and to take great care when refusing to dance with someone. In Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen it was noted:

“[A woman] ought, indeed, to have a good reason for … [refusing]. She can only say she does not wish to dance that dance (with which answer a gentleman will be satisfied), or that she is engaged. But if she refuses one gentleman, she has no right to accept another for the same dance.”[15]

To plead fatigue when asked to dance was considered insulting. At the same time a woman could also not engage herself twice for the same quadrille with the same gentleman. Moreover, she had to be careful not to engage herself with two gentlemen for the same dance. To prevent this “over booking” women were encouraged to use a dance card. This was handed to the gentlemen requesting a dance and he entered his name into a vacant spot, thus ensuring himself a dance. Further, the dance card also prevented a woman from dancing no more than four dances with any one gentleman as that was considered “quite as much as a young lady should give to the same partner.”[16]

Ballroom etiquette - dancing a quadrille

A ballroom with couples dancing a quadrille in foreground, 1884. Courtesy of the British Museum.

There were several suggestions about etiquette when it came to dancing at balls:

“In dancing a round dance, a gentleman should never place a lady’s hand at his back, on his hip, or in the air, but gracefully by his side. … In a quadrille it is not essential for a gentleman to bow to his lady, but he may offer her his arm and give her a seat. … Usually a married couple do not dance together in society, but it is sign of unusual attention for husband to dance with his wife, and he may do so if he wishes. [17]

At the ball, a woman was to never to leave the ballroom unescorted for any reason. In fact, she was “not to be unattended at any time, in a public assembly.”[18] This meant she could not cross the ballroom without an escort, and if she danced she was expected to be escorted off the dance floor and returned to her seat. If during the evening, if a woman needed to adjust her gown, whoever accompanied her to the ball was expected to escort her to the dressing room, wait at the door, and return her to the ballroom. She in turn was expected to not detain her escort any longer than necessary.

ballroom etiquette

Escorting a woman off the floor. Public domain.

When supper was served, if she had arrived with her father, a brother, or another gentleman, that man had first right to accompany her to supper. She was advised to “not let anyone else interfere with his privilege.”[19] Moreover, if for some reason a woman found she needed to leave the ballroom, and her escort could not be found, there were always gentlemen nearby to escort her as it looked “very badly to see a lady, unattended, going through a crowd of gentlemen.”[20]

Conversations and discussions at balls also required forethought and proper ballroom etiquette, as a woman was advised to be “modest, retiring and unassuming … [and possess] moderation in everything.”[21] When dancing a quadrille, ladies and gentlemen were cautioned to avoid long conversations as they could interfere with the dancing. If not dancing, conversations were also not to be long because small talk was preferable to someone providing long-winded and boring details to a listener who had no interest in the conversation.

There was also concern about the use of proper speech. Slang terms and obsolete phrases were consider “vulgar and objectionable.” Indicative of this is what Ferrero noted when he mentioned that Dr. Samuel Johnson, a noted “talker” and a stickler for appropriateness in quotations, words, and expressions, would have been mortified and appalled at the “young lady [who] wishes to convey when she expresses the opinion that a bonnet is ‘awful,’ or a young gentleman of his coat, when he asserts that it is ‘played out!'”[22]

Dr. Samuel Johnson, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Dr. Samuel Johnson. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

There were also many other ballroom etiquette rules for women. A woman’s gait and carriage could not be awkward as she was supposed to present an easy and natural manner when she appeared in public. A woman’s gracefulness was also under scrutiny, particularly when she danced because “the motion of the body and limbs is more conspicuously displayed.”[23] A woman was also advised to guard her actions and her tongue and not be “frivolous” or encourage a gentleman’s undivided attentions as that demonstrated “selfishness which ought not to be displayed in assemblage of ladies and gentlemen who have congregated for mutual enjoyment.”[24]

Dancing a Promenade, Public Domain

Dancing a promenade. Public domain.

All in all, it was expected that when a woman was in society, she would “meet its requirements” and follow the rules related to ballroom etiquette. The advice was that whatever expectations a woman had were to be forgotten. In fact, it was suggested that if a woman was feeling sorrowful, envious, or unhappy, she was to set them aside and allow them to be “invisible for the time beneath


  • [1] Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness, 1872, p. 166.
  • [2] Ferrero, Edward, The Art of Dancing, Historically Illustrated, 1859, p. 77.
  • [3] Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, 1876, p. 57.
  • [4] Ferrero, Edward, p. 92.
  • [5] Ibid., p. 101.
  • [6] Hartley, Florence, p. 166.
  • [7] Ferrero, Edward, p. 103.
  • [8] Hartley, Florence, p. 166.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Ibid. p. 167.
  • [12] Ferrero, Edward, p. 105.
  • [13] Hartley, Florence, p. 167.
  • [14] “Notice to Correspondents,” Otago Daily Times, Issue 7677, September 25, 1886, p. 2.
  • [15] Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, p. 58.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Hanson, John Wesley, Etiquette and Bicycling, for 1896, 1896, p. 161.
  • [18] Ferrero, Edward, p. 99.
  • [19] Hartley, Florence, P. 168.
  • [20] Ibid. p. 169.
  • [21] Ferrero, Edward, p. 105.
  • [22] Ibid., p. 96.
  • [23] Ibid., p. 106.
  • [24] Ibid. p. 108.
  • [25] Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen, p. 74.

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