Victorian Event of the Season: 1897 Devonshire Costume Ball
The Devonshire Costume Ball was held 2 July 1897. Some people claimed the ball offered “unparalleled splendor” and others lauded it as one of the most elite events of the year. In fact, no expense was spared as it was considered one of the “great fancy-dress balls of the Victorian Era, competing in beauty, brilliancy, and … picturesqueness … [with] the fancy-dress balls the Queen and the Prince Consort used to give at Buckingham Palace.” One newspaper described the scene as “one of great animation, the variety of costume was dazzling, the richness in many cases … enormous, the colours were kaleidoscopic in their changes.”
The Devonshire’s Piccadilly mansion where the costume ball was held was as festooned and colorful as the guests. The courtyard was brilliantly lit with multicolored lamps, and the saloons were covered in roses and Chatsworth palms. As carriage after carriage rolled into the courtyard, they were met by Egyptian trumpeters, and, inside, servants waited on guests garbed as Egyptian footmen or in full Oriental dress.
Guests masqueraded as historical persons and no one was allowed to wear a costume later than 1820. This meant a court jester might be “side by side with a knight in full armour … [or] an officer in buff leather jerkin … [or] another in scarlet uniform of a later period; Cleopatra rubbed shoulders with Marie Thérèse, [and] the Queen of Sheba with the Queen of Poland.” There were also a number of people dressed to represent the Court of Catherine of Russia, the Court of Henry II, the Court of Elizabeth I, and the Courts of Louis XV and Louis XVI.
To create these historically accurate costumes, contemporary authorities relied on ancestral portraits. They also carefully studied each detail so that each costume reproduced was created “with absolute fidelity, even to the minutest particulars.” In addition, guests commissioned well-known dressmakers or famous houses, such as the Worth house in Paris, to create the costumes.
It was a wonderfully expensive affair. Creations often cost as much as £1,000, although it was also reported by one newspaper that Hwfa Williams’s wife spent £1,500 on her gown. She came as a Venetian, Caterina Cornaro (Regina di Cipro), and if it was true that her gown cost £1,500 there was no description of it in newspapers. However, newspapers did report that Lady Rothschild’s jewels were said to be authentic antique gems of the period and that guests glittered so splendidly “millions of sovereigns would not have purchased the jewelry displayed.”
The host and hostess, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, were costumed as Emperor Charles V and Queen Elizabeth I, respectively. Guests were likewise decked out. There was the Duchess of Sutherland masquerading as Charlotte Corday, Lady Londonderry posing as Empress Maria Theresa, and the Countess of Derby impersonating the Duchess of Orléans. In addition, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, was dressed as Henry VIII and he escorted his long-time mistress, Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick, who dazzled everyone when she appeared as Marie Antoinette in a gown studded with diamonds, trimmed with gold lace, and embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys.
The fashionable ball included several highlights. One was a procession of young girls representing some of the famous miniatures painted by the Regency artist Richard Cosway, whose subjects included such people as Maria Anne Fitzherbert, Madame du Barry, and the Duke of Wellington. Another highlight was historical quadrilles danced by the various courts. For instance, from the court of Louis XV and Louis XVI a quadrille was performed that include such people as Marie Antoinette (Countess Warwick), Duchess of Villars (Lady Rose Leigh), Madame Vigée le Brun (Viscountess Milton), Queen Marie Leszczyńska (Viscountess Curzon), and Princesse de Lamballe (Lady Ampthill).
Supper was served fashionable late. It was well after midnight before guests made a grand procession from the ballroom, down the staircase, and into the garden. Supper was served in a huge tent of blue and yellow canvas. Tapestries draped the wall, Venetian lanterns hung from the trees, and “each table was around a palm tree, the trunk piercing its centre, the fronds waving above.” There were twelve round tables each accommodating twelve guests. The Prince of Wales escorted the Duchess of Devonshire to one table and the Duke of Devonshire escorted the Princess of Wales to another.
A month of so later, one newspaper gave a review of Devonshire Ball stating:
“It must be admitted that its success was due to the guests as much as to the hostess. The mere fact that so many Royal and otherwise great ladies were gathered together, all wearing their most magnificent jewels, and that all the most beautiful women in England were there in most beautiful dresses was conducive to a very grant effect; and certainly such an interesting scene is seldom to be seen. Taking purely as a ball, perhaps, the party was not altogether successful; but a little more organisation, and a few more rehearsals of the processions, and better arrangements for supper might have made it a perfectly planned pageant. Even as it was, however, the ball was historic, and one which will be spoken of with awe and admiration for many years to come.”
-  Lady’s Realm, Volume 2, 1897, p. 464.
-  “Fancy Dress Ball at Devonshire House,” in Morning Post, 03 July 1897, p. 7.
-  Ibid.
-  The Harmsworth London Magazine, Volume 8, 1902, p. 41.
-  Ibid, p. 39.
-  “The Duchess of Devonshire’s Great Ball,” in Western Gazette, 9 July 1897, p. 2.
-  “A Retrospect of the Season,” in Shields Daily Gazette, 02 August 1897, p. 4.
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