Queen Victoria’s bal costumé of 1845 was an event where participants appeared in costume ranging from a ten-year period between 1740 and 1750. It was the second in a series of three bal costumés held by the Queen, with each of them highlighting a different style of costume. The first bal costumé on 12 May 1842 represented dress from the 14th century and Albert and Queen Victoria appeared as Edward III and Queen Philippa. The second event was held on 6 June 1845 and as indicated represented Georgian dress. The last bal costumé, held on 13 June 1851, was in the style of the Restoration.
All three bal costumés were held at Buckingham Palace, where a splendid new ballroom, “123 feet long and 60 feet wide ― at a cost of £45,000,” commissioned by Prince Albert had been finished just in the time for the first bal costumé. The event was initially held to provide work for the Spitalfields silk industry. Yet, despite the attempt at doing something positive controversy erupted when a satirical debate in the French Chamber of Deputies took place:
“[It] was thrown to remind France of the disasters of Crécy and Poitiers and the loss of Calais. The article speculated that the French ambassador, M. de St. Aulaire, accompanied by his attachés, planned to attend as the unfortunate burghers, with bare feet and halters around their necks as Edward III had demanded. Many French believe the article and the ball became a diplomatic embarrassment.”
In anticipation of Queen Victoria’s bal costumé of 1845, the Morning Post revealed in May:
“We have the highest gratification in announcing to our readers that the preliminaries of the royal bal costume, to which we have several times alluded …. are … definitively arranged. … We believe we are correct in stating that the period intended to be illustrated upon the present occasion will extend to the reign of George II.”
Although the Morning Post got the period right, Queen Victoria’s bal costume was not the period that everyone would have chosen. Perhaps they wanted styles that would capture the courtly dress and towering hairdos of Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe or maybe they desired the styles of the Directorie and Empire periods that were worn by women like Madame Récamier and Eliza de Feuillide. Instead they got from 1740 to 1750, which was remarked by The Illustrated London News:
“We have seen it stated in various journals that no time could have been worse chosen for the setting of female charms to advantage, or less becoming to the dignity of the male form. So far from this being an anti-poetical period ― in which bag wigs, square cut coats, powdered toupees, pomatumed curls, and wide-spreading hoops, were predominant ― there is a scarcely a period of history in which the Costume can be so varied, according to the taste of the wearer.”
Approximately fourteen to fifteen hundred people were invited to Queen Victoria’s bal costumé of 1845 and over twelve hundred appeared. Among those invited were the diplomatic corps and foreigners of distinction, “all of whom adopted the foreign costumes of that date, appearing in the uniforms of their respective nations.” In addition, the English nobility and gentry primarily dressed in costumes that their family members wore, “the dresses being copied from family portraits with the greatest exactness.” Of the attendees in general the Leeds Times reported:
“The outre headdresses were a trying ordeal for the ladies, the unaccustomed high shoe-heels for the grace of their gait; but they sacrificed themselves to historical propriety; some even donning the untimely wig, to make their aspect more exact to the model. However, we are told that the powder made the complexion show more brilliant; and if the hoop disguised the figure, the stomacher displayed it; while both hoop and stomacher displayed the glowing jewellry, the rich and delicate lace, the splendid brocades, magnificent velvets, and gorgeous trimming that were the pride of the evening. The men appeared in coats of velvet ― crimson, black, or blue, plastered with gold or silver; and powdered wigs were universal.”
The Morning Post also reported on the affair stating:
“Accustomed to seeing the costume of the middle of the last century only in pictures or engravings … we confess that we had some misgivings of the effect it would produce when actually worn. But that there was no real ground for doubt, the charming appearance of the ladies at the Palace afforded the most satisfactory proof. It is now establish that classical coiffure, like classical architecture, is by no means essential to beauty; and it would not much surprise us if the experiment of last night were at no very remote period to effect a revolution in the costume of high society.”
Among the groups well represented at Queen Victoria’s bal costumé were the armed forces. Many were dressed in proper uniforms that accurately represented the style between 1740 and 1750. Among those mentioned were the following:
“[T]he Duke of Wellington appeared in the uniform of the Duke of Cumberland of that day. The Earl of Cardigan in the uniform of the Eleventh Dragoons at the Battle of Culloden, and the Marquis of Londonderry in the dress of a cavalry officer of the time. Lord Forest appeared in the dress of captain of the Hon. Corps of Gentlemen Pensioners. … The officers who wore infantry dresses displayed the long white gaiters which remained in vogue even up to the reign of George the Fourth. The cavalry all wore high military boots, and some of them the crimson silk sword belt fringed with gold, which gave them very much the appearance of a modern Grand Cross of the Bath. The cavalry were also distinguished by the three-cornered hat, while the infantry displayed the old-fashioned high-peaked grenadier cap.”
Queen Victoria’s gown for the bal costumé was created by the royal dressmakers, François Félix Vouillon and his sister, Laure Vouillon, known as Vouillon et Laure. The Illustrated London News provided this description of the gown and the Queen at the time:
“A boddice and tunic, in cloth of woven gold and silver, with a running sky-blue pattern, brocaded with bouquets of Marguerittes and poppies; the boddice square and tight, with stomacher of silver cloth: the whole covered with lace, and trimmed with quilled ribbons—tight sleeves, with three rows of ruffles in point lace; the tunic looped up with scarlet ribbons. The skirt of the dress is made in silver cloth, trimmed with two flounces of magnificent point lace, headed by quillings of scarlet ribbon, in festoons and rosettes, which are all surrounded with diamonds. Her Majesty wore her hair powdered; diamond tiara and crown; white satin shoes, with high heels, and scarlet rosettes, ornamented in the centre with diamonds. Her Majesty also wore the Ribbon and Order of the Garter.”
Vouillon et Laure had also made the Queen Victoria’s bal costumé outfit for 1842, and like that costume, the Queen was thrilled with her 1845 one. In fact, she drew a sketch of the gown in her journal entry that evening and commissioned several portraits of herself by Belgian artist and watercolorist, Louis Haghe. The Queen remarked that he received “£52 10s 0d ‘for 6 Drawings of the Fancy Ball & of our Costumes’ on 16 May 1846.”
Prince Albert’s outfit was created by Messrs Roth and Freeman. He received many compliments with even his wife remarking on how handsome her husband looked and how his wig made him appear younger. The Illustrated London News also stated that the Prince Consort, who stood at the Queen’s side, was “arrayed with gorgeous splendour, but regulated with historical accuracy and refined taste.” His costume consisted of the following:
“[A] crimson velvet coat, lined with white satin, with stiff and open skirts; crimson velvet breeches; long stockings, rolled above the knee, with the Order of the Garter on the left leg; oval diamond buckles on the shoes. His Royal Highness wore the perruque and cocked hat, a tight cravat, lace ruffles, and the sword en sautoir. His Royal Highness wore the Ribbon and Star of the Order of the Garter and of the Golden Fleece, in brilliants, said to be of immense value.”
Queen Victoria’s bal costumé opened at half past ten with her and Prince Albert leading a polonaise, preceded by the Great Officers of States and followed by their illustrious guests, the Duke and Duchess de Nemours. Next came the minuet de la cour. This dance had first been presented in the province of Poitou, France. It was then danced in Paris in 1653 by Louis XIV and after that introduced to England in the eighteenth century. Interestingly, the minuet fell out of fashion and was not revived until Queen Victoria’s bal costumé of 1845. The dance was reported to be replete with “elegance, grace, and dignity” and to be one continuous movement from beginning to end. The musical arrangement for it was provided by the Queen’s band master Chas Coote and titled, “Menuet de la Cour.”
Other dances followed. There were quadrilles, minutes, and strathspeys. The dancing was continuous and not broken up until midnight when supper was served. It was a banquet held in the great dining room and provided in “royal splendor.” The ball closed with the Queen and her husband dancing to the old country dance of “Sir Roger De Coverley” that is also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Of course, a comparison between Queen Victoria’s bal costumé of 1842 and 1845 was inevitable, and, fortunately, it was reported that the second ball was a stunning success and that it exceeded expectations:
“A comparison may naturally be made between this … and that … given by Her Majesty three years ago; and in spite of the gay and brilliant costume of an age of chivalry ― knights in flashing armour, robes and mantles of velvet, waving plumes and surcoats glittering with the emblazonry of arms; in spite of all the variety of a romantic and picturesque age, yet such was the unity of effect such the admirable manner in which all her Majesty’s guests had obeyed their instructions, not only in the costume itself, but also, in a measure, in adopting the manner of this time,’ that this fete, in its grave and formal magnificence, may well take its place by the side of its gay and brilliant predecessor, and leave in doubt to which the preference should be given.”
Other opinions about Queen Victoria’s bal costumé of 1845 were also published. For example, the Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser noted:
“The exhibition at Buckingham Palace on Friday … went to show that not even the French themselves could excel … in the aptitude with which they adopted the costume of a defunct age, and rendered that which at first sight appears almost grotesque capable of the most graceful varieties. The contrast been the costume of the present day and that chose by Her Majesty for the state ball is so decided, and the manner incident on those costumes are so totally different, that the success of the experiment is the more remarkable. But whether the success would have been so great had the costume been confined to the Court of George II alone is extremely doubtful. Many of the noble masqueraders who figured in the English dresses of the period looked well, no doubt; but much of the picturesqueness and variety of the scene was contributed by the dresses of the French contemporary Court, and those of the Highlanders, attached to the Pretender.”
-  H. Rappaport, Queen Victoria: A Biographical Companion (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003), p. 113.
-  A. Munich, Queen Victoria’s Secrets (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 33.
-  Morning Post, “The Royal Bal Costume,” May 3, 1845, p. 6.
-  The Illustrated London News v. 6 (London: Illustrated London News & Sketch Limited, 1845), p. 361.
-  The Morning Post, “Her Majesty’s Bal Costume,” June 7, 1845, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Leeds Times, “The Queen’s Bal Costume,” June 14, 1845, p. 7.
-  The Morning Post, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  The Illustrated London News v. 6 (London: Illustrated London News & Sketch Limited, 1845), p. 362.
-  “Queen Victoria in Costume for the 1745 Francy Ball, 6 June 1845,” Royal Collection Trust.
-  Ibid., p. 378.
-  Ibid., p. 362.
-  Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “Her Majesty’s Bal Costume,” June 11, 1845, p. 7.
-  Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, “Recollections of the State Ball,” June 11, 1845, p. 7.