Today this peach colored ballgown from the McCord Museum in Canada is the dressgasm of the day. It came from Maison Soinard, Paris in approximately 1868-1869, which would be after the American Civil War. The ballgown is made of silk taffeta with fringe and tulle accents. It is lined in cotton and has bone and metal to keep the bodice stiff and shaped properly, in addition to the corset the woman would have worn underneath. Constructing this ballgown was done by both machine and hand sewing, which sometimes confuses people, but the sewing machine has been used since the 1850s.
The date is substantiated by those of Caroline-Virginie de Saint-Ours-Kierzkowski’s honeymoon in Europe and her documented Paris visits in 1868 and 1869, which determine when she bought the gown with the Paris label. Caroline-Virgine de Saint-Ours-Kierzkowski was fashion conscious. In a diary written during her European honeymoon in 1868-1869 she remarked on the dress of New York women, finding them, to her taste, over-dressed. In London, she commented on her enjoyment of window-shopping. And while visiting Paris, she wrote of La Messe des Élégants at the Église de la Madeleine: she wryly observed that at this late mess, people seemed to be moved more by the display of the toilettes than by the service. (Excerpt from: BEAUDOIN-ROSS, Jacqueline. Form and Fashion: Nineteenth-Century Montreal Dress, McCord Museum of Canadian History, 1992, p. 34.)
When I talk about ballgowns, I often see people who are less in the know about fashion history getting starry-eyed and thinking of Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind. The fact is, Gone with the Wind is a nightmare for veteran Civil War reenactors trying to teach amateur Civil War reenactors because the new girls always want to wear the big, pretty, ornate dresses like this peach ballgown. People who show up to Civil War reenactments dressed that way (unless it’s specifically for a formal event) are incorrectly representing the mid-nineteenth century to the general public. Here are some cold hard facts about ballgowns:
– A proper woman never exposed her shoulders or arms (with the exception of underage girls) before evening, no matter how hot the weather.
– There were several styles of what is known as a “ballgown” based on the type of event. Dinner parties were a little more covered up but no less ornate. Balls dictated the classic “ballgown” that we all think of today.
– Ballgowns were made of rich, shiny fabric and done in light colors for practicality. There was no electricity in the mid-nineteenth century, so nighttime parties were dimly lit even if there were a million candles. A shiny white dress (or any other pastel) picked up the light. Wouldn’t you want to be “seen” if you paid so much for your beautiful ballgown?
– Color was determined by age and marital status. The lighter the color, the younger and more single you would have been. Once a woman married, her dresses took on darker colors. Single woman, as they advanced in age, progressed into darker colors as well.
– Ballgowns and the women wearing them were very often decorated with fresh flowers or even false flowers, fruit, feathers and so on. A ball was a big deal and people wore the finest of everything they owned.