Charles James Ballgowns – Evolution of The Ball in Society

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) "Butterfly" Ball Gown, ca. 1955 Brown silk chiffon, cream silk satin, brown silk satin, dark brown nylon tulle The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Friends of The Costume Institute Fund, 2013

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is honour and remember its fashion prince Charles James (1906-1978) for his creative contribution to fashioning their way of life with a fabulous exhibition.

Charles James: Beyond Fashion will be on view from May 8th through to August 10, 2014.

Fashion is a changing and eternal form of human expression, dictating and reflecting the concerns of society in any one place at any time.

The man considered America’s foremost couturier Charles James was a master creator. “He’s acknowledged as one of the designers who has absolutely transformed the métier of fashion design,” said the Met Costume Institute’s curator-in-charge Harold Koda.

He became famous for his superb clothes for women, most especially his elegantly sculpted ballgowns.

They were worn by societies most fashionable ladies for decades during the ‘season’ not only at home but also abroad. When they had finished wearing them he persuaded them to donate them for posterity.

Charles James designed dresses for ‘The Ball, a grand social occasion for centuries in sophisticated cities of Europe, England and America. His ballgowns are being showcased at The Met New York along with an impressive array of his gorgeous garments.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906-1978) Evening Dress 1946, Black silk-rayon velvet, red silk satin, brown silk faille, black silk crepe ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos, 1954

Then, as evening gave way to the shadows of night,
Their watchman, the Glow-worm, came out with his light.
So home let us hasten, while yet we can see,
For no watchman is waiting for you or for me*

Charles James was born into a dynamic fashion age, in which costume was punctuated by two major world wars and a depression, challenging him to always invent and inspire change. At each hurdle, he surmounted all the obstacles, giving back to society new ideas and countless splendid images of aesthetic beauty.

This constantly reminded Americans during the 1950’s of why they had gone to war in Europe in the first place. It was all about fighting the injustices of the world so they and future generations of their citizens would be able to fully enjoy the freedom to create and to embrace beauty.

James had high standards of excellence and instinctively knew what quality was all about and what his customers wanted from him. His was an impressive client list of high society followers of his ‘highly structured aesthetic’.

The most engaging dynamic aspects of any cities art and cultural life are often its annual traditional social events.

Dressing up to the nine’s in glamour and finery and going out and ‘having a ball’ allowed girls and their guys to dance the night away.

Charles James Ballgown 1953, Silk, The Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The story of ‘The Ball’ being a grand occasion has been bound up in the evolving fashion, style, society and culture of many of the sophisticated cities of Europe, England and America for centuries now.

Going to a ‘ball’ meant you could enjoy your own Cinderella and the Prince scenario, even if it was only just for a little while. For girls at the time, wearing a Charles James gown would have surely been the penultimate experience.

When I was growing up during the 1950’s in Australia, images of Charles James ballgowns were transmitted around the world when a selection was photographed by iconic photographer Cecil Beaton (1904-1980).

Costumes in the Charles James Beyond Fashion show at The Met New York

In 1946 Beaton wrote an essay for Vogue asking ‘Is it the clothes or the woman’. He made it clear it was ‘fashion’; designers dressing and reshaping women’s bodies as if the scissors sliced through flesh, not cloth.

Beaton first earned world wide renown as a fashion photographer first during the 1920s and ’30s, before becoming an award-winning costume designer for stage and film after the war.

His stunning image of a room full of beautiful women wearing Charles James ballgowns photographed in 1948 was one I saw first in a magazine at the library during my teenage years, one that became indelibly etched into my mind. It depicts a room full of Vogue models wearing Charles James gowns in the ornate interior of French & Co, New York.

Charles James Ball Gowns, 1948 Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Photograph by Cecil Beaton, Beaton / Vogue / Condé Nast Archive. Copyright © Condé Nast

The models in their Charles James gowns are just like the neoclassical architecture they are inhabiting, serene and timeless both cool and elegant: they have been likened to sculptures by Antonio Canova, marvelous images swathed in silk – Venus for a night.

A Viennese style ball in Moscow 2011

The word Ball itself derives from the Latin ‘ballare’ meaning ‘to dance’ and what a wonderful time those who attended these social events for centuries have enjoyed.

The idea of a ‘dress up and dance’ emerged out of the Renaissance period in Europe when the rigid social rank system began to change and wealthy merchants and patricians were able to visibly display their success.

Great banquets had developed from church festivals to become entertainments at court for important occasions; weddings, tournaments, visiting royalty and coronations.

They were all about society celebrating.

Dresses for evenings of feasting, merriment and dancing were made of silk and trimmed with expensive furs as a symbol of status and social standing.

Balls became associated with love during the age of the Troubadour, where chivalrous etiquette and adoration of a lady became bound up in poetry and songs of love.

It was troubadours and minstrels who spread the news throughout Europe about the trends in society and fashion and pretty soon all the courts were involved.

In England poetry and discussion centred on a chaste love where women were put on a pedestal and worshipped with poetry and song.

During the fifteenth century the wearing of masks became integral to ball traditions and popular in court society. Dances were interludes between courses at great banquets.

Celebrating his marriage in 1489 Gian Galeazzo, Duke of Milan held a banquet-ball, an event also considered as a forerunner to the evolution of ballet. Between each course, dance, music and song were an aspect of the entertainments.

Elizabeth 1 of England dancing the very risque 'Volta'

During the age of Humanism the focus shifted from church to court and town and by the sixteenth century the whole focus on art, literature and music among those people in ‘high society’ had created a fertile environment for producing elaborate dinner dance events where fashionable ladies could show off all their finery.

England’s Queen Elizabeth 1 loved nothing more than to dance the night away, it had taken on connotations of expressing diplomacy and manners in society.

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin known as Moliére (1622-1673) in Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme

All the ills of mankind, all the tragic misfortunes that fill the history books, all political blunders, all the failures of great commanders, have arisen, merely from lack of skill in dancing” said French playwright and actor Moliere in his play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, when he first presented it at court on 14th October 1670 before the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.

By the seventeenth century Kings, Queens and their courtiers all over Europe were enjoying dancing on festive occasions at court to the latest style of music.

Ball events rapidly took off in England following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660.

The country had lost its smile under Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the people now wanted more than anything in the world to find it again and dance in celebration until dawn.

Charles was dubbed The Merry Monarch because of his winning ways and love of life. He was known to enjoy a good ‘knees up’ and wanted his subjects to rejoice with him as he re-built confidence and economy of England.

There is no doubt happy people = a booming economy! King Louis XIV (1638-1714) proved this during his reign, with stunning ‘balls’ held in his famous hall of mirrors at Versailles.

Balls became the rage during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in France, England and Europe aided by the rapid expansion of the haute bourgeoisie.

The masquerade in particular became very famous at Versailles and in Venice.

This is when dancing became a quintessential social art, just right for young women who possessed a dowry sufficient to find a husband.

In 1780 England’s King George III (1738-1820) held a May ball to raise money for a London maternity hospital.

Subsequently Queen Charlotte’s Ball became a formalized event and the perfect excuse for daughters of aristocrats to come up to town to be formally presented at Court and take part in the social round of events taking place in the English ‘season’.

American travelers to Europe and England, while basically wanting to cast off the ‘yoke’ of their mother country following the French revolution, also viewed launching young women into society as important and these traditions were retained.

In France during the nineteenth century ‘bal blancs’ were debutante balls to which only eligible young men and women were invited. They were called ‘blanc’ because the women involved all dressed in white. White has been a symbol of innocence, purity and virginity for centuries and this is the period where it passed from the church into society

Wearing white gradually became a ‘custom’ at all ‘Debutante Balls’. Many men, among the aristocracy in particular, wanted to know that they would the first to introduce their wives to the delights of lovemaking. Debutante in essence means ‘beginning’ and this event launched any young lady of substance into society. After a young woman came out in society it was preferable she was married the same year.

English author Jane Austen (1775-1817) in her novels paints a beguiling picture of ‘debutante’ balls, where etiquette, manners and courtesy are constantly displayed and balls also became a great social leveller.

Mothers attended Balls with their daughters to ensure that decorum reigned and to compare the eligibility of suitors for their daughter’s hand.

If she failed to secure a husband, after three years her prospects plummeted and people began doubting her virtue, or even worse, wondered just how big her dowry actually was.

The image of the haughty Mr Darcy getting down and dancing with the local gentry in Pride and Prejudice is an iconic moment in literature.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the ‘ball’ was an aspect of cities all over America’s social life and had also become focused on the ‘marriage market’.

In England the age itself had the perfect ‘romantic’ role model of a modern marriage – a loving Monarch and her Consort – Queen Victoria and her Prince, the handsome and very capable Albert of Saxe-Coburg.

Being presented to the King and Queen at their court became the ideal place to find a suitable beau with good prospects for your daughter.

It also allowed the country gentry access, provided their daughter could find the appropriate sponsor to present her and a whole lot of ‘social’ rules were invented to follow.

Jennie Jerome, c1880

The ‘gentry’ who had supported the aristocracy for over a century knew that if their daughters could be included in the ‘Ball Season’ and prove their worth they would be rewarded. As she began moving up in the world so did they and everyone in the family worked hard to make it happen.

Some young beautiful American ladies made the grade at London where they ‘married well’ into the English aristocracy, perhaps helping hundreds of years of flawed bloodlines revive.

Jennie Jerome (1854-1921) would have to be the prime example. In 1874 she married Lord Randolph Spencer-Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough.

Jennie Jerome Churchill became not only one of the first American women to be accepted by English high society but also famous for having given birth to Winston Churchill.

Her American joie de vivre and ambition, manifested themselves in her son Winston Churchill, who was in a unique position to negotiate with American connections during World War II and secure their aid to help defeat Hitler.

Another was Mary Victoria Curzon (1870 – 1906), a British-American peeress who became Baroness Curzon of Kedleston and Vicereine of India, as the wife of Lord Curzon of Kedleston, Viceroy of India.

She instantly made an impression of beauty and respect that spread all over India where she was greeted with enthusiasm.

Mary Victoria Baroness Curzon of Kedleston, Vicereine of India

The Indian poet, Ram Sharma referred to her in his welcome address to Lord Curzon of Kedleston, as “A rose of roses bright – a vision of embodied light.”

Her famous peacock dress worn at the Delhi Durbar which was held in 1903 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII

A guest at the ball remarked: “You cannot conceive what a dream she looked”.

The material, worked by men in India, is shining cloth of gold with a pattern of overlapping peacock feathers in gold and silk thread on a silk chiffon background.

In the ‘eye’ of each peacock feather is a section of iridescent green beetle wing (Cetonia Cyrata or scarab Beetle, similar in size to a Maybug beetle) giving a very ‘jewelled’ appearance to this glittering creation.

The spectacular trained skirt was trimmed with white roses.

The material was then sent to Paris and made up into a two-piece dress by the House of Worth. Due to the ornate metal embroidery the dress weighs over 10lbs.

Today it is on display at Kedleston Hall, a spectacular Neo-classical mansion framed by historic parkland and was the Curzon family home, which is now operated by the National Trust.

It was designed by Scottish born London based architect Robert Adam (1728 – 1792) for lavish entertaining, including balls.

By the early 20th century the London ‘season’ comprised other numerous events ending by the 1st week of August during the Edwardian era with the Goodwood race meeting.

Getting your name into Tatler, Britain’s stylish and indispensable social guide, or having your photograph taken for the centerfold of ‘Country Life’ was the all-new goal for all prospective ‘debs’, including a select coterie of young American ladies.

The invention of ‘the waltz’ first happened when the peasants of Bavaria, Tyrol, and Styria began dancing a dance called Walzer, a dance for couples, around 1750.

Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790) first made the ballrooms of the Hofburg palace in Vienna available to everyone in his kingdom in 1773, ensuring that Balls became a part of the way of life for everyone.

By 1776 the Viennese people were hooked on both balls and waltzes.

The ‘Waltz King’ Johann Strauss II (1825-1899) composed over 400 waltzes and became responsible for the popularity of the dance at Balls in Vienna during the nineteenth century.

This was when Vienna became the great capital of The Ball and Strauss became KK Hofballmusikdirektor, the Music Director of the Royal Court Balls in 1863.

The Vienna Opera Ball only commenced in 1935, but it was suspended during World War II.

The Queen Charlotte Ball is again part of the London scene re-invented for the new age

Today it’s integral to the ball season in Vienna, and the city has also taken the first steps required towards having their Opera Ball included on the UNESCO Intangible Culture Heritage List.

Annually Vienna has over 200 public balls, which start at 8 or 9pm and last until 5am, as people dance the night away in the full tradition of a grand and glorious society ball.

The aftermath of World War II brought great changes in society all over the world.

It was no surprise to many when the Debutante Ball craze in England came to a crashing end with the last curtsy-taking place before Queen Elizabeth II.

She quietly closed the whole ritual of young ladies being presented ‘at court’ down in 1958.

However, it’s hard to keep a good ball in abeyance, and Queen Charlotte’s Ball has recently been revived to cater for the new age of technology.

In Australia holding balls in society continued for many years, well into the expansive eighties and beyond, especially in country regions.

Charles James (American, born Great Britain, 1906–1978) "Four Leaf Clover" Evening Dress, 1953 White silk satin, white silk faille, black silk-rayon velvet The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Elizabeth Fairall, 1953 (

Whole extended families became involved in brokering the marriage of a member, because it affected their reputations and often their destinies – and having a ‘ball’ was very much more than just going to a dance and having a good time.

While they seem to be not as fashionable at the moment here in Australia, it’s only a matter of time before balls come back into contention.

Supported by social media, the Charles James: Beyond Fashion exhibition will have a flow on effect, bringing the ball back into the fundraising calendar internationally.

Commentators overseas are saying ‘posh is the new pop’ after all!

New designers, no doubt inspired by Charles James’s legacy of style, will sculpt and shape a whole new generation of ballgowns for our all ‘new age’.

Come, take up your hats, and away let us haste
To the Butterfly’s ball and the Grasshopper’s feast;
For the trumpeter Gadfly has summoned his crew,
And the revels are now only waiting for you*

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014

*The Butterfly’s Ball and the Grasshopper’s Feast by R.M. Ballantyne

Charles James: Beyond Fashion
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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