Fancy Dress Balls: All Dressed Up and Somewhere to Go

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Introduction

Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum, 2003

In the 19th century, costumed skating carnivals and balls were very popular social activities. The sheer number of archival photographs of people in fancy dress, as it was known, attests to the popularity of this phenomenon, as well as its importance to those who took part. These portraits reveal a great deal about Victorian morals, values, taboos and tastes regarding clothing, bodies and social behaviour. While the basic appeal of fancy dress lay in its semblance of permissiveness and escapism, this sort of amusement was controlled by a complex set of moral restrictions.