The later decades of the 19th Century and the Edwardian era were a period in which grand fancy dress balls were held by royalty, the aristocracy and London society, one of the most renowned being the Devonshire House Ball of 1897. Guests dressed as characters mainly drawn from history, classical mythology and literature, the costume is professionally made by tailors, dressmakers and theatrical costumiers.
Their middle class contemporaries with a taste for fancy dress parties used their skills and ingenuity to produce costumes that were generally more entertaining and creative in concept, interpreting themes such as ‘justice’, ‘love’ and ‘wealth’, and inanimate objects like ‘the sea’, ‘a cup of tea’ and ‘painting’. In this they were guided by the many magazines, catalogues and books published to satisfy an eager market (see Additional Images for examples for the 1880s taken from Mrs Leach’s Fancy Ball Costumes and a Supplement to Ladies’ Treasury).
Two examples in the John Bright Collection, the Lily Pond dress and the British Empire skirt (see Related Image) were painted by hand, probably at home as a hobby. The Lily Pond outfit is based on a fashionable dress of the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, although, as was the custom with fancy dress, the skirt was cut shorter than normal. The bodice of cotton net over a lightweight cream silk is covered on each side of the front and back with a large lily pad of painted green velvet and is trimmed with weed-like streamers, leaves and fronds, a water beetle, and silver sequins. The cream satin skirt is painted on the front with large white water lilies and an insect in flight, and has a stiffly dressed lining. Its sequin edged hem is bordered with a net flounce (with signs of a second one removed later) and lined with a mesh frill run through with silver thread.