Fancy Dress 1897: the Duchess of Devonshire’s Diamond Jubilee Ball

The Time Machine seems to be a bit sluggish after its month long stay in the 19th century. So it’s hardly surprising that its first jump has only got us as far as 1897. It’s landed us outside the borders of Kensington and Chelsea as well but as this is a Diamond Jubilee year for the Queen we shouldn’t miss this opportunity to hang around at one of the main events of the last Diamond Jubilee. We’re in a tent in the grounds of Devonshire House on July 2nd 1897. The photographer James Lauder of the Lafayette Company and his assistants are going to perform the considerable feat of taking photographs of 200 guests in sumptuous costumes in front of different backdrops over the evening. We’re going to see costumes from history, literature, art and mythology. The occasion is the social event of the year, the Duchess of Devonshire’s Diamond Jubilee Costume Ball.

The Princess of Wales came as Queen Marguerite de Valois. Some guests followed the Royal example and stayed with European history. The Duchess of Portland as the Duchess of Savoy:

Or HRH the Duchess of Connaught as Anne of Austria, mother of Louis XIV (I looked that up so you don’t have to):

Other guests ventured into art:

Sir Edgar Vincent as a character from a painting by Franz Hals. Like the photographers I am throwing in a few token men but concentrating on the female guests. (The Lafayette Company expected to sell prints of the photographs and the costumes of the ladies which were nearly all very expensive and made to order. Out of 700 guests, 200 or so were photographed, the majority of them women) Lady Vincent also came as a character from a Dutch painting:

Here’s another artistic pair:

The Ladies Churchill as Watteau shepherdesses. Shepherdesses of course have always been a favourite dressing up role for the aristocracy, favoured by Marie Antoinette and even Louis XIV’s brother who was always called Monsieur.

Lady Margaret Villiers, either by coincidence or design is dressed as Monsieur’s wife Madame, Duchess d’Orleans (and sister of Charles II) who had three children by the bisexual royal Duke, took part in the negotiations for the secret Treaty of Dover, and who may have been poisoned, all by the age of 26.

The men at these affairs usually look more uncomfortable if not actually unconvincing:

The Hon Mr Fitzwilliam as Nelson and Lord Staverdale as Petrarch. Mr Henry Holden pulls it off by refusing to take the whole thing too seriously:

He is portraying Will Somers, the first Queen Elizabeth‘s court jester. The costume looks a lot less effort as well.

The hostess the Duchess of Devonshire looked to the classical world for inspiration. She dressed as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.

Others followed her example and these I think are the most interesting costumes at the ball.

Lady Randolph Churchill (Sir Winston Churchill’s mother) as the Empress Theodora, wife of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian.

Lady Alexandra Colebrooke as Roxana, wife of Alexander the Great. And below the Hon Mrs Algernon Bourke as Salammbo the princess of Carthage in Flaubert’s novel. Although she was fictional she had a definite influence on art and fashion in the late 19th century.

There were even two, possibly three versions of Cleopatra:

I don’t know if Mrs Paget and the Countess de Grey had to be kept apart at the Ball. What’s the etiquette if two rival versions meet? The book I’ve used for these pictures printed just after the Ball also describes the picture below as Cleopatra:

Princess Henry of Pless has the edge I think in terms of the most impressive costume (none of them are likely to be all that accurate) but some authorities say she’s dressed as the Queen of Sheba, which deals with any further clash of characters. The backdrops for these images are influenced by painters such as Moreau and of course our own Lord Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The world of ancient Rome and the Middle East was seen as a fantasy land of sensual pleasure in the late Victorian imagination. As we explored in the post about Vickie and Nance’s Egyptian trips, travellers, writers and painters were being drawn into a new imaginative relationship with the countries around the Mediterranean.

Queen Victoria herself, the object of the celebration was not present at the Ball but in the final picture we see Mrs Wolverton as Britannia.

This is a good place to end. Mind you, I haven’t even got to King Arthur, the two Valkyries, Dante’s Beatrice, Titania or Scheherazade. But we have to get back to that time machine and out of the nineteenth century. We may drop in on Mr Linley Sambourne again next week.

More from the costume ball here and here.

11 responses to “Fancy Dress 1897: the Duchess of Devonshire’s Diamond Jubilee Ball

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