Last month, I was asked to give an illustrated talk on fancy dress during the 1910s at a wonderful event entitled The Century. Run by Salon London & Odette Toilette it was an immersive, decade-by-decade tour of the 20th century where the audience enjoyed a mix of talks, fragrance and cocktails evoking each period's social and cultural phenomena from the rise of the department store to the heyday of film noir.
Drawing on the Mary Evans archive for the slot on fancy dress, it became apparent that costume balls were something of a craze in the years leading up to the Great War, covered in forensic detail by the illustrated weekly magazines we hold here. There are some wonderful examples. The Shakespeare Ball at the Albert Hall in 1911 was reckoned, by The Bystander, to rival the Coronation Ball itself in splendour, and indeed, the costumes sported by the various members of society who attended appear not only appropriately splendid, but also historically authentic. A year later, a ball at the Savoy in aid of the Middlesex Hospital featured among the costumes pictured in The Sketch, a prehistoric woman, media darling Lady Diana Manners as a Restoration Lely beauty, and Somerset Maugham as a player in Othello. There seemed no end to the detail and expense lavished on outfits; the Artists' Costume Ball in 1910 saw a group dressed as Aubrey Beardsley characters and others in avant-garde Futurist costumes. The most exquisitely themed during this period was undoubtedly the Picture Ball, held at the Albert Hall in December 1913 in aid of the Invalids of London Kitchens. Guests were organised into groups reflecting different artistic movements and styles through the centuries. The ubiquitous Lady Diana Manners appeared this time as a figure in an Etruscan frieze, while Hazel, Lady Lavery (wife of the painter Sir John Lavery), personified Botticelli's Prima Vera, and was pictured in a full page in The Sketch for her troubles.
Such expense and extravagance looked tame in comparison to some of the costume balls held in Paris in these pre-war days. Paul Poiret's famous One Thousand and Second Nights Ball in 1911 saw guests, dripping in jewels, adopt the French designer's daring Oriental fashions of harem pants, aigrettes and lantern skirts (those who declined to do so were turned away), while the host sat on a gold throne and his wife Denise reclined on plush silk cushions in a gilded cage observing the gaiety. In May 1912, the Comte & Comtesse de Chabrillon held a ball similar in its opulence. Jewels were provided by Cartier and colour photographs representing the full rainbow of the myriad costumes appeared in the French weekly title, L'Illustration.
The advent of war, and the associated economical exigencies, meant the costume ball was put into proverbial mothballs for the duration of hostilities. But that was not to say dressing up was abandoned entirely. Lady Diana Manners swapped her evening gowns and historic costumes for a nursing uniform as she went to work at Guy's Hospital. However she, and other members of high society found ways to indulge their love of dressing up through a theatrical concept known as the charity matinee, often shortened to 'charity mat' in high class slang. In the same spirit as the pre-war balls, high-born young ladies and society scions would appear at these fundraising shows for afternoon performances (leaving theatres free for the professionals to take over in the evening). Very little acting took place; it was all about dressing up and creating a spectacle at which the audience would clap politely and go home satisfied they had contributed to the war effort for matinees were always, without exception, in aid of one war charity or another, be that the Concerts for the Front Fund, the Three Arts Employment Fund or the Serbian Relief Committee. These wordless tableaux proliferated. In the last week of June 1915 alone Eve, The Tatler's gossip columnist, reported three jostling for space - 'Princess Patricia's Comforts Fund, one for her Canadian Light Infantry; Mrs Keppel's entertainment at the Ritz for the Officers' Hostel in Belgrave Square; and the In-Aid-Of at Wyndham's Theatre on Monday week for Lady Lytton's hospital in Charles Street.' The Angels tableaux, staged at the Palace Theatre in November 1917, featured Violet Bonham-Carter (the ex-Prime Minister's elder daughter) and Hazel, Lady Lavery, among others in series of recreations of Old Master paintings, inspired, perhaps by the Picture Ball theme just a few years earlier.
Dressing up for entertainment purposes went beyond West End theatres and Mayfair mansions as concert troupes were an essential element in boosting morale among the men at the Front or in hospitals at home. Drag was almost compulsory and we have numerous examples of burly soldiers taking to wigs and petticoats with great enthusiasm. The Sphere's special artist, Fortunino Matania captured a scene of a concert taking place in a French barn behind the lines with soldiers bellowing out songs dressed in female attire, while our collection of photographs of Quex House VAD Hospital, part of the Powell-Cotton Museum collection show several occasions where patients are dressed up to resemble a lantern-jawed great aunt! The Tatler featured one photograph in 1917 of two leads in a trench pantomime put on by the Coldstream Guards where a Private Splatt makes a particularly convincing principal girl! Being a smart regiment, these panto costumes look very professional - perhaps ordered from a London department store - but in general, costumes rarely mirror pre-war quality. Nevertheless, the resourcefulness is impressive, not least in the case of men interned at a POW in Germany who appeared in The Tatler in 1917 in fancy dress for an entertainment they were staging. The principle performers were British and Russian officers and among the costumes seen (remarkable considering the disadvantageous circumstances under which the organisers worked) was a pierrot, Napoleon, several clowns and a large number of ladies!
Patients at Quex House VAD Hospital in drag for an unidentified entertainment.
A fantastic array of fancy dress costumes at the POW Camp in Furstenberg, Mecklenburg, Germany
Costume also served as a symbol of patriotism throughout the war. The Women's Right to Serve March, held on a pouring wet and windy day in July 1915, saw 30,000 women walk through London's streets demonstrating for the right to be given useful work and to contribute towards the war effort. Many of them, at least those who appeared in the papers, were dressed up to represent the Allied nations. Miss Farnar-Bringhurst, as martyred Belgium, even walked barefoot, giving her costume a particular dramatic poignancy.
Children too, unknowingly or not, showed their patriotism by donning miniature military uniforms, quickly made available by leading retailers, such as Gamages of Holborn. In December 1915, Gamages was offering child-size Army and RFC uniforms along with other types of popular war toys. The music hall star, Vesta Tilley had already carved out a career for herself in the late 19th century as a male impersonator and the war earned her nickname of 'Britain's best recruiting sergeant' as she toured theatres and halls around the country dressed in soldier's uniform encouraging (or shaming, depending on how you look at it) male members in the audience to join up. As the war progressed, fancy dress not only drummed up support and patriotic fervour but projected messages about how to cope with the war, as exemplified by a photograph of an extraordinary outfit in the Grenville Collins postcard collection, where one lady has dressed up to represent the concept of 'Food Control' - introduced in that year in a bid to counteract food shortages.
Top left: Vesta Tilley Top right: A small boy in a miniature British officer's Army uniform helps to raise funds on a Flag Day in London
Bottom left: Queen Alexandra pictured with Miss Jeannie Jackson, the daughter of a Burnley miner who collected £1,100 in coppers on the streets of Burnley in aid of war funds dressed in a miniature uniform.
Bottom right: The Marchioness of Headfort, formerly known to playgoers as Miss Rose (Rosie) Boote of the Gaiety Theatre, London, at her home, Headfort House in Co. Meath with her daughter Lady Millicent Taylour wearing a miniature military uniform.
Although fancy dress was an engaging way to project a serious message, it was also a way to escape into fantasy during the dark days of war. When the stage production of 'Chu Chin Chow' opened at Her Majesty's Theatre in Haymarket in August 1916, it was the daring of the exotic, skimpy costumes that was the main draw and ensured the show ran beyond 1918, with several revivals in the 1920s. Reminiscent of Paul Poiret's designs for his 1002 Nights Ball, Eve described the dresses as, 'just too utterly lovely for words. Poiret and the far, far East mixed, you know, with a dash of Bakst and the Russians...' To keep the show fresh, new costumes were introduced at intervals with photographs published in magazines of the fantastical, scanty creations. 'Very suitable for the sultry climate of Baghdad', wrote the Tatler in September 1917, with a palpable leer, when it featured six photographs of the latest designs. In January 1919, two months after the war had ended, the cast of Chu Chin Chow were pictured boarding a bus, bound for the Night of the Stage Ball at the Albert Hall - no change of outfit required.
With an avalanche of relief, fancy dress for its own sake made a welcome return less than three weeks after the signing of the Armistice with the Victory Ball at the Albert Hall. All society attended (the benefitting charity this time being the Nation's Fund for Nurses) and magazines were awash with spreads showing well-known figures in their costumes. Centre stage was, as usual, Lady Diana Manners, who led the Victory procession through the hall dressed as - what else but - Britannia. In March the following year, the annual Chelsea Arts Club Ball, always the most creative and flamboyant, took 'dazzle' as its theme, the disruptive naval camouflage using monochrome zig zags and pattern pioneered by the British during the war.
The result was a particularly cohesive visual feast, reported by the Daily Paper as 'a great flickograph night, with our vision mocked and tantalised by dazzles of lights and of costumes.' The wife of photographer Bertram Park, Yvonne Gregory - a photographer herself - posed in her black and white striped all-in-one, almost camouflaged against a matching background. She appeared alongside several other attendees on the front cover of The Sketch, a publication which prided itself on reporting all the theatrical and society news and so adored a fancy dress ball more than anything.
As influenced as it was by the war, the style of the outfits at the Dazzle Ball seemed to reflect a new era for fancy dress. The prescriptive and often ponderous historical favourites of the Edwardian days gave way to frivolous, light-hearted themes with ideas becoming more modern or abstract in keeping with the new post-war era. Tracing the changes in fancy dress from the dawn of the 1910s and through the upheaval of war, it's fascinating to see how the art of dressing up is an unlikely marker, reflecting the trials, tribulations and preoccupations of a society at war, whether as an expression of patriotism, as a propaganda tool, a means to fundraise, boost morale or as simply a way of having some fun. Dressing up in khaki it seemed, was not the only costume in which to help win the war.
For a wider selection follow this link:
Blog includes extracts from 'Great War Britain' by Lucinda Gosling (History Press, 2014) - http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/index.php/great-war-britain-24639.html
© Luci Gosling