IRISH 19'th Century Dance

"Terpsichore - Her Votaries and Fashions"
T. Leggett-Byrne

27 Adelaide Road, Dublin, Ireland


[p.142] MANY chapters, enough and to spare, could be written on the above subject. It is beyond all doubt that the Romans delighted in dancing, and that the masque and fancy dress balls of to-day are clearly a revival of the ancient festivals in honour of Pan and Ceres. Space does not permit anything like a historic retrospect in connection with this fascinating subject; the popularity of the fancy dress ball has always been great, but an undoubted impetus was given to their worth in public favour when the late Sir Augustus Harris inaugurated the series of carnival balls held during the season in Covent Garden Theatre. The great impresario, although well known as a man who would not on any account harbour a peacock's feather in any of his houses (a pet theatrical superstition, as the profession considers the feathers unlucky), threw superstition to the four winds when he started the masquerades in the Bow-street house, for in 1859, on the night of a masque ball, the theatre was destroyed by fire. The desire to disport one's self in fancy dress has not confined itself to Bohemia, however. The Queen and the Prince Consort were the admired of all observers at a magnificent ball given in Buckingham Palace, in which they both appeared in fancy costume. In the sister court at the Tuileries this form of entertainment was, if anything, more popular, and the Emperor Napoleon III. early evinced his desire to appear in [p.143] borrowed plumes, for is it not on record that he was one of the most interesting figures at the historic Eglinton tournament. To come back to the present is, however, imperative, for one might dilate on the past of this delightful subject until the writer, after descanting on the glories of the masques that made brilliant the Court of good Queen Bess, would find himself in the most remote ages of antiquity. The Romans delighted in dancing, so did the Greeks. Costumiers in those days, such as Burkinshaw, of Liverpool, must have been important personages indeed. As proof that the fancy dress ball of to-day is enjoying unparalleled popularity, we may take, for instance, the gorgeous entertainment given in honour of Her Majesty's Diamond Jubilee, by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, in their historic mansion in Piccadilly. Dublin has not been backward in this respect. The ball given by Lord and Lady Wolseley, in the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, at which the guests appeared in costumes faithfully copied from the pictures of Reynolds and Gainsborough, will long be memorable in the annals of Terpsichore. The same may be said of the series of fancy dress balls given by successive Lord Mayors at the Mansion House.

The grand balls given annually at the Paris Opera House are of world-wide fame, and for that reason need but be alluded to. Pleasure annually runs riot on the Continent during the carnival season. Here in Great Britain we take our pleasures more or less sadly. We have no carnival season in the true sense of the word. Our fancy dress balls are "run" on orthodox lines; perhaps those given at Covent Garden most resemble those given on [p.144] the Continent. The most fantastic dances in this respect are held annually in Vienna, that home of dancing and of the Strauss family. One is organised by the Viennese washerwomen, who wear a distinctive costume of a very pretty, if to our insular eyes rather startling, description. The "guests," as distinct from their hostesses of the laundry, appear as a rule in the costumes to be found at most carnivals.

But undoubtedly the most extraordinary sight to be seen in any ball-room in Europe (or anywhere else, for the matter of that), is to be witnessed every year in the Austrian capital, when the great "Lumpen Bal" is held. Of course, it is a carnival function, and a public ball. All the characters are required to represent with the most faultless detail the "submerged tenth." The result is, that there is to be found a motley collection of prototypes of well-known murderers, thieves, rag pickers, beggars, and cripples. Some years ago a Parisian tailor made the journey from Paris to Vienna, or vice versā - we forget for the moment - securely fastened in a packing-case; this was done, of course, to avoid payment of the usual railway fare. The incident excited the greatest interest, with the result that at the "Lumpen Bal" of that year some twelve or fifteen guests were brought into the ball-room in packing-cases, 'wheeled on trolleys, and duly "unpacked" in the presence of the amused spectators, many, of whom had made their appearance in ways quite as original, notably those who emerged from gaily-painted coffins, from Egyptian mummy wrappings, or from the recesses of a bogus street ambulance.

[p.145] Beyond the fact that the "Lumpen Bal" is conducted on lines of the strictest decorum, it has little to recommend it as worthy of being copied elsewhere.

Job2801a.gif (35743 bytes)We turn with pleasure to what is the original intent of this article, and that is, to offer some advice, given in the best of faith, to those persons who may be meditating a visit to the costumier. We will first deal with the two gentlemen who fancy they "look" the characters of the great Napoleon and the equally great Duke respectively. The gentleman as the 'Little Corporal,' who possesses a Napoleonic nose and who thinks that a sufficient reason why the character should suit him, forgets the fact that his "six foot in his stockings," is rather at variance with our accepted notions of the Emperor. Job2901a.gif (46320 bytes)It is the same as regards historical accuracy with the diminutive warrior masquerading as his Grace of Wellington. The nose, however, and no doubt a want of forsight to see beyond that organ, is to blame in both, cases.

[p.146] What painfully familiar figures are the gloomy Pierrots, the taciturn clowns, the jovial Hamlets, Romeos, and Claude Melnottes? They are to be met with at every fancy dress ball. As regards the fair sex, for pretty girls of the "hoyden" type such characters as Lady Macbeth, Pauline (Lady of Lyons), Charlotte Corday, Mary Queen of Scots, or Marie Antoinette are not suitable. Job3001a.gif (26445 bytes)To become somewhat poetic, they are themselves but rosebuds, and the costumier can fit them with a thousand and one dresses suitable to their age and appearance. We don't for one minute say that the above - mentioned characters cannot find a suitable exponent. When their traditional costume is worn by a girl of fair height, and who has, at least, advanced in age a few years into the "twenties," no more charming picture could meet the eye in a ball-room. Job3101d.gif (29308 bytes)A lady's weight is a subject we like to avoid, in the same way that any allusion to her age is [p.147] out of place; consequently, we will but draw attention to the hint conveyed in our sketch, depicting a lady of ample proportions in the fair costume of a pansy.

The best advice we can give is as follows: If you intend appearing in fancy dress, be guided by some qualified costumier. We mean no disrespect to the talents of the dressmaker - how many pretty shepherdesses, flower girls, fairies, and other tasteful and simple creations is she not responsible for? The word "simple" is used advisedly; by all means let the dressmaker have the benefit of your custom, if you are not to rely upon her for the historical, or antiquarian accuracy of your "borrowed plumes." Job3101a.gif (26935 bytes)We are not all artists, otherwise the lot of the costumier would be hard indeed. If such were the case, we could design our own costumes, and, in most cases, let the local tailor or dressmaker do the rest. Well, as we are happily not all endowed with the artistic instinct, the costumier becomes absolutely necessary if we want to make a respectable appearance in a really striking fancy costume. We have already alluded to Napoleon and [p.148] Wellington. The absurdities of the fancy dress ball might be extended ad libitum. It is only natural that a young fellow at times wants to see how he looks in Her Majesty's uniform, whether naval or military - we speak, of course, of civilians; but is it possible to conceive anything more ludicrous than a youth with long hair in the uniform of an officer in a cavalry regiment? Job3101c.gif (24432 bytes)Sometimes in addition to the long hair, he peers at you through a pair of 'pince-nez' - all right, of course, on the nose Prussian Uhlan, but radically wrong when worn by one supposed to be an English soldier. Despite the fact that naval officers are prohibited from simply wearing a moustache only, it is no uncommon thing to see admirals, captains, and lieutenants waltzing round the ball-room, adorned with [p.149] moustaches that put the "Kitchener" moustache completely in the shade. Job3101b.gif (32874 bytes)A Knight Templar in the orthodox cloak with the Red Cross, but with evening pants of the prosaic Nineteenth Century, does not strike one as being a dignified figure. The only merit that can commend it is the fact that, at any rate, it is cheap, and - no, we shall not finish the sentence so severely, but say instead: cheap, and covers a multitude of sins. It is due, to a sense of economy, that so many young men elect to appear in what they are pleased to call the "Windsor Uniform." [p.150] So far as we can observe by the naked eye, an ordinary dress suit can be converted into a "Windsor Uniform" by covering the lappels of the coat with some red material, and sporting brass buttons or, the waistcoat. We must ask those readers who have (innocently, we are sure) at any time appeared in the incongruous characters we have so mildly satirised, to take the advice which the remarks are intended to convey in the good spirit in which it is given, and again we say, "Get thee to a costumier."

Job3502b.gif (63472 bytes)

Job3301a.gif (42661 bytes)

'Terpsichore - Her Votaries and Fashions' by T. Leggett-Byrne, Dublin, 1898:

"Contents" # "Preface" # "Juvenile Instruction"
"Etiquette of Presentation at Dublin Castle

Home # Top

Email: Chris Brady
No. of visitors since 20-10-99: [ 205 ]
Site last modified: April 09, 2010
© Chris Brady

Top # Home