Ballgowns and Dinner Invitations

We recently held one of our popular Reading from the Archives events with a very swish title – Ballgowns and Dinner Invitations. Planning for this event was an opportunity to scour the archives using our online catalogue, and find some documents that would give us an insight into what it was like to attend a fancy dinner, a themed ball and discover what one might wear for such an occasion.

In 1905, Hilda Zigomala wrote in one of her beautifully hand written and illustrated journals (NRO, MC 2738/10), about a ball hosted by her mother, Lady North on 6 January. In her journal covering the period 23 December 1904 to 11 January 1905, Hilda wrote about the Christmas she had spent with her family, and how her son John was so giddy with excitement. She wrote:

We had a great day on Christmas & really the presents the children all had would have stocked a shop – John’s excitement over it all was delightful to see, he hung up his trousers as well as his stocking!

Extract from NRO, MC 2738/10

When discussing the grand Poudré ball (where the ladies powdered their hair or wigs white) hosted by Lady North, Hilda said:

Lady North’s dance at the abbey was a great success. It was a Poudre ball and nothing can describe how pretty it was as it all suited the lovely old house to perfection, & everyone looked so nice too as powder is as becoming. We danced in the big dining room which of course is all oak panelled from floor to ceiling & showed off the powder to perfection. I had not been to a ball for ages & quite dreaded it fearing I should be quite a wall flower in my old age, but I managed to get lots of partners & enjoyed myself thoroughly. We did not get home till nearly 4AM!!

Extract from NRO, MC 2738/10

Hilda Zigomala was born in 1869, so the ‘old age’ she is referring to in this journal entry was 36! We have written about Hilda before on our blog, as her journals are such a wonderful source of inspiration and beauty, written and illustrated between 1889 and 1920. The pages include a combination of journal entries, family photographs, drawings, paintings and cuttings, covering all aspects of domestic and family life, wider family celebrations and events, social life (balls and parties, opera and drama at London theatres and attendance at major public events, such as the opening of Parliament), country pursuits and other leisure activities such as painting, drawing, photography, golf and tennis. Pets, gardening, travel, cycling. motoring, army life in England and abroad also feature.

Looking at other documents from the NRO collection that highlight what it was like to attend a grand function, we get a full blown account of the Mayors Feast held in Norwich in 1778 from Elizabeth (Betsy) Leathes (NRO, BOL 2/28/14). Betsy and her husband Edward, to whom she had been married in secret a couple of years earlier, were guests at the Mayors Feast. Betsy wrote to her mother Elizabeth giving a fantastic account of their attendance at the ball, and were ‘all sumptuously entertained with every rarity that could be procured’.

Betsy went into detail about the outfits worn by the Mayor and Mayoress and their children:

The Ladies were all elegantly dressed especially Mrs Mayoress who had a very pretty brocaded lutestring suit of cloath with a very large hood richly ornamented with silver fringe and beads & gauze striped with Lylack. A beautiful pair of point lappets very long. Ruffles & Tippet the same, with handsome diamonds & pearls in her hair and ears. The Mayor was in a lylack silk suit of cloaths elegantly trimmed with silver. They have two daughters & a son, the eldest not more than eight. The little boy had on a blue silk spotted suit of cloaths, the little girl had fine worked muslin frocks trimmed & bordered with silver over a pale pink lutestring with fine meckin lace.

Extract from NRO, BOL 2/28/14

Our final extract (NRO, BOL 2/42, 739X8 from the archives comes from Mary Pocock. Mary wrote a letter to her friend Betsy Leathes in 1772, with a description of a dinner and ball that she had attended at Mansion House in London. Mansion House, home to the city’s Lord Mayor, had been newly completed in 1758. Mary describes some of the extravagant décor found in the Egyptian Hall, described on the Mansion House website as ‘A grand room, seating 350, this Hall has nothing Egyptian about its decoration. It should actually be known as the Roman Hall, as it is based on designs by the classical Roman architect Vitruvius of Roman buildings in Egypt, with giant columns supporting a narrower attic area’.

Mary describes her surroundings of the Egyptian Hall:

We dined in the Egyptian Hall where there were three Tables each of which held an hundred people with great ease the Desert was a string of Pavillions at small distances from each other & between were artificial Palm Trees besides Shrubs and Flowers some of the Temples were so high as to touch the glass Lusters which were suspended from the ceiling. At the table were the Lord Mayor Lady Mayoress & their company sat were two reservoirs for water with gold and silver fish swimming in them & in the middle were grottos with fountains which continued playing all the time we were in the hall.

Extract from NRO, BOL 2/42, 739X8

It wasn’t all fun and games, though, as Mary tell us it could be quite exhausting being a guest at such an event, and she ends her description of the occasion with the following:

I assure you I never saw such a crowd nor was ever happier than when I got out of it. There was afterwards dancing in two other rooms where I danced a couple of cotillons which completely fatigued me & after spending a day & a night at the Mansion House made the arrival of our coach very agreeable.

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