Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Gaskell Victorian Ball’

IMG_20200422_151151

We are studying the 19th century in Fashion History class so now is a good time to discuss the ball gown I had made some years ago.

I had been attending the Gaskell Ball, which was a formal Victorian dance held several times a year at the Scottish Rite Temple in Oakland. Quite the time travel event, the Gaskell Ball (named for the Victorian writer Elizabeth Gaskell) gathered a couple hundred people all dressed in formal attire mostly 18th and 19th centuries, a few 20th.  Men in tails or kilts and women in satin or velvet gowns with swishing hoop skirts, elegantly yet swiftly spun in pairs around the large auditorium keeping up with the pace of the band called Brassworks. There were waltzes, polkas, and my favorite Congress of Vienna .

When not dancing, people strolled the room as if part of a royal court. They nodded to one another, perhaps fluttered a fan or tipped a top hat. It was all rather dreamy.

(Most of the women made their own gowns. Probably members of the various costume guilds in the area. There was always a flurry of last minute hand sewing going on in the Ladies Room before the start of the evening, not to mention a lot of heightened emotion.)

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For my first Gaskell I wore a 1930s style cream color lace gown, which was lovely, BUT I soon decided I wanted my own 19th century ball gown. That began an adventure into patterns and fabric, seamstresses and fittings.

IMG_20200425_173226

Women’s printed cotton dress with demi-gigot sleeves. c. 1830-1835.

I started at Lacis – a fabulous Berkeley store featuring all things antique and vintage from lace and lace making tools to patterns, books, notions, jewelry and a collection of clothing much of which is now part of their museum. At Lacis, with the help of my mother, I settled on an 1830s gown pattern by Past Patterns (technically not Victorian, but close enough). It has the distinct 1830s demi-gigot sleeves, slightly high waist, and full skirt. This time period in fashion was all about the sleeve and there was a lot of variation in puff, from extreme to “demi.”

The next step was to find a seamstress and Lacis recommended Deborah Starks, who actually specialized in Art Deco wedding gowns, but she was willing to take on this project, luckily for me because she did an excellent job and I know it was challenging.

On to the fabric. My mother guided me toward something dressy and suitable for evening. I went with a peach brocade. I liked that the fabric didn’t need any embellishment. After seeing lost ribbons and bows scattered on the Gaskells dance floor and women in tears over ripped ruffles or collapsed hoops, I knew I wanted no fuss. The brocade gave the look without the hassle.

To fill out the skirt, I thought a crinoline would work and I went to a bridal shop. I remember the saleslady had a really hard time understanding:  “No, I don’t want a wedding gown,” I explained. “Just the crinoline for an 19th century … never-mind. Just show me the crinolines, please.” This was the very beginning of themed events, when not so many of us were doing it and the idea of dressing in period costume was puzzling to most people.

Then the shoes. There was no way I could be period accurate with the shoes. Soft satin slippers were not a good idea on that fast moving dance floor. I needed protection and frankly, at least some height. Again my mother assisted in shoe shopping at Nordstrom, where I found a cream leather and lace shoe by Amalfi with a two inch Louis heel.

I chose for the evening bag, or reticule as they were called back then, a little pouch bag that had belonged to my grandmother and was embroidered with silver thread.

IMG_20200425_173143What to do with my hair? Well, that was tricky as the styles of the day were complex and not flattering (see image left). I kept it simple and pushed back my hair with a green ribbon, letting a few curls fall around my face.

It was a cold December night when I debuted the gown. My dancing friends and I took photos and proudly participated in the opening march where we all sang Rule Britannia. Full of energy and excitement the ball sped by as quickly as a Victorian waltz and left my head spinning, too.

In addition to the Gaskell Ball, I have worn my gown to a masquerade dance, a Victorian-themed Christmas party, and once to the Victorian literature class I took in the MFA program at Mills College.

The Gaskell Ball, sadly, is no more and there are few opportunities to sport this  gown. Over the years I have considered selling it, but then I think not. Even though Victorian dances are long gone, there is still the dress and with it many fond memories of times past.

Recently, during this pandemic, I put the gown on and wore it around the house for a few hours. What fun to revisit the soft rustle of the crinoline, the texture of the fabric, and the overall feeling of elegance wearing something so lovely.

 

 

Read Full Post »

That's me! At The Gaskell Ball, c.1995.

That’s me! At The Gaskell Ball.

Speaking of the Scottish Rite Center, once upon a time I used to be a regular at the Gaskell Ball held there in first floor Grand Ballroom. The Gaskells were formal Victorian balls and I learned about them back in the mid-90s at the Starry Plough Pub where I showed up every Monday night for Irish dancing. Yes, I was quite the dance-enthusiast.

Gaskells were great fun for the quick-paced waltzes, mazurkas, and my favorite, polkas, but I was also enchanted by the gowns. Many of the women dancers were members of various local costume guilds so they donned their own creations, often putting on the finishing touches in the Ladies Lounge mere seconds before the Royal Britannia Grand March, which was the start of the evening. And I have to share that the ball really wasn’t a success until one of us (never me) lost her hoop skirt on the dance floor. I was always impressed with how unimpressed the gentlemen were whenever this happened – Oh, another lady lost her hoop – one might casually say maneuvering around the embarrassed dancer.

Looking at the full-length gowns in satin or velvet swishing around the dance floor teased my desire for the elegance of times past. I also reveled in the decorum and near perfect manners on behalf of the men, dressed in tails, top hats, and white gloves, which were worn to protect the ladies’ gowns from soiling. Some gentlemen wore military uniforms others kilts! They’d bow and ask for a dance, escort a lady on and off the dance floor, treating us with distant respect as if we were made of fine porcelain. At that time, it all made my heart race. Independent spirit be damned, at least for a few hours every other month.

IMG_20150602_052339728

Although most attendees sported Victorian, anything formal was allowed and I went Art Deco the first few times but it wasn’t long before I wanted to fully partake in the era with my own Victorian gown. So, a project was launched. I started at Lacis in Berkeley, a shop known for lace and antiquity. I discovered the reproduction pattern company, Past Patterns and chose an 1831 gown, just before Victoria’s reign but close enough, and the name of a local seamstress that I was told was up to the challenge, Debra Starks.

Backside.

Looks pink but it was a true peach.

Next I found fabric at a fabric store right down the street from where I was living (those were the days) – a cotton brocade in peach. Now, let me say I was not rolling in money and this was not an inexpensive endeavor but I did have a second job as an actress in mystery dinner theater. Every penny I made working on the weekends went for my Victorian Dress Project and that made it all even more special.

I had several fittings with Debra and she made the dress to perfection, as original to the 1830s as she could get with no zippers but only snaps and hooks. I opted for a crinoline, which came from a bridal shop and I recall the saleslady did not understand why I wanted a crinoline if I didn’t also want a wedding dress. Undergarments included bloomers and a chemise. Even though 1830s style footwear would have been more of a slipper I wanted (ah, needed) a bit of a heel. I went for Peter Fox shoes in cream with lace detailing. I had my hair curled and used ribbon to tie it up.

Those first few Gaskell Balls in my lovely dress were a dream as I too finally got to swish around the dance floor. Over the years I have also worn the dress to a masquerade ball, a costume Christmas party, and I really enjoyed showing it off in a Victorian literature class I was taking in graduate school.

My Victorian dancing days are a thing of the past and sadly, the Gaskell Ball is no more but I still have the dress and once in a while I consider passing it along. But really, how can I do that? It’s a part of my personal fashion history.

Read Full Post »