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he Grand March was about to begin.
Gentlemen in their finest tail coats led ladies in lavishly trimmed ball gowns with ruche and ribbons onto the dance floor.
Dressed in dark blue frock coats with shiny gold buttons, the Philadelphia Brigade Band played “The Spirit of the North March.” Couples began a slow promenade that quickly turned into a lively parade as the ladies and gentlemen pranced hand in hand in circular formations, admiring one another’s finery. The Master of the House explained, “The purpose of the Grand March is to see what everyone else is wearing.”
At Albright’s first Victorian Fashion Ball, what everyone was wearing was exactly the point.
This public event, held in the Scholl LifeSports Center, was an evening of living history, fashion and social graces, as well as the culmination of a labor-intensive project for fashion students in Paula Trimpey’s Interim course “Advanced Costume Construction.” A committee of fashion students and the student group Club Vogue organized the event, and Albright’s radio station WXAC-91 FM sponsored the band.
From researching the construction of the ball gown to creating a pattern, choosing the fabric and sewing the garment, students made their own ball gowns in the style of the Victorian Crinoline period of fashion, 1859-1865. The entire Victorian era spans 1837 to 1901, when Queen Victoria ruled England.
Erica Rudzinski ’11, who has been sewing since she was 14, took Trimpey’s class and spent all day, every day of the three-week Interim session working on her white-striped chiffon dress with teal lining. Teal knife pleating set off the neckline and sleeves, and the skirt, which required eight yards of fabric, had three tiers of ruffles. “It was a little dicey dancing in that huge skirt,” Rudzinski said, “but it was a lot of fun. I wouldn’t mind going back in time for a night just to go to a ball.”
The Victorian Dance Ensemble, the performance troupe of the Civil War Dance Foundation, demonstrated the dances and provided instruction. Raven Young, a Reading-area artist dressed in a black gown complete with a wooden coffin purse, said she hadn’t planned on dancing, but gave it a shot and liked it.
Penn State Berks student Peter Tulay said the opportunity to dress in Victorian attire was “a dream come true. I love everything about the Victorian era—the technology, fashions, social mindsets, architecture… If I could live back then I would,” he said. “But we’d better learn how to dance,” noted Young with a grin.
Dancing in the mid-Victorian era was much more social and formal than modern dancing. Dances were done in defined formations, making it possible for couples to mingle and interact, and it was considered ill-mannered to dance with the same person more than once. It was the gentleman’s responsibility to find a partner, and white gloves were worn so as not to soil the clothing. Once the dance began, each person honored their partner and their neighbor with a curtsey or bow.
Although Kathleen Peightel ’09 wasn’t in Trimpey’s course, she seized the opportunity to make a ball gown. “I don’t think I ever in my wildest dreams thought I would have a chance to wear a ball gown, much less make one,” she said. Peightel’s gown was light blue with a silver and champagne leaf print satin brocade. A bow and gold decorative leaves embellished the bodice and shoulders. Underneath she wore a crinoline, a hoop skirt and the corset she constructed in last year’s corset workshop led by Jeff Lieder, costume director for the Utah Shakespeare Festival. “It took a long time to get dressed!” she said. But it was worth it, she added. The evening was “a little bit magical.”
Magical, educational and also interdisciplinary, said Trimpey, assistant professor of theatre and fashion, who was dressed in her own handcrafted gown, one of a dozen she has made and worn to various balls. Trimpey’s aqua silk Chantilly lace gown, lined in silver silk satin, was topped with a wide boat neckline. It featured a fitted boned bodice with a point at the center front and was ladder-laced at the back.
“It’s history walking right before your eyes,” Trimpey said. Not only did the event benefit history, theatre and fashion majors, but “music students benefitted from hearing a band that formed in 1830 and is still dedicated to the music of the period. Psychology and sociology students observed the social interactions and etiquette of the time. It’s truly interdisciplinary,” she said.
Following a brief break for refreshments and mingling, the Master of the House called dancers back to the floor for the second hour-long dance set. This set would begin with a traditional waltz, a dance that was considered the most contemporary of the time; one you saved for “your sweetheart,” Trimpey said.
But before couples were asked to honor their partners, the Master of the House reminded everyone that “in 19th century etiquette whenever someone messes up, it’s always the man’s fault.”
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