The Fancy Dress Phenomenon

Victorians from all walks of life loved to dress up in costume, or "fancy dress", for parlour games, theatricals and balls. Assuming a fantasy character for an evening provided a form of escapism from their rigidly conventional lives.

Mr. Campbell as Jester
Mr. Campbell as Jester
National Archives of Canada, PA-138393

The exhibition Dressing Up Canada tells the story of three fancy dress balls held in 1896, 1897 and 1898, in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal respectively. These balls, presided over by Lady Aberdeen, wife of the Governor General, were more than mere social events. Their purpose was to edify as well as entertain, with themes on Canada's history and its relationship to Britain. Elaborate fancy dress balls such as these ranked among nineteenth-century Canada's most splendid of entertainments, and were reported on in newspapers across the country.

Everyone who went to the balls had their portrait taken by professional photographers, and you will find many of these often amusing photographs throughout. You will also find pictures of several of the actual costumes that were worn to the balls.

As a final resource for those of you who wish to pursue this subject, we offer the contents of our Credits and Links page.