One of the most celebrated and well-known photographs by Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) is his composite image of the first major Canadian fancy dress ball, hosted by the Earl of Dufferin and his wife on February 23, 1876. This composite, which was constructed in the months following the event by cutting out individual photographs and pasting them onto a painted backdrop of the Rideau Hall ballroom, recreates a moment from this prestigious social affair. Look closely and see if you can make out the different costumes…
The fancy dress ball was a private costumed event that grew in popularity over the course of the nineteenth century in Canada. Those who were invited to a fancy ball would often portray characters from history, literature, Shakespearean plays, mythology, legends, nursery rhymes, or fairy tales, or even ones from “exotic” lands. While guests at fancy balls were expected to conform to certain societal expectations, they could also exercise a few liberties.
For example, women were permitted to wear their hair loose and flowing at the ball (normally it would have been worn up). They could also dress in outfits that revealed more of their legs than a typical ball gown of the day. Miss Minnie Smart, who came dressed in uniform as a heroic “vivandière” for the Dufferin Grand Ball, is certainly revealing a fair amount of her stockings in this photographic portrait!
Many of the costumes that men wore required tight leggings. This undoubtedly resulted in a few of the guests feeling self-conscious about their bodies, which were normally hidden under conventional dark suits.
There were also those who dressed as characters from other lands. These individuals often acted out their roles in very stereotypical ways, and their costumes did not necessarily reflect the identity that they were appropriating. Mr. Waddell, who came dressed as a “Heathen Hindoo,” apparently had his face painted brown with iodine, leaving a stain that lasted for days after the event.
Not only do these photographs serve as entertaining records of the men and women who attended this exclusive event, but they are also important visual remnants of the past that reflect the social, political and economic contexts in which they were created.
For further research
- William James Topley’s composite photographs (archived)
- William James Topley: Reflections on a Capital Photographer (archived)
- Read up on how to find photographs online
- Search the Topley Studio fonds
- Listen to a podcast on Canada’s photographic memory