Dressing Up at Ottawa’s Fancy Dress Balls and Skating Carnivals (1876–1896)

By: Emma Hamilton-Hobbs

Don’t you just love to dress up, spending hours upon hours devoted to selecting, conducting research on, and finally creating an impressive outfit for an exclusive costumed event? Well, many Canadians in the late nineteenth century certainly did!

A fancy dress ball was a private costumed party that grew in popularity over the course of the nineteenth century, hosted and attended primarily by the most privileged members of society. The men and women who received invitations to the events spent weeks upon weeks carefully selecting their costumes, poring over published magazines and books devoted to fancy dress, and even perusing historical books or paintings for inspiration. Popular ideas included historical dress, literary, mythological and allegorical characters, and finally, characters from “exotic” lands.

Newspapers in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal reported extensively on the major Canadian fancy dress balls, providing detailed descriptions of the various costumes that the elite guests had worn. Many who attended the balls eagerly flocked to photography studios in the days and months following these special occasions to have their portraits taken in costume. Sometimes these portraits were used to create impressive composite photographs, including the one fabricated by Ottawa photographer William James Topley (1845–1930) of the Grand Fancy Ball hosted by Governor General Lord Dufferin and his wife Lady Dufferin in the Rideau Hall ballroom on February 23, 1876.

A group photograph of hundreds of costumed guests at a fancy dress ball. The background is a painting of the Rideau Hall ballroom.

Composite image of the Dufferin Grand Fancy Ball at Rideau Hall on February 23, 1876. The final composite was completed in either May or June. (e008295343).

This composite was created by pasting hundreds of individual portraits taken in Topley’s studio onto a painted scene of the Rideau Hall ballroom, which was then re-photographed to create the final product. Topley learned how to create composite images from his former mentor and employer, William Notman (1826–1891), who owned a successful photography studio in Montreal. Topley, like Notman, was an astute businessman who took full advantage of these vice-regal events to turn a profit, as guests were eager to have their costumed characters preserved in the form of photographic portraits that they could share with family and friends, or paste into personal albums as memorable keepsakes.

Many individuals played up their character in the photography studio, assuming different poses and using a variety of props in their staged portraits. Mr. Campbell posed theatrically as a “Court Jester” when he visited Topley’s studio shortly after the Grand Fancy Ball hosted by the Dufferins had ended. William Campbell was the private secretary to Lord Dufferin and a well-liked staff member.

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed as a jester and posing in a photography studio. He grasps a puppet on a stand in his right hand.

William Campbell, private secretary to Lord Dufferin, as a “Court Jester” by William Topley, March 1876. (e011091709)

Miss Maggie Jones and Miss Zaidee Cockburn both dressed up as “Bonnie Fishwives of New Haven” at the Dufferins’ Grand Fancy Ball. They attracted some attention throughout the evening, which may have been linked to the lengths of their skirts, which were much shorter than acceptable Victorian dress.

A black-and-white photograph of a young woman dressed up as a “fishwife” and posing in a photography studio. She is shown standing with her left hand resting on her hip, her other hand holding a papier mâché fish and her right foot raised and leaning on a wooden barrel.

Miss Maggie Jones dressed as a “Bonnie Fishwife of New Haven” by William Topley, March 1876 (e011091718).

Fancy dress skating carnivals were also very popular during this time, and, unlike the fancy dress balls, were far more accessible to the average Canadian citizen. In his studio, Topley recreated outdoor skating scenes for his sitters with a painted, snowy backdrop complete with artificial snow and a reflective surface to imitate ice. Women loved to wear peasant or pastoral dress to skating carnivals, as shorter skirts also allowed them to move around freely on skates.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed up in costume as a shepherdess on skates in a photography studio. The backdrop is a painted, snowy scene.

Miss Fraser as a “Shepherdess” by William Topley, February 1889 (a138398)

Allegorical characters were also well represented at the fancy dress balls and skating carnivals. Women dressed as “Night,” “A Hornet,” “The Alphabet,” or even as the “Dominion of Canada,” as represented by Mrs. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine at the Dufferins’ ball.

A black-and-white photograph of a woman dressed up as the “Dominion of Canada” in a photography studio. On the front of her dress is the coat of arms of the Dominion surrounded by embroidered maple leaves, with miniature snowshoes on the train of her dress.

Mrs. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine as the “Dominion of Canada” by William Topley, March 1876. (e011091705)

A black-and-white photograph of a man dressed up as explorer “Jacques Cartier” in a photography studio.

Mr. Juschereau de St. Denis LeMoine dressed as explorer “Jacques Cartier,” March 1876. (e011091707)

The Historical Fancy Dress Ball hosted by the Governor General, the Earl of Aberdeen, and his wife, Lady Aberdeen, in the Senate Chamber of the original Parliament buildings on February 17, 1896, was another widely reported event. This educational ball featured nine periods in Canadian history, from the Vikings to the Loyalists, enacted by two hundred and fifty individuals in a series of dances at the ball.

A photographic portrait of a group representing the voyages of the Norsemen at the Aberdeens’ ball illustrates how the medium of photography had evolved since the Dufferins’ ball twenty years earlier. Topley, who once again photographed the groups in his studio after the ball had ended, could now take an entire group together as a result of faster exposure times. The scene is also illuminated by natural light streaming in from the skylight seen at the top left of the image.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of seventeen men, women and girls wearing Viking costumes in a photography studio.

A historic group representing the voyages of the Norsemen to Northeastern North America photographed in Topley’s studio. They were the first historic group who performed a lively “polska” at the Historical Fancy Dress Ball hosted by Lord and Lady Aberdeen in February 1896. The young girl seated in the middle is Lady Marjorie Gordon, daughter of the vice-regal hosts, wearing a white and gold dress with her mother’s Celtic jewellery. (a137981).

A souvenir album was created and sold to guests afterward as well, illustrated with photographs of the historic groups taken by Topley (with the exception of one group) and text by historian and civil servant Dr. John George Bourinot, who provided advice and guidance to Lady Aberdeen in the months leading up to the event. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has a copy of this souvenir album in its collection.

All of the above digitized images were reproduced from original glass plate negatives found in the Topley Studio fonds at LAC. These images, along with many others taken by Topley of guests who attended the Ottawa fancy dress balls and skating carnivals, are available online through LAC’s website.

Reproductions of these original glass plate negatives are on display at the National Gallery of Canada in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.


Emma Hamilton-Hobbs is a photo archivist in the Government Archives Division at Library and Archives Canada.

2 thoughts on “Dressing Up at Ottawa’s Fancy Dress Balls and Skating Carnivals (1876–1896)

  1. Good on you, Emma! Keep up the good work — the use of photography, the place of photography in society, the limitations of photography: all these have to be brought forward so that people can appreciate what was done in the past and possibly apply that appreciation to the present.

  2. I just read “Tell” by Frances Itani which features a much anticipated skating fancy dress party. The book is set in Deseronto at the end of WWI and is chock full if fascinating historic details. I understand Ms Itani did a lot of her research at the National Archives. The cover of the book is a photo of a man skating outdoors at night taken around 1919.

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