You shall go to the ball: glamour and nostalgia in society shindigs

We may not all embrace our inner Cinderella on a daily basis. Indeed, in a society increasingly aware of gender equality, endorsing an event that traditionally places women on a pedestal and idealises beautiful women may be seen as outdated and potentially sexist. However, masquerade balls and society balls continue to be popular amongst both women and men within many types of social circles. If such an event presents potential breeding grounds for reaffirming the traditional, often sexist, societal roles of men and women, why do they continue to provide an intoxicating allure?

The tradition of masquerade balls stems from the 15th century, when they were a feature of Carnival season. Initially an exclusively royal event to promulgate the tradition of the royal entry and dynastic lineage, the masquerade ball gradually became a more public affair, extending into public festivities in 16th century Italy. The popularity of the ball and allure of carnival festivity was captured within contemporary culture; for example, Verdi wrote the opera The Masked Ball to convey the culture and events within such events.

Nor was this fascination with the masked ball limited to Europe. In colonial North America, masquerade balls became popular within the 18th century. Yet this popularity was not all pervasive. An anti-masquerade movement, including writers such as Samuel Richardson, denounced the masked ball, arguing that it created potential for immorality and “foreign influence”. Yet such opinion was held by a minority. Semi-private masked balls continued nonetheless, organised by high flying socialites; within London in the 1770s, fashionable Londoners went to masquerades organised by Teresa Cornelys in Carlisle House, Soho Square.

Today, society balls and masquerade balls are rarely, if ever, about reaffirming one’s societal position and class. Nor, I suspect, are they viewed as a necessity for reaffirming one’s royal status or dynastic lineage. Instead, the more dressed down society ball is increasingly prevalent within work environments and cultural festivals. Yet this increasing interest is not limited to those who participate as guests at the ball; the organisation and promotion of such events is becoming more prevalent and popular. A simple Google search of masked or society balls quickly reveals links to pages describing how you, yes you, can organise an elegant, glamorous and well-organised ball for your friends and colleagues. Whilst nowhere near the scale of 16th century Renaissance masked balls, perhaps this resurging popularity of hosting such a social event is indicative of the desire for an event where those involved in the organising, as well as the guests, can well and truly indulge in escapism.

On a smaller scale, at the University of Edinburgh a great majority of schools provide a society ball of some variety, and for varying prices. Instead of the masked ball, the society ball is increasingly becoming the opportunity to have fun in a more glamorous fashion than a typical night out in Hive. Perhaps a crucial reason that so many students embrace society balls is precisely because it provides them with a small window of time where they can escape the often monotonous daily routine. Dressing up as Cinders or Prince Charming, whilst not solving problems or promoting a family heritage, can nonetheless provide us with a nostalgic glimmer of glamour.

Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art (Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta)

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