The stories of balls in Ottawa

For today’s generation, the word ball is associated with something grand. That’s an earwig of times past. It was the opulent, lavish attire in which every girl and the young man tried to attract attention. They were places for dating or starting relationships or making a beneficial catch.

These days, balls are associated with dressing up for Halloween and, most of all, for New Year’s Eve or themed parties. That’s not as popular as, let’s say, it was in the latter half of the nineteenth century. A little more about those times and the balls in Ottawa will tell you about Ottawanka.

High society Balls

The Masquerade ball appeared as early as the 16th century. The events gradually transformed, as did their program, reaching the peak of popularity. The events at the French court at the Château de Versailles went down in the history of the Balls as their grandest forever. The guests danced until late at night. Most of the visitors were young and single people who enjoyed socializing, delicious food and drink and getting acquainted. In Canada, as well as in the capital Ottawa, the balls did not bypass the townspeople.

Costume parties were really at the peak of their popularity in those days, especially among the middle and upper classes in Britain and North America. It was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who initiated the events eagerly awaited by all citizens. High society was immediately captivated by the idea. Here are a few reasons for such popularity and delight for balls:

  • It was the socialites and the aristocrats who organized the spectacular events. To be invited was considered the highest honor.
  • Events, as well as those who attended, were covered in magazines and newspapers. The press judged attendees’ costumes and their names.

Ball dress code

Ball attendees had the right to express themselves. For example, girls and women had the opportunity to let their hair down instead of wearing a strict chignon. In other circumstances, such impertinent actions would have provoked public condemnation and shame, but not at the ball. During the solemn event, the usual traditional clothing, floor-length dresses with long sleeves, could be replaced by transparent silk outfits while showing off the arms.

What did the gentlemen wear? The dress code of the Masquerade ball gave freedom to the young men as well. A black frock coat, for example, could be set aside for weekdays in favor of lace, ruffs and bright satins. 

It would be worth adding that most of the guests rented outfits from professional costume designers. In general, guests spent a vast fortune on individual tailoring of luxurious and exclusive attire.

Fancy dress ball at Rideau Hall

It is a historic event, a costume ball hosted in February 1876 by Canada’s Governor General. The press in North America and Great Britain covered the event from the Earl of Dufferin (James V of Scotland) and his wife, Lady Dufferin (Mary of Guise). Following the release of this material, Ottawa and Canada were put on the social map of the world.

The ball in Ottawa has been spoken of for a generation as an incredible event that no one has been able to eclipse for a long time.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen’s balls

In 1896 a grand event took place. The Governor General and his wife, Lord and Lady Aberdeen, hosted a large-scale ball that went down in the city’s history forever.  It is worth telling a little about Lady Aberdeen, born Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks, who was the event initiator. The woman was known for her sturdy social views. Subsequently, she founded the Victorian Order of Nurses as well as the Canadian branch of the National Council of Women.

Lady Aberdeen was fond of historical contests and lavish and sumptuous gowns. She participated in the arrangements of three major balls held in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

Lord and Lady Aberdeen’s first ball in Ottawa

On February 17, 1896, an event included in the collection of remarkable episodes in Canadian history took place. It was the first of three famous balls held in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill. That period was characterized by the religious and linguistic schism in Canada. Lord and Lady Aberdeen stood as progressives and attempted to emphasize that they were honoring their country’s history through their actions.

Over 1,300 invitations were sent, requiring guests to dress in one of nine historical groups. Each group included famous historical figures as well as supporting characters. The clerk of the House of Commons, an author of books on Canadian history, chose a theme for each group. It was indeed a spectacular event, striking in its scale. The preparation for the ball itself was also extraordinary.

However, the ball was almost canceled because of the death of Prince Henry of Battenberg. Under the protocol, there were supposed to be six weeks of mourning. Still, the ball took place but the governor-general and his lady did not dress up for the ball, given the norms of the protocol.

Lady Aberdeen came to welcome their guests in a formal court dress, wearing a veil and ostrich feathers. Lord Aberdeen wore the official Windsor uniform.

Features of conducting the ball

Two days before the planned date of the event, a dress rehearsal was supposed to be held. Dancing was challenging, so some groups hired an instructor and rehearsed a lot and learned the moves. Here is an example. The group that portrayed Jacques Cartier’s discovery of Canada performed a quadrille. The other group, which got the Days of Montcalm and Wolfe, danced the Farandole.

A quite interesting fact is that Lady Aberdeen also took care of the clothes for all the invitees. She invited two costume designers from Montreal to Ottawa. Thus, guests of the ball could rent splendid outfits for the night for $5 to $10.

During this period, the Senate Chamber was temporarily closed. It was necessary to arrange a dance floor worth $25 thousand as to1896. Such an exorbitant price in those days was later condemned, as well as the workers’ overtime labor.

The ballroom featured decorations, while blue silk flags with a crown fluttered on each pillar. One room of the Senate chamber was set aside purposely for the orchestra, while the other was for the buffet-style dining room.

At 9 p.m., the ball began. The police checked the invitations at the door. By 11 p.m., about 240 participants had already left the dance floor and gone down to the dining room. After clearing the floor, guests danced again. The grand ball lasted until 5 a.m. It was a success. The press called the ball “a brilliant spectacle that can’t be compared with anything else.”

Lord and Lady Aberdeen could only rejoice at this as, for one night, the linguistic and religious schism was temporarily forgotten. The importance was entirely on something else, namely the dancing and costumes, as well as the preparation and the sheer scale of the event.