The Belle of the Ball

Posted: October 16, 2007

By Victoria Kerman '08

Mount Holyoke's modern-day balls have ceased to require a particular kind of garb. Dressing to impress has become largely a matter of individual taste. But in the College's early days, party attire used to be so specific that changing styles would have dictated the shape of every gown, each season. The exact circumference of a skirt, the length of a sleeve, and the contour of a collar were as cut and dried as the steps in a waltz. So discovered Quinn Burgess '08, when she set out to construct a ball gown to resemble the dreamy concoctions worn in period films like Gone With the Wind.

"I remember the image of 'the big dress' since I was very little," Burgess confides. She was inspired to begin her sophomore year, when she took Costume Construction with Patricia Spees, costume shop manager in the theatre arts department. Quickly realizing that her undertaking went beyond the course work, Burgess decided to translate her vision of a Civil War-era ball gown into an independent project in costuming and started perusing old dress catalogues and costume manuals. A history major, she researched historical clothing trends to find that 1860 was, for her, the ideal year upon which to model her dress. "It's the time when skirts were the absolute widest!" she said.

As it took shape, the gown and its accessories acquired a personality of their own. Proper undergarments are essential components of the costume. Without its wire hoops the skirt falls limp, and a corset must support the wearer's back, enabling her to walk. A dress form and hand sewn hoopskirts occupied a large corner of Burgess's dorm room for about a month. The mannequin was dubbed "Belle" and considered an extra roommate and hallmate by Burgess's friends in Buckland Hall.

The gown, while delicate, is rather hefty. The skirt weighs around 20 pounds and is too large to fit through doorways, while the hoops must be lain flat for storage lest they bend out of shape. Burgess purchased about 20 yards of fabric for the gown, and additional trim.

During the Industrial Revolution, factories made fabric and extravagant trim available to more people. "They made dresses with absurd amounts of trim," Burgess said. "Some of them were dripping with fringe and ridiculous embellishments." She has some leftover material that she plans to use to build a second bodice suitable for daytime wear, and she is currently fashioning a menswear suit from the 1840s. Her passion for historical costume building has led to many visions and hopes for the future. "My next period dress will be from 1877," she revealed, "because that's when skirts combined the perfect mix of cascading fabric in the back, with a small train. But in the 1890s they had the best sleeves!" Burgess plans to pursue an MFA in costume construction.

Related Links