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The Gala Dress

A Gala is a big party where ladies use to wear their fanciest ball gown. The definition of this kind of party and the costume habits are strictly connected, in fact the word “Gala” comes from the old French Gale.

Evening dress is the prevailing style prescribed by fashion to be worn in special occasions, with surprisingly complex expectations related to appropriateness of the outfit. Regardless of the era, it is intricately connected to fashions of the day, with specific characteristics that distinguishes it from everyday dress. The evening gown especially amplifies a woman’s femininity, intensifying her desirability.

Mexique. Evening dress designed by Christian Dior. 1951. Photo by Jean Tholance. Courtesy of Les Arts Décoratifs, Paris. All rights reserved.

Evening wear for women, also known as court dress in the past, has its origins in the 15th century with the rise of the Burgundian court and its fashionable ruler, entitled Philip the Good. Rich fabrics and bright colours were used by the nobility as a signifier of social status. During the 16th and 17th centuries a vibrant court life allowed fashionable ladies to showcase their finery, making Italian Renaissance courts a landmark of style and elegance in Europe. Later in the Baroque era, the focus began to shift to France and the court of Louis XIV.

Fashion plate. Christmas and New Year's Party, December 1875. The Young Ladies' Journal. London. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum. CC BY SA

Fashion plate. Christmas and New Year's Party, December 1875. The Young Ladies' Journal. London. Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum. CC BY SA

During the 18th century, a ball or evening dress was synonymous with court dress, as balls took place at court. By the 1820s, fashion had been fairly democratized. Additionally, Parisian and American fashion magazines has gained popularity among women in the United States and Europe. Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Magazine used to publish fashion plates with captions of dresses illustrated according to explicit activities or time of day. From these labels, it seems the evening dress was born.

Embroidered red velvet gala dress. 1902. Courtesy of Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti.

Embroidered red velvet gala dress. 1902. Courtesy of Galleria del Costume di Palazzo Pitti.

Today, the evening gown comes in different silhouettes and even lengths, but the full-skirted ball gown remains the pinnacle of formality. Limited to formal or semi-formal events, women’s gowns vary drastically from black garments to revealing objets d’art, drawing attention to a woman’s body, establishing her as an object to be gazed upon by her audience.

Model on catwalk wearing an evening long dress by Chanel. 1990. Courtesy of Nordiska Museet. CC BY NC ND

Take a look to our glamourous selection of Ball Gowns on Europeana Fashion Portal and find an inspiration for your New Year’s Eve look!

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