In ITV’s Victoria we see the queen decide to throw a costume ball, inspired by her altruistic desire to help the failing Spitalfields silk industry (but also, admittedly, because it’s an excuse for a party).
But did this really happen or is the storyline invented?
Queen Victoria’s costume ball at Buckingham Palace
Just as we see in the drama, Queen Victoria DID decide to hold a ball. On 12 May 1842 at Buckingham Palace, over 2,000 people turned up for a great big party at a gathering called the Bal Costumé.
Prince Albert and Queen Victoria dressed as Edward III and his consort Queen Philippa of Hainault. The royal couple’s costumes were based on tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey, although their outfits were adapted to reflect the fashions of their own time. Other members of the Royal Household were also meant to take on the medieval theme, according to the Royal Collection.
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And the costumes were, indeed, specifically intended to give work to the declining Spitalfields silk industry. The couple’s outfits were designed under the supervision of James Robinson Planché – an expert on historical costume – but created by the “genius and skill” of Mr Vouillon and his “expert and tasteful sister” Madame Laure (or that’s how the Illustrated London News reported it).
The ball was immortalised by the painter Sir Edwin Landseer, who painted a commemorative portrait. Here we see Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in the Throne Room, standing beneath a Gothic canopy decorated with a purple velvet cloth of estate. On it you can see the royal arms of Edward III. Albert is shown wearing the Sword of Offering from George IV’s coronation back in 1821.
Queen Victoria also drew her own little self-portrait in her diary before the ball, writing: “Went with Albert to look at the arrangement of the rooms for our great “Bal Costume“, — which were progressing well, but are far from being finished yet. Tried on my costume once more.”
And was Albert reluctant to host a costume ball? Absolutely not – in fact he was a driving force. He’d grown up in a court with a long tradition of fancy-dress parties, and the historian Ian Hunter has noted: “It was Albert’s influence that led to so much time and effort being spent not only on the ball itself but also in capturing the moment in the formal portrait.”
This was only the first of three major costume balls. In 1845 the royal couple held a ball in Georgian dress, while in 1851 they went for the Restoration period.