The following has been reproduced from the Fancy Dress 1995 pamphlet: “The History of the Fancy Dress Ball”
“The History of the Fancy Dress Ball”
The lore of the Fancy Dress ball says February 12, 1907 was the date of the first ball, a creation of librarian Annie Jo White, using $42 in leftover theater funds. But Fancy Dress first made an appearance 31 years earlier.
The September 27, 1876 issue of the Southern Collegian magazine described a recent “Fancy Dress Hop.” There’s evidence of similar “hops” dating back to 1866 – stages off-campus, without the sanction or approval of the university. The Collegian said the Fancy Dress hop was a “great success” and led to a series of similar dances, one of which a Collegian reporter said was too short; it ended at 3 A.M.
The interest in these new balls shocked the local Protestant churches and school trustes. An observer asked, “What would Stonewall Jackson think of the youth of Lexington dancing to the licentious german or disgusting racket?” He was also concerned about “girls [who] were simply doing too much hugging.”
The February 9, 1907 issue of The Ring-tum Phi announced the upcoming “Bal Masque” on Tuesday, February 12. It promised an “affair…exceptionally pretty and brilliant…and quite an innovation to Lexington society.” Decorations in the gymnasium included evergreen hangings and Japanese lanterns. Silver urns were filled with coffee and chocolate. The crowd danced to the sounds of the VMI orchestra, who ended their set with “Home Sweet Home” at 2 A.M. There was class the next day.
Fancy Dress 1909 was held on a skating rink on Main Street. The rink was decorated with flags of many nations arranged among Oriental lanterns. The Fancy Dress Balls were held at the skating rink until 1914, when they moved back to the gymnasium.
1920’s Bookland amazed even the casual observer: “The orchestra struck up a spirited march. The, then [sic’ burst in the argent revelry, with plume, tiara, and all rich array. The music, sighing like a ‘God in pain’ went into every heart until the people, swaying in unison as the melody throbbed, saw unroll a figure of unusual complication and beauty,” a Ring-tum Phi reporter gushed. Costumes represented included Faust, Mikado, and Carmen characters.
Evergreen trees decorated 1922’s Scottish Highlands. The Ring-tum Phi said “The most notable part of the whole ‘carnival’ was the unusually beautiful girls who thronged to Lexington…such a type of femininity is peculiar only to a certain particularly favored corners of the inter-collegiate world.”
1924’s My Lady of the Fan was based on John A. Graham’s book of the same name. The song is about the Rajah of Persia offering Princess Dona Maria of Spain her choice of fans as a wedding present. Decorations for the ball included six tableaux, each one describing a fan from a different country. The 1924 ball was the first one under the control of a president elected by the student body.
1925’s Romance of the Dance was officially termed a portrayal of the evolution of dance from ancient themes to the modern age. Two orchestras performed on the Fancy Dress floor for the first time.
Following the 1926 ball, The Ring-tum Phi urged a change in Fancy Dress dance policy: “Due to the crowded conditions which will exist on the floor, it has been suggested that the ‘Charleston,’ which has been banned at several southern schools, be limited as much as possible.”
The dance floor of 1927’s Carnival of Venice was surrounded by decorated curtains depicting imaginary scenes of Venice. Blinker lights, encased in hand-painted transparent boxes, flashed on and off. Sweet Briar College was the most represented, as traditional, of the women’s colleges.
1928’s Bookland featured two huge Dutch wind mills inside Doremus Gymnasium. The blades were covered in lights and reflected on the walls of covered balloons, streamers, and tissue paper.
At the 1931 Fancy Dress, King Richard Coeur de Lion helped reconcile Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Women from Sweet Briar College couldn’t attend the dance because of a diphtheria quarantine; Hollins women couldn’t come because of exams. Roanoke radio station WBDJ broadcast live the Fancy Dress sounds of Hal Kemp and his twelve-piece band. Officials of the Lucky Strike radio network said that broadcast was one of the five best of the year.
1933’s Ball of the Grandees depicted the royal court of Philip IV of Spain. Costumes were fashioned after those made by the Spanish painter Velasquez. The coronation of Czar Alexander III of Russia was reenacted for the 1934 ball.
1935’s First Imperial Ridotte of 1815 depicted one of the great balls of the Congress of Vienna. The Associated Press distributed pictures of the ball via its new wire-photo service. Ballgoers received a commemorative picture frame carrying the motif of the ball, as well as the crest of the university
The Fancy Dress Ball committee set aside $350 to decorate a “smoking room” for the 1937 ball. Plans called for Venetian blinds for the windows, floor lamps, chairs, and lamps. The committee said the decoration was another step in a program adopted of adding to the facilities in the gymnasium every year.
1938’s Old South featured a recreation of the mansion of South Carolina Governor Francis W. Pickens in the spring of 1861, just before the outbreak of war. Ms. Annie Jo White said she liked this year’s theme but she felt Fancy Dress was “getting to be too much of a public affair now…it used to be almost a private dance, but now anyone can get in.”
1939’s Fancy Dress recreated the palace of Governor Alexander Spottswood in 1716 in Colonial Williamsburg. Juniors and seniors were admitted to the main dance floor, and sophomores and freshmen were admitted to the balcony. Spectators were also admitted to the balcony for $1 per person. The theme, Knights of the Golden Horse Shoe, was an order surveyors were inducted in after they ,made an exploratory expedition to the Shenandoah Valley. The induction took place in the governor’s palace.
For the ball there were 1,100 advance room reservations in Lexington. Women for 30 states, Cuba, and Canada attended the ball. So did Virginia Governor James H. Price.
Students wore costumes reminiscent of the “Roaring 80s” at the 1940 Fancy Dress. Fancy Dress officials dressed up as Kentucky politicians.
Kay Kyser’s orchestra premiered its new song, “At the Fancy Dress Ball.” It had been arranged that morning in less than thirty minutes. CBS Radio broadcast the evening’s performance. The playbill of the ball contained a reproduction of the first Kentucky Derby program.
Fifty-three students had royal character parts in 1942’s Night at Monte Carlo. The ball centered around a reenactment of Napoleon III of France and Empress Eugenie at the 1861 opening of the Casino at Monte Carlo. The December before the ball the faculty committee on student social functions recommended modifications to the Fancy Dress plans. “Purpose of the action was summarized as twofold: to demonstrate, by steering away from a ‘too ostentatious’ affair, that the student body is aware of responsibilities…in a period of grave national emergency” and to avoid racking up a budget deficit. The Fancy Dress chairmen did travel to New York and Philadelphia to iron out details with decorations and costumes.
1943’s American Spirit was the last Fancy Dress until 1947 because of World War II. The ball portrayed groups of American patriots: the 1776 revolutionaries, the group of US military and naval heroes in the War of 1812, the heroes of the Mexican War, the Civil War fighters, the Spanish-American War soldiers, and the World War I fighters.
1947’s Carnival in Rio was in trouble because rooms could not be found in town for 50 to 75 women. Townspeople were restricted from offering rooms in their homes if they did not pay a $11.50 annual tax for lodging. 15 inches of snow did not stop 2,000 people from attending the ball.
1948’s Hampton Court under Charles II was based on Kathleen Windsor’s book, Forever Amber. The ball was based on an England which was emerging from a period of Puritanism. Decorations for the ball included a “fraternity hall.” Each fraternity was given an 18-foot long section of the wall to decorated in fraternity colors and to put up large cutouts of their crests or pins.
The Fancy Dress Ball Committee planned 1949’s Washington’s Birthday Ball to correspond to the president’s birthday in February and with the university’s bicentennial celebrations. The “King of the Cymbals” Gene Krupa and his orchestra were booked for the ball, but his organization folded before the ball, and Krupa was replaced with Charlie Barnet and his orchestra. Ticket prices of $11 were not affected. Barnet’s performance was broadcast live on the Mutual Broadcasting radio network.
Students made the decorations for the first time at the 1950 ball, instead of hiring professional interior decorators. 1951’s Carmen (based on Bizet’s opera) created a street in a typical Spanish town during fiesta time in 1810. A bullfighting arena was constructed on the dance floor.
1955 Fancy Dress Chairmen Fred Easter said, “We feel the theme is unique…since I understand we will be depicting a period of 1,000 years earlier than any ever used by Fancy Dress” in Odyssey Through the Empires. The Ring-tum Phi said the ball will begin with “Homer and move through the Aegean and Mediterranean civilizations and show how the spirit of Greece and Rome spread through all empires.” Costumes included the Greco-Roman, Ancient Chinese, Central Asian, Arabian, Egyptian, Moorish, and Viking peoples. WSLS-TV in Roanoke broadcast footage of the ball the next day.
1956’s Wizard of Oz had a huge seal of Oz in the middle of the dance floor. Above floated a huge sunburst, clouds, and groups of birds and butterflies.
The 1957 ball, Mozart’s Don Giovanni, celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. Decorations included late 18th century gargoyles, as well as a 100-foot mural depicting the National Theater in Prague on October 29, 1787, the original premiere date of Mozart’s opera.
The 1959’s Golden Jubilee (50 years of Fancy Dress) encompassed the themes of the eight previous balls: the Kentucky Derby, A Night in Monte Carlo, American War Heroes, Washington’s Inauguration, King Arthur’s Court, Shakespeare, the Court of Louis XVI, and Mardi Gras.
1960’s Evolution of Man had an unexpected disappointment: the exams schedule of Hollins College prevented Hollins women from attending the ball. The Ring-tum Phi’s Hollins correspondent wrote: “Have a drink for us.” The ball was described as a “mental image of hundreds of colorfully garbed couples swirling around the floor, like five de Mille spectaculars mixed together.” The section of the ball set aside for faculty was a cave featuring stalactites and cardboard bats.
1963’s Civil War Centennial featured Count Basie’s orchestra at the ball. Jazz singer Nina Simone also performed the next night. The Fancy Dress committee denied rumors it planned to borrow one of VMI’s cannons to be used as decoration at the ball. The cocktail party held before the ball in honor of Fancy Dress’ chairmen had a quite different theme: Playboy. The party room was decorated with Playboy paraphernalia: rabbits, balloons, and free souvenirs. Each escort was asked to submit a photo of his date; contest chairmen Ralph Wiegardt said: “Don’t hide your bunny under a bushel, enter her in the Playmate contest!” Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner called during the party to name a winner.
1965’s Showboat featured the music of Lettermen (famous for their hit song, “In the Still of the Night”), the “old” Glenn Miller orchestra and Gary U.S. Bonds. Dates were urged to wear full-length evening gowns, in lieu of costumes. Tickets cost $8, $2 less than the 1964 ball.
Heavy snow partially caused lower attendance at 1966’s Derby Days. Fancy Dress also faced competition for party-goers from a much cheaper university-sponsored cocktail party at the same time. Fancy Dress planning for the ball didn’t start out on a good foot either – in the election for Fancy Dress chairman, Joe Miller was opposed only by Fritz, a white German shepherd and mascot of the Phi Ep house. Fritz got one-fourth of the votes in the race.
An article in the Washington Post said the balls in the late 1960s used to center on the “figure,” a dance in which couples formed the shape of the Washington and Lee crest. This included a four-sectioned blue, red and yellow shield with a noble bird and a bottom ribbon inscribed with the school motto.
Fancy Dress was revived in 1972 after its absence the year before. The theme was The Fifties. A concert by Sha-Na-Na was held in the Evans Dining Hall. Tickets were $5 per person at the door.
The SAB had planned a parade through Lexington the night before 1974’s Fancy Dress Ball, but it was canceled at the last minute. The ball was to be themed The Land of Oz, but because of the oil crisis the IFC changed the theme to Mardi Gras. Tickets were $4 for fraternity members and $7 for non-fraternity students. The ball was memorable for a pitcher of beer that was dumped on University President Robert Huntley and that someone painted Old George blue. The Ring-tum Phi said: “Much like the phoenix out of the ashes, Fancy Dress was reborn of faded memories of the past…as good times returned to Washington and & Lee.”
The Duke Ellington Orchestra played the 1978 Fancy Dress Ball. The only last minute problem was finding a piano for the band. The ball was held in Evans Dining Hall and the University Center and featured a professional belly dancer. A jazz pianist played in the Executive Committee room.
1979’s Fancy Dress Ball had a New York theme. Ballgoers walked through Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Central Park during the course of the evening. Charlie Brown and his World Famous Carolina Disco appeared in Fairfax Lounge. Throughout the ball area thousands of “I Love New York” bumper stickers were available for the taking. Ballgoers received commemorative coins with the skyline of New York on one side and the logo of Taste of the Big Apple on the other.
An editorial in The Ring-tum Phi on the 1980 Fancy Dress Ball said tickets were selling on the black market for $40 a couple. Tickets to the ball were limited because, according to city fire code, only 2,500 people could fit in the building. At the ball, a woman from Hollins College had her $10,000 mink coat stolen for the coat room, but the Lexington police soon recovered it.
In 1982, the Fancy Dress Committee moved to Doremus Gymnasium for A Diamond Jubilee. The two spotlights outside prompted claims of UFO sightings from Lexington residents. The ball racked up a deficit of $20,000, but The Ring-tum Phi called it a success.
The comedy of Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’s “heart-stopping boogie woogie” entertained ballgoers at 1984’s Lost Cities of Gold.
The Lester Lanin Orchestra performed again. Lanin had previously performed at the Fancy Dress Ball and at balls in celebration of the engagement of Prince Rainier of Monaco to Grace Kelly and at the wedding reception for Prince Charles and Princess Diana.
1985’s Mink Dynasty featured live exotic birds where trophy cases in the gym used to be. The Count Basie Orchestra performed in the big gym; Otis Day and the Knights (of Animal House fame) performed in the small gym. The Four Tops were in concert at the Pavilion – ticket prices: $6. Ninety W&L students and faculty members signed up for dance classes before the ball.
A llama rented from the Natural Bridge Zoo escaped from the 1986 Carnival: A Night in Rio.
A 12 by 18 foot American flag greeted ballgoers at the entrance to 1988’s Reconciliation Ball of 1865. Behind the Glenn Miller Orchestra hung the 36 state flags of the states belonging to the Union in 1865. The small gym was decorated as a paddle wheel riverboat. Costumes were worn by ballgoers for the first time in 25 years.
1989’s An Evening Excursion on the Orient Express was the most expensive Fancy Dress ever; it cost over $100,000. Security at the door stamped tickets with the official stamp of the Venice-Simplon Orient Express. Inside the gym cigarette girls circulated among the decors of Paris, Zurich, London, and Istanbul. On the balcony was an actual train car, a replica of the Bar-Salon car from the original Orient Express. The Lester Lanin Orchestra handed out 1,500 of Lanin’s favorite beanies to the ballgoers.
Bo Diddley performed Fancy Dress weekend in 1991. Controversy was created that year when the ball happened to coincide with the law school’s spring break. For A Royal Festival at King Arthur’s Court, a castle 17 feet tall was constructed. Other decorations stood on three-foot-tall platforms. At 9 P.M. at the ball, the committee realized it had purchased 700 pounds of ice, 450 liters of Coke, but had forgotten to get cups. A committee member was dispatched to East Lex to purchase 4,000 cups. A record of 3,500 people attended the ball.
The Fancy Dress Ball playbill and fireworks returned for 1993’s Celebrating the Silver Screen. Scenes from The Wizard of Oz, True Grit, Casablanca, and Gone With the Wind were projected opposite the stage of NRBQ.
1994’s Magical Carpet Ride featured a live, photogenic camel from the Natural Bridge Zoo. The camel was led away soon after he became angry and started spitting on people. Inside the ball was a 14-foot-tall throne at the top of a staircase where ballgoers could have their picture taken.