Pride and Prejudice: A Regency Ball
When I invited Scott Hinkle of "We Make History" to my Knowledge House curriculum fair in August, little did I know the sequence of events that would take place because of it. During the book sale, Scott mentioned his upcoming Pride and Prejudice Ball to my husband, Richard. Upon hearing that Pride and Prejudice is one of Richard's all-time favorite books, Scott said, "Well, you will have to come to the ball then." Scott suggested that we should bring our 13-year-old son along, too. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history!
I began searching for Regency clothing soon after the book fair. It seems to me that there should have been a resurgence of interest in Regency fashions due to the popularity of Pride and Prejudice and other film adaptations of Jane Austen's novels, but I guess there wasn't. There is a lot of Renaissance, Civil War, and Victorian clothing out there, but Regency style apparel is virtually impossible to find locally, and difficult to get even on the Internet. What a shame! I did come across a lot of good Regency websites, many with pictures of historic Regency styles. I also found quite a few Regency patterns, but not much actual Regency attire available for purchase. I don't sew, and I figured that hiring a dressmaker, choosing a fabric, etc. would be just as difficult as trying to find a ready-made costume, so I continued my search.
Finally, it was in San Diego where I found what I was looking for while on vacation. We discovered San Diego's oldest and largest costume company - curiously named Buffalo Breath - which has over 50,000 professional theatrical quality costumes in stock. You can buy or rent costumes in person or over the Internet at www.buffalobreath.com, from every era for any event or special occasion. Their warehouse is filled from wall to wall and floor to ceiling with hundreds of racks of costumes and coordinating accessories - Ancient Roman, Biblical, Medieval, Renaissance, Elizabethan, Colonial, Civil War, Victorian, Western, World War II, etc.
We were assisted by two nice ladies who were very knowledgeable about historical fashion. They agreed that Regency era costumes are hard to come by, but said that if they didn't have it, they would put something together for us by mixing and matching pieces from other outfits. Their rule of thumb is that you don't have to be perfectly authentic, but simply give the illusion of authenticity. They kept bustling back and forth, bringing out sets of clothes for us to look at, fitting us, making adjustments, and recommending accessories - satin sash, neck cloth, lace jabot, etc. It almost made me feel like a movie star - but when they started placing bonnets on my head, I felt more like Little Bo Peep!
The Buffalo Breath people really seem to take personal pride in making you look your best for whatever function you are doing. And since these were used theatrical costumes with a little wear and tear, they weren't too expensive. My husband's tailcoat, complete with a Hollywood designer label, only cost $50. It had dirty scuff marks where the long tails were probably hanging on the floor, but a little scrubbing with Fels-Naptha laundry soap cleaned it up. A similar tailcoat in like-new condition would have cost $150! (A brand new tailcoat would cost between $200-300!) Similarly, my son's ruffled, billowy-sleeved "poet shirt" was only $15, compared to $50 for a new one.
Although my husband and I are far from being fashion plates in real life, we have found that researching historical styles and dressing up in period costume can be fun. When I was a girl, for Halloween I always liked pretending to be someone from another time period or culture - Native American and Victorian were my favorites. When Rich and I married, we dressed in Old West style outfits for the ceremony. Our boys have a costume trunk full of stuff, too. After we got back home from our vacation, we gathered up some more accessories including a gold cross necklace, pocket watch, "pantaloons," vest, gloves, and shoes. My husband even grew a beard; then on the morning of the ball he shaved it off, leaving the sideburns intact as per the Regency style.
The time leading up to a period ball can be an educational diversion the whole family can get involved in. For homeschoolers, such an event can be the culmination of a historical unit study of the life and times of an era. We studied the fashion, history, and lifestyle of the Regency period. We listened to The Jane Austen Companion by Nimbus Records. We watched Pride and Prejudice - The Special Edition. Even our 8-year-old son got to know the names of all the characters in Pride and Prejudice. I was so preoccupied with thoughts of the Regency Ball that I actually dreamed about it in my sleep!
The Pride and Prejudice Ball was held on Saturday, October 25 at the Southwestern College Activity Center. A fun-loving group of about 150 charming ladies and gentlemen attended. They were homeschool families, historical re-enactors, couples, singles, high school and college students, both experienced and first-time dancers. My son saw two kids he knew from Hero Camp. One lady came all the way from Colorado. A lot of friends seemed to be meeting and greeting each other at the ball, but my husband and I only saw a few faces that looked familiar.
Everyone had one main interest in common - they were looking for the elegant experience of another century. I wasn't sure what to expect, having never been to such an event before. I must admit, after spending so much time and effort trying to be as authentic as possible, I was probably a bit unrealistic in anticipating being literally swept back in time to the world of Jane Austen. It did take a little imagination on my part considering we were dancing on a gym floor and not everyone was wearing Regency period attire.
Indeed, some were more serious in their commitment to reproducing a Regency setting than others. While at least half of the attendees were dressed in some sort of historic attire, their costumes ranged from the Regency period to the Renaissance, and from Colonial to Victorian. A few came in character, pretending to be a particular person from another era. Special "guests" included the Queen of Sweden, British Lords and Ladies, Governor William Bradford, and officers of the American Army and La Grande Armee of Napoleon's French Empire.
I was surprised at how many people wore modern formal attire rather than any type of historic period attire. Perhaps they came to simply observe the costumes that others were wearing. If that's the case, hopefully the historic atmosphere has inspired them to get their own period apparel to assist in creating a more authentic ambiance for others next time. As an incentive, instead of handing out random door prizes (which often went to people who didn't even stay till the end), Scott should give prizes for the best costumes (e.g., the most authentically-dressed newcomer, the best-dressed family, the best-dressed couple, etc.). Scott could also offer a special "masquerade" ball exclusively for those who are more serious about re-living the past, in which historic costumes are required. It might be held in a fancy hotel ballroom for a more formal setting. A professional portrait photographer would be nice to have on hand, to take vintage photos as mementos for those who had so elaborately prepared for the occasion.
The art of period dancing is a specialized, creative form of non-military re-enacting. It is something that men and women can do together, and is an enjoyable social activity for both young and old. A vintage dance enables participants to immerse themselves in the culture of a bygone era, while historic apparel further enhances the period experience. In my opinion, this type of dancing is also perfectly appropriate for wedding receptions, especially considering the fact that our mental image of modern wedding attire is based on the romantic Regency fashion of black tailcoats, white empire dresses, and long veils draped over bonnets.
A dance lesson commenced at 6:00 pm followed immediately by the Pride and Prejudice Ball from 7:00 to 11:00 pm. They taught us some of the simple English country dance forms of the Regency period, and we were supposed to practice the steps as they were learned. But being first-timers with no dance experience, we were clueless and had trouble following what the instructor was saying. Fortunately, there was a dance caller and in each group there was always someone who knew what they were doing, who would politely guide us through the steps if we got lost. And since each dance lasted about 15-20 minutes, this gave us time to catch on to the repetition of it, so by the time our turn came around again we knew exactly what to do.
The Ball began with a Grand March, which was great fun parading around the room. It was followed by a series of English country dances, for which the live music was provided by the skilled talents of Sir John Quinley and the Mad Robins. All of the music and dances dated from the late 18th and early 19th century. The dances included various forms of set dances, quadrilles and reels, as well as a waltz. Like the group dances of the time, we all would sooner or later swing, turn or join hands with everyone - not just our actual partner. (Is that why ladies wore gloves back then? Imagine the potential for germs to be passed from one hand to another, all the way down the line!) A bagpiper, short historic vignettes, and other entertainments were part of the evening's festivities. Out in the lobby, a refreshment table was loaded with cookies, mini doughnuts, and punch.
Most of the dances were pretty lively and fast-paced. It was almost as if they were professionally choreographed the way everyone on the dance floor was turning and moving in a kaleidoscope of pattern. This made the ball entertaining to watch even for those who weren't dancing at the time. But there were no wallflowers here - everyone who attended wanted to dance and managed to find a partner. It was especially encouraging to see all of the teenagers (the ball is intended for ages 13 and up) participating in the event along with their elders. The ladies greatly outnumbered the gentlemen, however, so there were numerous examples of ladies dancing with each other.
My son, Peter, was nervous and reluctant at first, and not always paying attention to what he was supposed to do. But after a while he started to get into it and eventually got the hang of it. There was one dance that my husband and I were sitting out on, in which Peter was dancing with a young girl. When it was over, Peter came running over to us excitedly, saying that he had made it through the whole dance without making any mistakes. From then on, he wanted to dance every dance! I think the evening left a big impression on him. On our drive back home, Peter talked about how much fun the ball had been, and said that he would like to go to another one sometime!
Overall, the Pride and Prejudice Ball was a delightful evening of English Country dancing, pleasant company, and lighthearted good cheer. Everyone enjoyed themselves, and the five hour-long ball was over in what seemed like minutes. The ladies looked absolutely lovely in their vintage-style gowns and the men were most handsome in their old-fashioned tailcoats and military uniforms. The highlight of my evening came while I was dancing with my son, and I looked over and saw my husband sitting there - alone and aloof, handsomely dressed in tailcoat and vest, his side whiskers framing a serious countenance. He had been watching me intently, and when our eyes met, for one magical moment he looked just like Mr. Darcy!
For over four years now, Scott Hinkle of We Make History has been presenting period balls, re-enactments, "in character" speeches and presentations of famous persons from history throughout the state of Arizona. The goal of We Make History is to reconnect folks with their cultural heritage, while providing wholesome interactive social and recreational opportunities for couples and families that are conducive to character development and polishing one's manners.
In particular, Scott is dedicated to keeping alive the elegant tradition of the Grand Ball - complete with its atmosphere of gentility and civility - while providing his guests with an enjoyable and interesting dance experience. The balls provide an atmosphere and environment where a level of grace and respect are expected and exercised at a much higher level than the current culture. Scott welcomes everyone, regardless of dancing ability, and applauds those who attempt a historic look. We Make History holds a half dozen historic balls per year, each set during a different time period - including Colonial, Regency, Civil War and Victorian.
We Make History's American Heritage Weekend on November 15-16 in Queen Creek will be the largest multi-era reenacting event ever to take place in the Southwest. For more information about these historic events, along with fascinating details and facts on costume and lifestyle from several different eras, plus period illustrations and photos of the balls, please visit www.wemakehistory.com.
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