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What is a Ball Gown?

By Tara Barnett
Updated Jan 22, 2024
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A ball gown is an article of clothing usually worn by women, with a skirt reaching the wearer's ankles or the floor. The dress fits snugly against the torso, usually with a low neckline, and blooms out into a full skirt. It is usually made of expensive fabrics with fine construction, as the garment is intended for special occasions. Compared to other dresses, a ball gown can be extremely expensive, as the kind of occasion at which a fine gown is worn is usually only attended by people of wealth or importance.

Traditionally, a woman was expected to wear a ball gown at formal events specified as white tie occasions, but variations on these gowns are worn for a number of purposes outside these formal occasions. Debutantes, for example, traditionally wear white gowns. Full-length prom dresses may be considered less formal and less expensive ball gowns, although the category of prom dresses is much more flexible and expansive. This type of gown may also be worn as a costume when a person dresses up as a princess or other character who might wear such a gown.

Accessories may consist of opera-length gloves, a clutch, a stole or cloak, and fine jewelry. Jewelry should be appropriate for the occasion, which typically means that it should be in a traditional style and fine materials. Additionally, tiaras or state decorations may be required in some cases, but the traditions regulating the display of these items should be thoroughly researched beforehand as they are complex.

Shoes are also an important part of the ball gown ensemble. The shoes a woman wears changes her height and thus how the dress meets the floor. Most dresses have an intended height of shoes. The gowns are almost always worn with dancing shoes of some sort, whether these are formal high heels or ballet shoes, even if dancing is not expected at the event.

Dress codes for women are typically much more flexible than those for men, and ball gowns have evolved significantly since they originally became popular. While men's white tie garments are strictly regulated, the gown has changed both in design and material. Most interestingly, ball gowns are not frequently worn in many locations, and are replaced with less restrictive and bulky garments for women for many occasions. Still, when attending a function at which white tie etiquette is rigidly observed, it is advisable to wear a traditional ball gown and all appropriate accouterments.

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Discussion Comments
By ElbowTickle — On Aug 02, 2011

Great article! A lot of other countries seem to have more ball gown and white tie events than the United States. I'm not sure if it's because ball gowns are tied closer into their history or if it's just because there are more traditionalist over there.

Great Britain still has huge events where everyone is required to wear ball gowns and white bow ties. The US does too, but they are usually limited to fashion shows, weddings and operas.

I was wondering if anyone could explain anything about picking style of ball gowns? Like how to pick styles for different figures and heights.

By MedicineBall — On Aug 01, 2011

@minthybear19 - I think that movie makers dress modern day princesses in big ball gowns so that young girls can recognize that they are a princess. If they were wearing jeans and a shiny tank top -- kids wouldn't see them and think princess.

Fashion is always trying to recycle what is popular and since gowns are such a specialty item -- they recycle them into party dresses instead. I guess they are trying to widen their audience or something – but it makes less and less events for ball gowns. I've seen a lot of weddings where the brides are wearing tiny short dresses instead of the traditional gowns. I know it's to their own taste, it just makes me wonder if ball gowns will be eventually phased out.

By minthybear19 — On Jul 31, 2011

@MedicineBall - I'm not that fond of skimpy clothes either, but can't there be room for both? You said that ball gowns come in a wide variety of styles -- so do people.

I think it's kind of funny that there are so many princess movies that have modern day princesses wearing full out ball gowns. Not very many real princesses do anymore. Real princesses probably dress in whatever the celebrities are wearing.

I think that having classical princesses wear big puffy gowns is great -- that's how medieval princesses dressed. I think that we have room in the fashion world for both the modern styles and the classics.

By MedicineBall — On Jul 30, 2011

I personally just love ball gowns! It's awful that they aren't worn around to big event more often. I think the only time I see ball gowns anymore are on cartoon princesses and on the Red Carpet. There are so many types besides wedding dresses. Most women just wear party dresses to big event now. It's so sad.

There aren't even that many dolls that wear gowns -- doll clothes imitates the skimpy little outfits that kids wear. What happened to elegance? Do we really want to encourage our kids to wear low-cut tube tops and thongs?

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