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Fancy that: Dressing up for Lady Malcolm's Servants' Ball

by Bishopsgate Institute on 10 / 06 / 2016

On the 24th and the 25th of June, DUCKIE – those queer purveyors of working class entertainment – are restaging Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Balls in an ode to the working ‘queans’ who paved London’s LGBT herstory.  Researcher and curator E-J Scott gives us a bit of background history on the event and popular costumes at the time. 

Lady Malcolm held her first fancy dress ball for London’s domestic servants in 1923 at the modest Queensbury Hall - 300 attended in total.  Even though she attended wearing a pearl tiara, turquoise necklace and highly fashionable haute couture, Lady Malcolm recognised that her working class guests might not own a dinner suit or ball gown, so set a fancy dress code to make the evening accessible to the poorly paid workers.  

The servants’ ball grew so wildly popular that by 1933 it was held at the Royal Albert Hall where it would repeatedly sell out the maximum 5000 tickets. There was fox trotting and waltzing to Percy Chandler and his orchestra from the prestigious Café de Paris, and a bar serving champagnes, liqueurs, whiskies, gins, chocolates, cigars, cigarettes, ham sandwiches, still lemonade and ginger beer.  

There was a fancy dress parade at 12.10 am and big name celebrities like Ivor Novella awarded prizes for the servants’ costumes in the categories of Best Original, Best Humorous, Best Home-made, Best Pair and Best Advertisement. 

According to London’s Police Commissioner, it was the chance to dress up, drink and dance at this type of ball that the queers found so irresistible. In 1935, he deduced that: “There is no doubt what[so]ever that these dances lend themselves to a certain number of undesirable people being present.”  

Tickets were printed with the preclusion that “No man dressed as a woman… will be permitted to remain.”  To enforce this, London Metropolitan Police Records document that a “Board of Scrutineers” were employed to inspect the guests’ costumes upon arrival. Records that year state that “About 15 men dressed in fancy male attire representing various ancient periods came into the hall in ones and twos, and by their facial appearance and manner they were looked upon by the ex-officers as suspect perverts… One man in fancy dress attire with cloak was considered by the Board of Scrutineers (through which all fancy dress had to pass) to be dressed in such a fashion as might become indecent should it fall.  He was asked to leave and did so.”

During the 1920s and 1930s, the fancy dress worn by Royalty, aristocrats and the very wealthy was made by the world’s finest couturiers.  Whereas, the fancy dress worn by the workers attending Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball could have been bought from London’s department stores or postal ordered from catalogues. More likely, they were homemade. 

On the 29th of November 1930, the Daily Mail reported that “...9/10ths of the costumes were designed and made by the wearers”. Mrs Henderson, who in 1929 went as a “coster girl, with feathered hat, pearlies and mouth organ complete,” explained that she made her costume with feathers she had bought on sale, and her skirt and velvet jacket was made using old offcuts.

Homemaking their costumes gave the servants creative freedom to design ironic, satirical, if not cynical costumes that directly reflected their daily duties and allowed them to comment on their employment conditions right in front of their employers. They dressed up as cleaning products, other domestic servants from throughout the British Empire and even as members of the aristocratic classes they served. One young man was inspired by the advertisement for the scouring powder VIM, dressing as the character “Vimmy” who had featured in the Lever & Archer advertisements from 1904, with a can of VIM on his head and an oversized red bowtie with white polka dots.

At the ball of 1929, a Mr L. Stiff dressed as “The Porter’s Nightmare,” with dozens of luggage name tags confusingly stuck all over his dark suit.  In 1930, a maid dressed as an alarm clock set for 6am, and another wore green and carried a small broom, ticketing herself as “The Irish Sweep” – a pun on being a cleaner that actually referred to the sweepstake that was to be drawn the same day as that year’s ball.  One girl, possibly a kitchenmaid, was awarded a prize by the English film and stage star Gladys Cooper for her costume of an “Empire Christmas pudding inspired by a recipe in the Daily Mail.” The pool of prizes on offer for the best fancy dress at the ball of 1930 included brooches, a scarf and bag, bracelets, cuff links, smoker’s companions and note cases. 

Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Balls are on 24 and 25 June 2016.  Browse through our LGBT archive.
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1 comment

Suzanne Keyte
Fascinating article - thanks

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