Formal Gown

AKA: ballgown, ball dress, evening dress

How to say it:  fawr-muh-l  dress

Traditional Features: 

Formal Gown


  • often full length
  • traditionally made from more expensive, luxurious fabrics like silk
  • style varies but is usually cuts and shapes that are more formal
  • appropriate for a formal event
  • can be quite opulent and decorative with beading, embroidery etc
  • can be quite over-the-top in design and structure

21st Century Formal Dress

Whether the occasion is a high school prom, black-tie ball or red carpet arrival, there are hundreds of formal gowns available to the modern woman. They come in all styles, all colours, all fabrics and at all price levels, giving everyone the chance to feel like a princess for a day.

Alice & Olivia Carolina Herrera

Alice & Olivia, Carolina Herrera

Oscar de la Renta Ralph Lauren

Oscar de la Renta, Ralph Lauren


…of the style: While women have dressed up for special occasions probably since the dawn of time, the formal or ball gown owes its beginnings to the Burgundian Court of Philip the Good in the 15th century. Philip was particularly interested in all things sartorial and his court was the centre of European fashion. Women of the court were always impeccably dressed in the latest fashions, but when they attended a ball, the stakes were raised even higher –  sumptuous, elaborate gowns in expensive silks, trimmed with furs and jewels were the norm as each woman strove to be the most dazzling woman in the room.

At this time in history, clothing was a means of displaying wealth and status and rich, ornate and brightly coloured garments that were the predecessors of the modern formal gown were solely the realm of the nobility. However, the advent of the Renaissance was slowly changing the rigidity of social classes and it wasn’t long before the rich patricians and merchants of Europe were also able to display their wealth through their clothing.

Through the centuries of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, the fashion focus shifted from Burgundy to Italy and then to France and the vibrant courts of these countries. Court life during these times revolved around music, art and literature and allowed for a wide variety of elaborate dinners, shows, dances and recitals, providing a rich breeding ground for women’s fashion. Formal dresses often featured draped skirts, long trains, tight bodices, low necklines, full sleeves and lots of embroidery and were made from the most luxurious and expensive fabrics (usually some form of silk).

After the French Revolution, formal or court dress was no longer just for the nobility. The newly created middle and upper class ladies began to attend formal occasions and formal dresses began to closely follow daywear fashion trends. Towards the end of the 18th century formal gowns often featured the popular Empire Line, with a lower neckline, short sleeves and rich, embroidered fabrics.

Throughout the 1800s, formal gowns continued to follow women’s fashion trends and changed a great deal throughout the century. The simple, elegant classical styles with narrow skirts and Empire waists gradually gave way to fuller skirts with natural waistlines in the 1830s and 40s, which in turn evolved into sleeveless, low-necked gowns worn with gloves in the 1880s, and then became wasp-waisted gowns with square décolletage necklines and long trains in the 1890s.

The advent of the 20th century saw even more change in women’s wear and therefore formal gown styles. The early decades of the century saw dress lines slowly relax and the hemlines rise, becoming the loose, boyish silhouette of the 1920s Flapper, followed by floor length, body-hugging drapery of the  bias-cut gowns in the 30s. The 1940s saw the reintroduction of the narrow waistline  and voluminous skirts, thanks to Dior’s New Look and this silhouette continued through most of the 50s. Sheath and Empire Line silhouettes returned in the 1960s as the hemlines rose again, before dropping back to the floor in the nostalgic styles of the 1970s. 1980s formal dresses were all about exaggerating the body and favoured strapless styles awash with ruffles, pleats and boning, and in the 90s, the tighter the dress the better.

In the 21st century, the formal dress market is huge and varied. With advances in fabric and manufacturing technology and the breaking down of social classes, formal events, and thus formal clothing, has become more and more accessible to the masses, yet one defining characteristic has remained firm – it is always more.

Just like the women of the Burgundian court, modern formal gowns always lift the stakes a little higher than everyday clothing. Whether it’s in the fabric, the cut, the styling or the embellishments, formal gowns are more luxurious, more detailed, more lavish, more elegant and often more expensive; they remain a special occasion dress and regardless of the style and fabric, will always make the wearer feel just that little bit more.

…of the name: These dresses are designed to be worn to special occasions, thus they are formal gowns.

Random Facts

  • The most expensive dress in the world is the Nightingale of Kuala Lumper. It is ruby red gown made of silk and taffeta and adorned with 751 Swarovski crystals ranging in size up to 70 carats. It cost $30 million and was designed by Malaysian designer Faiyzali Abdullah. Check it out here.

For more info on Formal Gowns try Queens of Vintage, Wikipedia here and here or check out the Fairchild’s Dictionary of Fashion. There is a great slideshow showing the evolution of the Formal gown here.



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