SHAPE Involve and Engage: bringing Georgian England to life with Dr Meg Kobza

31 May 2024

A multi-colour illustration of a group of dancing individuals dressed up in Georgian fancy dress

Dr Meg Kobza of Newcastle University delves into the creative process behind the “Taking Your Fancy: The Experience of Georgian Fancy Dress for Today’s Heritage Audiences” project. In partnership with the National Trust’s Bath Assembly Rooms, the project will feature a pop-up exhibition and fancy-dress ball taking place in June. It aims to engage both academic and wider public audiences by exploring the history of Georgian fancy dress balls and what it would have been like to attend one. The SHAPE Involve and Engage funding scheme offers exciting opportunities for humanities and social sciences researchers to discover innovative ways to engage with the public.

How did your project get started, and what made you want to apply for the SHAPE Involve and Engage scheme?

Initially, I was considering working with one of the incredible North East National Trust properties, with the idea centred around exploring Georgian experiences of pleasure gardens. However, a colleague directed me to Tatjana LeBoff at the National Trust who works with the Bath Assembly Rooms, an 18th-century entertainment venue. It turned out they were already thinking about how to incorporate sensory experiences in their programming to mark the reopening of the Assembly Rooms in 2026. That’s how our collaboration began and we eventually came across the Academy’s SHAPE Involve and Engage funding scheme, put in an application, and were lucky enough to be awarded funding.

What are the key outputs of this project?

There are two key components: a pop-up exhibit and a Georgian Fancy Ball. The roughly two-week-long pop-up exhibit will immerse visitors in the culture of Georgian fancy dress and its legacy, starting with a general introduction to the Georgian era. It then hones in on the role of fashion in that era, with a specific emphasis on the concept and cultural practices of fancy dress, particularly in Bath. The Ball taking place on Saturday 15 June, in turn, will hopefully give attendees a sense of what attending a fancy dress ball at the turn of the 18th century would look, sound, feel, and even taste and smell like.

Could you explain what Georgian fancy dress balls were and what purpose they served in society?

Georgian fancy dress balls originated from the long tradition of masquerades in Europe, which began, broadly speaking, in the 15th century. In London, these masquerades were initially ticketed, expensive events. Over time, they evolved into fancy dress balls. The earliest event explicitly referred to as a fancy dress ball, rather than a masquerade, took place in London in 1784 to commemorate the composer George Frideric Handel’s birthday. These early fancy dress balls were similar to masquerades but without the use of masks. Like masquerades, they were exclusive, elite, and expensive affairs.

As masquerades became more commercialised towards the end of the 18th century, they became more accessible and less expensive. From then on, fancy dress parties were adopted by the elite, while masquerades became entertainment for the masses, creating a distinction based on the audience. Eventually, the same process repeated itself, and by the end of the following century, fancy dress balls had also become a popular form of entertainment.

Tell us more about who you are working with and the collaborative aspect of the project.

As mentioned, the main partner is the National Trust's Bath Assembly Rooms. Additionally, we are collaborating with two historical makers. Dr Tom Whitfield is crafting a hat based on the one worn by King Gustav III of Sweden at the time of his assassination during a masquerade in 1792. We are also working with Dr Serena Dyer, a fashion historian from De Montfort University, who is expertly recreating an 18th-century fancy dress gown using authentic period techniques. Both of these will be on display at the pop-up exhibit and Serena will even be wearing her recreated Vandyke dress to the ball!

During your research, have you encountered any particularly unusual garments or costumes?

Absolutely, particularly while I was researching masquerades in this era for my PhD. One instance that stands out to me is an individual who attended a masquerade dressed as the War of Jenkins’ Ear, complete with a military uniform and an ear hanging off their costume to signal they were dressed as the war.

Has it been a challenge to balance historical accuracy with creative interpretation?

It’s really about striking a fine balance. While historical accuracy and research ground the project, we also want to make the ball an inviting space where attendees aren't strictly bound by historical authenticity by, for instance, reenacting period behaviour or speech. The Ball is a mix of Georgian and modern elements. While we will have Georgian card games and make-up styles for participants to try out, people can also simply come for a dance and come and go just as they are.

With the popularity of series like Bridgerton, the Georgian era seems to be having a bit of a moment in the sun. Is there anything that popular depictions of this era, particularly depictions of these balls, get wrong?

You can probably see this coming from a mile away, but masquerade scenes often imply that people had no idea who each other were and that just wasn’t the case. There probably was a bit of that, but generally speaking, if you were someone in the fashionable set, people were going to know exactly who you were.

How has this project influenced your approach to or changed your perspective on historical research and public history?

Outreach and public engagement are vital, and that's how I've always viewed the matter. Growing up, I was interested in and exposed to the public outputs of research through museums and so on. This project has reaffirmed the importance of making history accessible. By drawing people into historical narratives, we encourage critical thinking, provoke questions, and inspire deeper exploration of the topics we study. Engaging the public in this way not only disseminates knowledge but also enriches the research itself by fostering a more informed and curious audience.

What kind of impact do you anticipate or hope this project will have on the local community and broader audiences?

I hope this project contributes to the renewed interest in the Assembly Rooms and highlights the fantastic work the National Trust is doing to develop this historic venue. The Assembly Rooms played a vital role in Georgian life and Bath’s history, so it's great to help reignite public interest in them. Regarding the exhibit and party, I hope attendees leave with a newfound appreciation for Georgian culture and an understanding of how fancy dress and masquerade culture reflected the power dynamics of the era. Additionally, I would encourage visitors to think about how these historical insights relate to modern expressions of fancy dress and dressing up.

The Fancy Ball at Bath Assembly rooms will be taking place on Saturday 15 June – book your tickets now. Also on offer is an exclusive dance lesson and Georgian card game session.

Dressing Fancy: an exhibition on Georgian fancy dress then and now will run from Friday 14 June - Sunday 30 June alongside a series of public talks on Georgian fashion and leisure culture.

Illustrations by Hardeep S. Dhindsa

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