No one is required to wear a hoop skirt to the Civil War Ball at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum in Alexandria, but at this year’s gala nearly every woman does. Outside, the wind is so cold that every breeze is a slap in the face on this Sunday in January. Inside, though, you are transported: a warmer place, another time, a different world.
A week earlier, at one of the regular dance classes offered at Gadsby’s to prepare for events such as this, dance master Corky Palmer led a room of about 25 people in modern dress around this very room. His white hair was tied back in a ponytail. The class was mostly technical dance instruction with a dash of historical context thrown in; students learned the origin and the steps of the multiple waltzes (Viennese, Spanish, Wood Duck), reels (Virginia, Cumberland), the Highland Schottische, and the polka, which Palmer referred to as “a dance of dubious origin” that’s “not for the faint of heart.”
Gadsby’s, which hosts five period balls a year, was actually a tourist attraction during the Civil War. It was already famous for its association with George Washington, who attended balls and stayed as a guest at the tavern. (Even a house divided can agree on George, it seems.) And despite a few of your standard up-to-fire-code renovations, the space looks essentially unaltered. The high windows are draped with gold-trimmed red curtains, which look a lot like Kacey Musgraves’s Grammy performance dress (maybe she pulled a Scarlett O’Hara and went with curtain couture).
In another room is a bar and a table of desserts that were available during wartime: charlotte russe, shortbread cookies with rosemary, merengue.
Joe Adams of Alexandria is here for his fourth Civil War Ball, with his daughter and 11-year-old grandson in tow. The retired Army colonel went to formal balls as part of his military life, he says, and “I wanted to share that kind of experience with my grandson, so he can learn to be a gentleman.”
At his side is his wife, Amy Alrich, attending for a third year. The event, she says, “is a celebration of beauty and elegance that we do not have in our culture anymore.”
The reel is beginning! Gentlemen, please escort your partners to the floor.
Everyone lines up as the musicians, playing from a small balcony that overlooks the dance floor, start in with “Oh! Susanna.” Ladies have dance cards dangling from their wrists, their hair corkscrewed in curls and pinned up off their necks. Most men are in Civil War military regalia. Adams makes a beeline for the windowsill, where he’s stashed a Ziploc baggie of white gloves. (“For my grandson,” he says. “Extra smalls.”)
Palmer, his ponytail held back with a black ribbon, announces the dances and a few step-by-step refreshers. He reminds the men that it is their responsibility “to make sure your partner’s dance card is complete,” so she is never left to stand alone while the music is playing.
A gentleman extends a hand; a lady accepts. Skirts swoosh, hoops a-twirl, creating the illusion that even the least sure-footed woman in the room is floating. Perhaps the most period thing of all is the striking absence of modern technology. Phones have been holstered for the evening. According to Gretchen Bulova, director of Gadsby’s Tavern Museum, that isn’t always the case. “At the Jane Austen Ball, it’s terrible. Everybody is taking selfies.”
The crowd, young grandchild excepted, is adult, mostly historians and military retirees. There is an “only in Alexandria” feeling about the attention to detail, the period accuracy: one attendee describes how she almost added a zipper to her dress but remembered she couldn’t, because the zipper wasn’t invented until the end of the century.
A VIP guest: Francis Leslie, 91 years old. He was a military brat who learned the waltz in school, in the late 1930s, when he lived in Washington “just before the war.” He spent 25 years in the military, where he was both a soldier and a modern dancer, and came back to the area in 1970; he met his second wife at a dance class here in 1983 and has been attending the Civil War Ball every year since its inception 10 years ago.
He reveals that he’s cheating, just a little, with his attire, by wearing his “Jane Austen” outfit to this particular function. Whatever it is, it’s dapper: a pale blue ribbon tied at his neck, a brown and blue vest, a hat like the Mad Hatter’s on his head. “Dancing is good for your mind, it’s good for your body, and it’s fun to do,” he says, light on his feet.
Christy Galletta of Centreville, Va. and Carol Randell of Huntingtown, Md., do living histories at national parks by day — demonstrations of everyday life, not to be confused with reenactments, which “are more shoot-’em-ups,” Galletta explains, and they see the Ball as a way to escape the drudgery of their typical work tasks, such as standing over fires tending food. “There’s something very romantic about it,” says Randell, who adds, “My husband thinks I’m crazy.”
Both women made their own dresses, and Galletta lifts up the layers from her hoop to the petticoat to the cage crinoline to the corset; beneath that is the shift and the pantalets, but of course to reveal such a thing in the middle of a dance hall would be far too scandalous for 1860.
Janice Ryan is the real dress expert, a seamstress and consultant who has been working in the field of period clothes for more than 25 years. She goes by J.P. Ryan professionally, and her clients include Gadsby’s, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the National Museum of American History. Tonight she is a peach-pink confection: She has tiers of silk taffeta (15 yards in all) from her waist to her feet, ruffles lining her collarbone, and white gloves up to her elbows.
She estimates that the construction of her dress took “a good 40 hours” and explains that she had to “start from the inside out,” with the shift and the drawers. Ryan made her own pattern — the bodice took two days — draped it with muslin on her dress form, refined it, then cut it out of the real fabric, then added piping, then the boning . . .
“Take a hand, right there,” she says, up against her side. “This is the corset.”
That is . . . wow, that is rock solid. The original Spanx.
Ryan nods, eyes wide. “It’s that hold-to-the-bedpost corset.” The effect of all this on the wearer, she says, is elegant posture and a heightened awareness of “your person and where your parts are at all times.”
“There are very few opportunities when you’ll see so many ladies put forth so much effort to re-create a time and place,” Ryan adds.
A look around the room confirms this. If it weren’t for the official photographer in the corner, taking photos of guests posed as couples or perched alone at a piano, one could scarcely tell that we just rang in 2014. There is not a person present who suggests that the antebellum South, with the slavery and the misogyny and the not-having-penicillin, is somewhere they would rather live. But it is — for one night, for a dance — a lovely, gallant place to visit.
Before the ball began, as he straightened his jacket, Adams tried to describe what kept him coming back to this event.
“When the ball starts and you walk through those doors,” he said. “It’s like walking back in time.”
Goldstein is a freelance writer.