Because of their complete lack of trendiness, ballgowns, despite being fiendishly expensive, can arguably be better investments than, say, the latest look from Marc Jacobs. “Gowns are incredibly well constructed and last a very long time,” Lebenthal says. “I wear them over and over again.” Adds Georgina Chapman, the cofounder and designer of Marchesa, which includes ballgowns in practically every collection: “They’re timeless pieces.”
How timeless? According to fashion historian Caroline Rennolds Milbank, full-skirt floor-length dresses first appeared in the Elizabethan period. “The silhouette at night was pretty much the same as the silhouette during the day, just with gradations of decorativeness,” she says, noting that Empress Eugénie (the wife of Napoleon III) was credited with starting the trend toward enormous crinolines, using them to hide her pregnancy.
It wasn’t until Dior’s New Look in 1947 that one saw a true demarcation between daytime dress—say, a little suit—and evening dress. White tie, not black tie, became the true arena for grand gowns. By the 1980s, though, so-called creative black tie had come into existence, resulting in an anything-goes approach. Today, Milbank says, most Americans get a glimpse of major dresses only on Oscar night: “The red carpet has, in a way, replaced the concept of white tie.”
Which raises the question: How long can the not-so-humble ballgown continue its reign? Will the next generation of society girls, brought up in the yoga-pants-at-lunch era, really be willing to put up with voluminous skirts, tight corsets, and cumbersome trains in the name of glamour?
Danielle Steel, for one, doesn’t think so. Despite owning a ballgown collection worthy of a museum archive—including a Monet-esque Dior Haute Couture and a violet-covered Balmain that Oscar de la Renta designed for her last wedding—the novelist hasn’t put one on in more seasons than she can remember. She’s never even worn her last such purchase, a brown satin Christian Lacroix she bought almost six years ago—though her 28-year-old daughter, Victoria Traina, did take it for a spin at a Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco gala in 2006. “From my perspective, they’ve become a piece of history,” says Steel, “a relic from a beautiful and perhaps simpler time. When we are concerned with the health of our planet, the solidity of our economies, and the future of our children, wearing such grand clothes seems out of place.”
Even Boardman, for all her love of a big skirt, says context is key: “Truthfully, on the charity circuit, I don’t think ballgowns belong. It’s hostile to be in a dress that requires everyone to keep a certain distance,” she says, adding that the annual Costume Institute gala is the one exception. She reserves her acquisitions for private events, like white tie weddings and European balls.