The Devonshire House Ball or the Devonshire House Fancy Dress Ball was an elaborate fancy dress ball, hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, held on 2 July 1897 at Devonshire House in Piccadilly to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Due to the many prominent royals, aristocrats, and society figures who attended as well as the overall lavishness of the ball, it was considered the event of the 1897 London Season.
In 1897, The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire hosted the Devonshire House Ball at Devonshire House, the London residence (in Piccadilly) of the Dukes of Devonshire in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Duke had served as a Member of Parliament and a cabinet minister as a member of the Liberal Party and the Duchess, known as the Double Duchess, was the widow of the William Montagu, 7th Duke of Manchester.
Following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria had withdrawn from social life and "the mantle of royal entertaining" was passed to the Prince of Wales and his wife, Alexandra. During the 1870s, they hosted a costume ball at Marlborough House, their London residence, which was considered a success and carried on the popularity of such events. The Devonshires, who were close friends of the Prince and Princess of Wales, therefore, decided to throw a costume ball to celebrate Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee procession had taken place on 22 June 1897 and followed a route six miles long through London. More than 700 invitations were sent out a month before the event, although some reports of the event stated up to 3,000 invites. By accident, Alfred, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha and Maria, the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha did not receive invitations. When the Duchess of Devonshire saw her at a different jubilee fête and asked if she was coming, "the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha freezingly replied, 'Certainly not'".
While the Queen did not attend, almost all of the British royal family attended the ball and nearly every other European royal family was represented. The Duke of Devonshire invited the London photographic firm of James Lafayette, who had been awarded a Royal Warrant ten years previously, to set up a tent (in the garden behind the house) to photograph the guests in costume during the Ball. In 1899, the studio of Walker & Boutal published 286 of the Lafayette photographs.
Following the ball, The Duchess received a letter from Francis Knollys, Private Secretary to the Sovereign, indicating that the Prince, later King Edward VII, who arrived after 11 o'clock, thought the party a success.
At the ball, the attendees included:
The Duchess of Devonshire's costume was described in detail by The Times:
"The Duchess of Devonshire, as Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, wore a magnificent costume. The skirt of gold tissue was embroidered all over in a star-like design in emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and other jewels outlined with gold, the corners where it opened in front being elaborately wrought in the same jewels and gold to represent peacocks outspread tails. This opened to show an underdress of cream crepe de chine, delicately embroidered in silver, gold, and pearls and sprinkled all over with diamonds. The train, which was attached to the shoulders by two slender points and was fastened at the waist with a large diamond ornament, was a green velvet of a lovely shade, and was superbly embroidered in Oriental designs introducing the lotus flower in rubies, sapphires, amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds, with four borderings on contrasting grounds, separated with gold cord. The train was lined with turquoise satin. The bodice was composed of gold tissue to match the skirt, and the front was of crepe de chine hidden with a stomacher of real diamonds, rubies and emeralds and jewelled belt. A gold crown incrusted (sic) with emeralds, diamonds, and rubies, with a diamond drop at each curved end and two upstanding white ostrich feathers in the middle, and round the front festoons of pearls with a large pear shaped pearl in the centre falling on the forehead."
One of the most expensive costumes was worn by Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough who went as the French Ambassador to the Court of Catherine the Great. The velvet costume was made by the House of Worth and was embroidered in silver, pearls and diamonds with a waistcoat made out of gold and white damask. The price of the costume, which cost 5,000 francs, reportedly even shocked the Duke, who had famously married American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895.
The ball was reproduced on the London stage in Drury Lane in September 1897 "to the scandal of nobility and the amusement of the commoners." The ball was utilized as the setting for the last act of a new play entitled The White Heather by Cecil Raleigh and Henry Hamilton. The New York Times stated "the very possessions of royalter were 'desecrated' by exhibition on the stage, for the managers, with enterprise almost America, had purchased from the costumers some of the most gorgeous habiliments worn at that revel." The play inspired the 1919 film, The White Heather.