These elegant dresses were worn at a ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond, which was held in Brussels on the 15th June 1815, three days before the Battle of Waterloo. Almost every senior officer of the Anglo-Allied army that had assembled in Belgium attended the Ball, from the Duke of Wellington down. The party was interrupted by the news that the French Army was approaching, forcing half the guests to abandon the ball.
In the summer of 1815, Brussels was packed with members of British high society. Many wives had accompanied their officer husbands to the Netherlands, and others were enjoying the continental travel that had been impossible during the last 20 years of war. The Duchess of Richmond, whose husband the Duke was the general in command of the British reserves, decided to hold a ball for the assembled company. It would be a night of dancing, music, drinking and eating, honouring the Allied commanders.
The British, German, and Dutch officers who attended did not realise just how close Napoleon’s army was to the city of Brussels. The Duke of Wellington was sitting at supper when word arrived of the French advance to Quatre Bras, just 79km south of the city. A Captain Bowles describes Wellington leaving the table:
“[He] whispered to ask the Duke of Richmond if he had a good map. The Duke of Richmond said he had, and took Wellington into his dressing-room. Wellington shut the door and said, “Napoleon has humbugged me, by God; he has gained twenty-four hours’ march on me. … I have ordered the army to concentrate at Quatre Bras; but we shall not stop him there, and if so I must fight him there” (passing his thumb-nail over the position of Waterloo). The conversation was repeated to me by the Duke of Richmond two minutes after it occurred.”
Many of the guests left over the next few hours to join their regiments, giving an emotional – and for some, final – farewell to their friends, sweethearts and dancing partners. The Dowager Lady de Ros said: “While some of the officers hurried away, others remained at the ball, and actually had not time to change their clothes, but fought in evening costume.” This tragic and romantic scene, on the eve of the battles of Quatre Bras (16th June) & Waterloo (18th June) captured the imagination of generations.
These dresses were reputedly worn to the ball by the two sisters of an Hon. Mr. Perceval, whose name appears on the invitation list. These brown silk dresses are certainly appropriate to the style of 1815, although they are more typical of day wear rather than that of a formal evening event. Perhaps the Misses Perceval hadn’t anticipated a ball when packing.
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This object is in the collection of Fashion Museum, Bath