This week on the blog conference keynote speaker E-J Scott shares some of the findings from the heritage lottery funded Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Balls project. His interest in identity and Victorian fancy dress was developed whilst researching a rare collection of forgotten House of Worth haute couture and fancy dress (c1880) that was found in the basement of Southside House, Wimbledon Green after having been forgotten for nearly 70 years. His queer curatorial work is currently focussed on establishing the Museum of Transology, and curating the Trans Museum of Underwear exhibition, due to open at the Fashion Space Gallery at London College of Fashion in 2017. On day one of the conference at Bishopsgate Institute, E-J will speak on ‘Researching, Reimagining and Restaging Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Balls 1923– 1938: Duckie’s queer performative heritage engagement project.’
She Sure Did Have Big Balls.
Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Ball (1923 – 1938) was the one night of the year that London’s domestic workers were given time off together to meet, drink, dance and – as was reported by the press – “make whoopee”. Many of London’s domestic servants were poor migrants from Wales, Ireland and small rural counties, and often found themselves isolated in their new jobs and stripped of their personal identity. They not only crossed the borders from their country villages to big city employment, but from public life to the private domestic sphere where they were referred to by their employer’s surname, forced to wear a generic uniform and often shared a bedroom. No wonder then, that Lady Malcolm’s ball grew so popular, so quickly. Indeed, from 1930 – 1938 it was held at the Royal Albert Hall where the 5000 tickets repeatedly sold out.
The workers danced the waltz to Percy Chandler’s Orchestra, drank vermouth, ate ham sandwiches and smoked cigarettes. They were awarded prizes including brooches, bags and scarves for their fancy dress costumes by famous entertainers like Ivor Novella and Gladys Cooper (because even though Lady Malcolm always wore a pearl tiara and haute couture, she recognized that parlourmaidsand footmen were unlikely to have owned an evening gown or dinner suit). Many servants dressed as satirical comments on their working class conditions. One girl went as an alarm clock set at 6am, and one fellow dressed up as the “The Porter’s Nightmare” with muddled up luggage tickets stuck to him from head to toe. Another chap dressed as “Vimmy” (the character Lever & Archer had used to advertise their powder scouring agent since 1904) and one girl, possibly a cook, won a prize for her costume of an Empire Christmas pudding inspired by a recipe in the Daily Mail. In 1930, twenty butlers, footmen and chauffeurs came costumed in period dresses from “Eve upwards”, confirming the ball’s increasingly notorious reputation for attracting perverts and homo-sexualists. The rouged rogues were out in public, outed by the public press and causing public outrage! By 1935, tickets stated that “No man dressed as a woman… will be permitted to remain,” and costumes were examined upon entry by private detectives dubbed the “Board of Scrutineers”.
In memory of the brazenness of the London rouged rogues who performed ‘the rough’ (work that used scrubbing brushes) during the interwar years, following the close of the ALMS conference, DUCKIE is restaging the ball on the Friday 24 and Saturday 25 of June. We invite you to cross your own personal boundaries, to join us in tight hipped pants and coloured blouses, to bring your little mirror and your comb, to paint your lips and rouge your cheeks and dance pervertedly in pairs in honour of the working class queans and dykes, in-betweeners and gender transgressors who were arrested for doing the same at Lady Malcolm’s Servants’ Balls during London’s interwar years.
For tickets and more info: