Mary Fenton Whitelaw’s Ball Gown (1867)

DRESS WORN BY MARY FENTON WHITELAW FOR ROYAL BALL IN BALLARAT, 1867

Mary Fenton Whitelaw's Ball Gown (1867) Image: Gold Museum Collection (91.0431)

Mary Fenton Whitelaw’s Ball Gown (1867)
Image: Gold Museum Collection (91.0431)

Mary Fenton Whitelaw’s green silk gown from 1867 is one of the highlights of the Gold Museum’s Costume Collection. At the age of 17, she wore it to an exclusive ball in Ballarat, to celebrate the visit of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh. This was an important event in Ballarat’s social history, as it was the first time the city had hosted royalty. Prince Alfred was the second son of Queen Victoria, and he spent five months touring Australia in 1867.

Mary’s dress is part of a collection of more than 50 items relating to her family, including letters, photographs and objects. Together they provide a glimpse of what life was like for a respectable middle-class family in Ballarat from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries.

Letter to Mary Fenton Whitelaw from her father (c.1854) Image: Gold Museum Collection (91.0490)

Letter to Mary Fenton Whitelaw from her father (c.1854)
Image: Gold Museum Collection (91.0490)

In contrast to the lives of working-class people such as Eliza Perrin and James Petford, Mary Whitelaw’s family was considerably better off. Her parents Thomas and Emma were married in Scotland in 1849, and Mary was born a year later. In 1852, the family travelled to Australia. Emma and Mary remained in Melbourne while Thomas worked to establish a painting business in Ballarat, and the ladies later joined him. Emma and Thomas had four more children before Emma’s death in 1868.

In 1867, the Duke of Edinburgh visited Ballarat, and Mary attended the ball held in his honour at the Alfred Hall with her parents and the cream of Ballarat’s society. The green silk dress she wore was the height of fashion, with an off-the-shoulder neckline, short puffed sleeves and a matching belt, all edged with cream silk ribbon.

Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine fashions (December 1863) Image: Gold Museum Collection (70.5727)

Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine fashions (December 1863)
Image: Gold Museum Collection (70.5727)

The 1860s marked a period of transition in the shape of women’s dresses.  Mary’s gown is a good example of the shift from the wide, round crinoline skirt popular in previous decade, to the bustle and long train that was fashionable in the 1870s and 80s. The low neckline and short sleeves were acceptable for evening wear, but would have been unsuitable attire during the day.

According to family records, it was here at the royal ball that Mary first met her future husband, Lewis Stewart Blair junior, whose father owned a boot-making business in Ballarat. Mary and Lewis were married on 14 March 1870, and Lewis joined Thomas’s painting business.

In 1873, the family moved to Melbourne and established the decoration firm of Whitelaw and Blair in Swanston Street. The business flourished, and after Thomas retired, Lewis maintained operations as L.S. Blair and Co.

Mary and Lewis had nine children together, four of whom survived infancy. Mary herself died in 1930 at the age of 79.

Mary’s green silk ball gown was passed down through the generations through her children and grandchildren, some of whom have been photographed wearing it. It was donated to the Gold Museum in 1991.

Mary Fenton Blair (nee Whitelaw) in the late nineteenth century Image: Gold Museum Collection

Mary Fenton Blair (nee Whitelaw) in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century
Image: Gold Museum Collection

For more information:

For a full report on the Ball held in honour of His Royal Highness Prince Alfred, including a detailed list of who was in attendance, please see the Ballarat Star, Tuesday 24 December 1867, page 2.

To learn more about fashion in the 1860s, please see: Australian Dress Register; Wikipedia, ‘1860s in Western Fashion’; Metropolitan Museum of Art Libraries, ‘Costume Institute Fashion Plates‘; The Costumer’s Manifesto, ‘Victorian Clothing (General)’.

8 thoughts on “Mary Fenton Whitelaw’s Ball Gown (1867)

  1. What a beautiful story to go along with a beautiful dress. I can imagine how excited a seventeen year old girl would be going to a Royal Ball. I hope she did meet her future husband there. Do you have many of these dresses at the Gold Museum, and do any more of them have wonderful stories do go along with them?

  2. Thank you for your comment. The Gold Museum has over 2,000 items in our Costume Collection, which includes men’s, women’s and children’s clothing, dating from 1790 to the 1980s. We have a number of rare 19th century gowns that were donated with local stories, and some that need more research to discover more about them, which we hope to do in the future. Watch this space for updates!

    – Claire

  3. Can you imagine the excitement at the ball?!!
    All the worthies of Ballarat were there, and the presence of royalty would have seen everybody falling over themselves to meet and be seen with the Prince. The funny thing is that this still happens today – despite Australia’s republican tendencies. Royalty still seems to have a special aura about it – even diehard republicans are not immune!
    And picture the ball room!! the glitter and beauty of the jewels and dresses, the handsome gentlemen in their evening dress, the music, the buzz … in those days Britannia still ruled the waves, and Ballarat was beside itself with excitement at entertaining Queen Victoria’s son. It’s fascinating to read the accounts of the welcome which Ballarat gave the Prince. And from our position in the 21st century, it’s pretty amusing too read about the way Ballarat rushed around holding functions and vying with everybody else in the state to show the Prince how amazing the state of Victoria had become – built, of course, on gold!

    • Thank you for your comment. Yes, it certainly would have been the social event of the season, and no doubt the local population were discussing it for days, months and years afterwards.
      I am sure there was even more discussion after the attempted assassination of the Prince in Sydney on 12 March 1868 proved to have been undertaken by a former Ballarat citizen, Henry James O’Farrell!

    • Thank you for your comment, Erin. We are very lucky to have this dress in our collection. The donation included matching sleeves, upper bodice and collar, which Mary would have been able to attach to the evening dress and turn it into a more demure day dress.
      – Claire

  4. Was Fenton her middle name or one of her parents last names if so was it tho as or Emma’s last name ? What date did she go to the ball

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