Poster Balls: a new ‘species of fancy dress’

Poster Balls: a new ‘species of fancy dress’

In September 1900, a new type of fund-raising ball caused a sensation in Australia, and made headlines across New Zealand – it was called a ‘Poster Ball’. While one reporter described it as a new ‘species of fancy dress’, another accurately called it ‘a new phase of advertising’. It was a novel combination both. In October 1900 this image from a Poster Ball in Melbourne, which had raised the impressive sum of £1200 for the local Children’s Hospital, was reproduced in a number of New Zealand newspapers.

Photo by Johnstone O’Shannessy. Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19001012-7-3

The women are wearing costumes promoting Allan & Co, ‘the largest musical warehouse south of the equator’. As the name ‘Poster Ball’ infers, ball-goers were required to wear costumes that represented ‘poster advertisements of well-known goods, or the goods themselves’. At the Melbourne ball, party goers advertising everyday brands such as Quakers Oats, Bovril and Maypole Soap, shared the dance floor with more prestige goods. Lord Richard Nevill came disguised as an 8-foot-tall bottle of Heidsieck champagne, while a woman wearing a gold-foil headdress and close-fitting, green silk dress, more subtly suggested an elegant bottle of Moët & Chandon. In the reporter’s words:

 ‘For the privilege of thus advertising their wares, in many cases on the backs of society men and women… the owners or agents paid handsomely, the fees going to swell the hospital fund’. (Manawatu Standard,19 September 1900, p. 2.)

Hailed as a ‘decided improvement on the ordinary fancy ball’, Poster Balls were soon being organised around New Zealand, in both cities and small towns. They remained a popular entertainment throughout the first half of the 20th century both as fund-raisers and general entertainment. Photographs of people dressed in poster-inspired costumes can be found in many of the country’s photographic collections. While Te Papa only has three such photographs, thrillingly we hold one surviving costume.

Photographic postcard of a woman in a Poster Ball costume advertising Hunky Dory boot polish. Zak Photography Studio, 1907-1915, Wellington.

The above photograph was taken by Zak Studios of Wellington and turned into a postcard. The woman is advertising Hunky Dory boot polish and Hoxo Pad Rubber Heels for ‘no more sore feet’. While she wears a lady’s shoe atop her head, her feet are clad in roller skates. To date, the earliest mention I have found of a Wellington poster competition on skates is a carnival at the Elite Skating Rink in Ingestre Street in 1906. The woman’s full hairstyle fits with this date, although Zak did not officially open his studio until 1907. Prizes of ball-bearing skates were given for the best fancy dress costume, the best poster costume (men’s and women’s) and the most graceful skater.

Mr Mason below, is also confidently posing on roller skates, and for good reason. He won the Gentlemen’s Prize for Best Poster at Petone’s inaugural Skating Carnival in August 1910.  Looking every inch a showman, Mr Mason is promoting the Empire Tea Company’s popular Crescent brand.

Mr A Mason in his prize-winning Empire Tea Company poster costume, August 1910. Berry & Co Photography.

Companies provided printed advertising material for such costumes, which were often made from calico. If you look closely at both of the images above, you can see the paper cut-outs beginning to peel away from the fabric underneath.

The young woman below, wearing ballet flats rather than skates, is advertising Carson’s high quality confectionary. Her costume is adorned with trays and chocolate wrappers, most of which, but not all, are empty – perhaps ball-goers could help themselves as they danced by?

This young woman is adorned with chocolate boxes and wrappers from Carson’s, a high quality confectionary company based in Glasgow and Bristol. Berry & Co Photography Studio.

Given the length of the young woman’s skirt, this would be a later ball. Poster Balls, which were held by organisations as diverse as patriotic and benevolent societies to sports clubs, continued to be popular throughout the First World War and following decades.

Te Papa is extremely fortunate to hold a poster costume from the 1920s. The dress below is made from crepe paper and packaging for Minties, the hard, white, chewy sweet that was invented in Australia the early 1920s and remains a favourite today. The dress was made in 1927 for 7-year-old Hazel O’Hara to wear to a fancy dress party in the Wairarapa.

Minties costume, 1927. Gift of Shelley Venimore (née O’Brien), 2011

Miraculously, especially as this dress was worn again in the 1950s, the costume’s crown also remains intact.

If you would like to see some more Poster Ball photographs from a range of public collections visit my Poster Ball page on Pinterest. If you recognise any of the people in the above photographs, please get in touch via the comments section or by phone.



  1. There are some pretty amazing pictures of costumes around; I’ve seen ones for Osram light bulbs and another for “K” jams.

    1. Author

      I’d love to see the Osram light bulb costume!

  2. Another amazing post! It’s like the World of Wearable Commercial Art!!

  3. wearable art?? lovely to see Minties…

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