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Who Wore It Best?

The Ball on Shipboard

James Tissot, the son of a tailor and a seamstress, had an intimate knowledge of fashion and a flair for painting all varieties of fabrics, furs, and laces, among other signs of material wealth. Which certainly comes across in his painting above, The Ball on Shipboard. Here we find ourselves in London for a daytime yacht party. The scene primarily includes young women and older men and speaks to a certain level of social striving. But it also includes a major fashion faux pas. . . several of the women have arrived wearing the exact same dress.

Now, it could just be a coincidence. The mass production of fashion is one of the hallmarks of this period. With the rise of the department store, multiple versions of the same dress would have been available to patrons at the time. But that’s pretty unlikely. What’s more probable is that Tissot himself owned or had access to just a few dresses and had models pose for several characters, a theory strengthened by the fact that some of the women look remarkably similar.

The most obvious instance of matching outfits is the two ladies in white dresses with black and blue detailing towards the front right. But as you look closer, there are several other examples. Note the group of women by the railing wearing light blue and green dresses. Even their hats are identical. And there are also three women wearing light pink dresses with burgundy accents: coming up the stairs, walking with a man in the background, and sitting down towards the middle with her back to us.

Tissot might be commenting on the superficiality of fashion with these choices, but regardless. . . quel scandale!

Image credit: James Tissot. The Ball on Shipboard, c. 1874. Tate, presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1937, NO4892.