Once again, it’s time for Fancy Dress

For the first time in two years, the oldest collegiate ball in the country is back


Fancy Dress Committee announced this year’s theme with a banner in commons earlier this month. Photo by Mary Alice Russell, ’22.

Mary Alice Russell

*Please note, this is the first in a Fancy Dress series, before the event, we will be sharing more information, memories and other details on Fancy Dress in each edition in anticipation of the event* 

Fancy Dress. Those two, five-letter words have a different meaning here at Washington and Lee University than anywhere else in the world, and for the past two years, no one has heard them in their normal context. 

Most of you know of Fancy Dress by now, but for those of you still confused about the event, it’s “college prom, but with a $150,000 budget,” Fancy Dress Chair Felicity Taylor, ’22, explained. 

The 112th Fancy Dress, themed “Night at the Museum,” will be held on March 26, and tickets for the highly anticipated event are already sold out. Of the 1,600 total tickets, three-quarters of them were sold in the first three days. 

The ball will be held in Doremus Gymnasium, and the attire for the event is black tie, which means tuxedos and longer dresses. 

Students may invite people outside of the Washington and Lee bubble to be their date if they so choose, and if they have the tickets. However, Washington and Lee’s COVID-19 Committee guidelines will still be upheld at the event. 

Fancy Dress has been around since 1907, and it was started by librarian Annie Jo White, who attended the ball every year until the year before her death in 1938, according to her obituary. 

“It was for the men of W&L to have an event, and women would take trains in from Vassar and Sweet Briar and Hollins, and it used to be even bigger in a way,” Taylor said. “There would be full costumes that people would dress in and they would have live animals and full bands.” 

A New York Times article from 1971 entitled “End of its costume ball upsets Virginia college,” goes into detail about the costumes that were made to the theme.

“All the young women who visited the ball always sewed costumes for themselves and their escorts, no mean task when dress of European courts of the gilded age, antebellum plantation styles and angelic garments for heaven (one year’s theme) had to be created stitch by stitch,” the article said.  

The past themes of Fancy Dress are all on a Word-Press website that a student made for a DCI project in 2019 – and the themes are all over the place, from Colonial America, the first Fancy Dress theme, to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 

This year’s theme “Night at the Museum” has never been done before, and will almost be like a Washington and Lee MET Gala. 

“Think of a gala held at a museum exhibit to celebrate its opening,” said Reevie Fenstermacher, ’23, another Fancy Dress Chair.

Fancy Dress was canceled twice before COVID-19. Once in 1944 because of World War II, and once in 1971 when the school schedule changed from having two semesters to having two four-month terms and spring term. 

The previously mentioned New York Times article explains that Fancy Dress was in the month of February when exams were finished and there was a bit of a pause in the schedule. With the four-week term at the end of the school year added, that lag in scheduling went away and so did Fancy Dress, but it came back swinging the next year with a 1950s theme and a concert from Sha-Na-Na, according to the Fancy Dress website. 

Fancy Dress had never been canceled for two years in a row until the pandemic, but as we know, the word unprecedented in a time like this feels nothing more than overused. 

However, not having Fancy Dress for two years has posed several challenges for the Fancy Dress team. Taylor explained that just figuring out all of the pieces of the event was more of a challenge since it has been so long since it has taken place. Another hurdle is that many students do not really know what Fancy Dress looks like. 

The majority of people involved in the committee have never even gone to a Fancy Dress, as three-fourths of undergraduates have not attended the school at a time when Fancy Dress could take place. 

Adele Roulston, ’24, said she did not know what Fancy Dress was before coming to Washington and Lee and only heard of it a few times last year. Even though she doesn’t know what it will be like, she said she is still excited.

“I’m going to whatever Fancy Dress entails,” Roulston said. “I’m here for the shenanigans.”