What is a Ball Gown?

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What is a ball gown?

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Definition of a ball gown: A ball gown is floor-length dress to be worn to formal, black tie and white tie occasions. It is the most formal (and fancy!) type of dress, and traditionally has a full skirt and fitted bodice.

Because of their dressy nature, ball gowns are usually crafted in luxurious or expensive fabrics like silk, taffeta and velvet, and may be trimmed with pearls, precious gems or intricate, hand-stitched embroidery.

However, with the rise of fast fashion and the desire by more people to emulate the looks of the runway and the red carpet, gown-style dresses are also available in more affordable fabrics and styles from stores like Macy's, Bloomingdales, Cache and more.

Ahead, learn a bit about the history of ball gowns and when they are commonly worn today.

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It all started with Dior...

Dior and models. Getty Images / Fred Ramage

For very formal occasions like balls, parties, royal receptions—and on occasion, weddings— ball gowns may be worn with opera gloves and the "good" jewelry (think real diamonds and other precious gems.) This style of dress, the modern ball gown, is typified by Christian Dior's "New Look" which debuted in 1947. De La Renta (and his eponymous brand) has been a trend-setter in the world of elegant, fashionable gowns ever since.

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Ball Gowns on the Runway

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​High-end haute couture designers almost always show at least one gown as part of their seasonal runway collections. Brands like Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Elie Saab, Naem Khan, Marchesa and Christian Dior are some of the top purveyors of gowns and ball gowns now. These gowns are worn by socialites, celebrities and royalty for formal occasions and red carpet appearances.

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Ball Gowns on the Red Carpet

Frida Pinto in Cannes. Getty Images / Vittorio Zunino Celotto

Because celebrity culture and red carpet appearances have become such a fixture in modern media, ball gowns and formal dresses have become an essential part of many designer collections and their styles have become more diverse—including high-low hemlines, sheer panels, trains and slits. For celebrities, royalty and socialites, ball gowns may be required for events throughout the year. You'll often see the dressiest types of gowns at the Cannes Film Festival, The Academy Awards, The Golden Globes and other big-time award ceremonies and events. Above, Frida Pinto wears a gown by Oscar de la Renta on the red carpet in Cannes, France.

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Ball Gowns at Prom

Getty Images / Bethany Clarke

If you have a prom coming up, you may want to consider a ball gown for the big night. However, be aware that some high school prom dress codes are less formal than others. You may want to have a pow-wow with your girlfriends to see how "dressy" they want to be and go from there. It's safe to say, though, that if your date is wearing a tuxedo, you should wear a long formal dress to match his level of effort.

Need more tips on what guys should wear to prom?

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Ball Gowns and Royalty

Queen Elizabeth II and Grace Kelly. Getty Images / Fox Photos, Bettmann

No surprise here, ball gowns have been a fixture of the royal wardrobe since the dawn of monarchies many centuries ago. Their styles have of course evolved and changed over time, but lavish details, rich colors and luxurious materials are a staple of royal gowns. Above you can see Queen Elizabeth II and Grace Kelly both wearing traditional ball gowns with full skirts and a fitted bodice.

Today, royals like Duchess Kate Middleton are introducing more modern silhouettes as part of royal attire; she prefers designers like Alexander McQueen, Elie Saab and even up-and-comer Self-Portrait for her dressy engagements.

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Ball Gowns for Weddings

Poppy Delevingne. Getty Images / Neil Mockford/Alex Huckle / Stringer

When it comes to wedding dresses, nothing makes a statement quite like a ball gown. Dramatic gowns with full skirts and trains have long been a classic look for brides, and the silhouette shows no sign going away anytime soon. Brides may choose a strapless look, or one that incorporates sleeves, illusion necklines, a halter style or thin spaghetti straps. One of our favorite wedding ball gowns in recent memory was a beautiful lace dress with a long train, worn by Poppy Delevingne in a lavish ceremony in England.