(How to open a fancy dress ball conducted in a large public space: with tableaux vivants or "living pictures": groups of costumed attendees posed in scenes.)
Before touching upon costumes, it may be well to add the information concerning the general programme of a masquerade or fancy ball which is given either by private individuals or societies, in a public ballroom or hall. At a private house, unless there is a large ballroom, the plan can scarcely be followed, though it is the regular custom at the entertainments first mentioned.
A large fancy ball is usually opened with tableaux. For this purpose a stage or platform at one end of the room is necessary. Temporary steps should lead from the floor to the stage at its center. As soon as a sufficient number of guests have arrived to conduct the tableaux as planned, the entertainment begins. The subjects for the tableaux should be comic in character, and may consist of "hits on the times," or upon local politics or institutions; or they may be arranged from some familiar humorous picture or series of pictures. This matter must be left to the host and hostess of a private ball or to the committee of arrangements for a society ball, who will select the subjects and decide upon the number of tableaux to be given. The last tableaux must include all the maskers who have taken part in the tableaux, and also the host and hostess, or at a society ball the president of the society and his lady; and it must be so arranged that at the end of the scene those on the stage, headed by the host and hostess or the president and his lady, will fall into line of march and move down the steps to the floor, where all the other guests are waiting, and also join in the grand march which generally opens every ball. If the first dance is to be a waltz, the guests should at the close of the march, be standing so that the line will form a sort of spiral. But if the first dance is to be a square dance, then the couples should be arranged along the sides of the room, ready to fall into sets at the first bars of the music.
-- Masquerade and Carnival. New York: The Butterick Publishing Company, 1892.
The University of Chicago has published a short scholarly article discussing the tableau vivant in relation to art, and includes both the Oxford English Dictionary definition: “a representation of a personage, character, scene, incident, etc., or of a well-known painting or statue, by one person or a group of persons in suitable costumes and attitudes, silent and motionless" and a quote from the popular Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book describing tableaux vivant as one of the most popular amusements of the time, “…. engendering a love for and appreciation of art.”
A Danish dramaturge named Marie has written a fascinating little article regarding the use of the tableau vivant in literature by such well-known authors as Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Brontë, and Edith Wharton.
The illustration at left of a 1910 tableau (though not from a fancy dress ball) is borrowed from her blog, At the Lighthouse, and depicts the wounded Joan of Arc surrounded by English soldiers, a typical historical theme.
Click the image for a larger view.