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a special long dress worn by a woman for dancing at a ball

Origin and usage

The compound noun ballgown was first used in the early 19th century and has mostly replaced the earlier term ball dress which is still sometimes used, however. The ‘ball’ part comes from the French word ‘bal’ meaning a dance, while ‘gown’, in the sense of a long elegant dress, also comes from a French word that means ‘fur garment’. Both words ultimately derive from Latin.


Anyone who has read 19th century novels will have understood the importance of the ball, a social occasion held either in a private house or a public building where people would gather, dressed in their finest clothes, to dance, socialize, eat and drink. In the higher reaches of society, balls were one of the few places where young people could meet eligible members of the opposite sex with a view to judging their suitability as marriage partners. While the heyday of the ballgown coincided with the peak of the popularity of the formal ball, between about the 1850s and the 1950s, ballgowns are still made, sold and worn today.


“You feel very romantic when you’re in a ball gown. Everyone should wear one once in a while.”
(Carolina Herrera)

Related words

cocktail dress, evening dress, formal (American English)

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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