Evening wear, sometimes also known as court dress based on its creation at royal courts, for women has its origins in the 15th century with the rise of the Burgundian court and its fashionable and fashion-conscious ruler Philip the Good. Wool, in various weaves, was the most dominant fabric for dresses, and the ladies of the court often simply added a train to their kirtle for formal occasions. Rich fabrics and fibres were usually the domain of the nobility, and clothing was still used as an identifier of social rank and status. The dawn of the Renaissanceslowly changed the rigid social rank system, and allowed wealthy Patricians and merchants to visibly display their success. The art of weaving silk was firmly established in the Mediterranean around 1400, and as a result, silk weaves became fashionable for those who could afford them. Dresses for court balls and similar festivities were often made of intricately woven silk and trimmed with expensive furs to highlight the wearer’s social status.
The vibrant court life of the 16th and 17th centuries with its focus on art, literature and music created a fertile environment for feminine formal clothing. Elaborate dinners, dances, and theatre productions allowed fashionable ladies to showcase their finery. The Italian Renaissance courts were the pinnacle of style and elegance in Europe. With the advent of the Baroque era, the focus began to shift to France and the court of Louis XIV. 17th century court dresses featured draped skirts with long trains, tight bodices, low necklines trimmed with lace, and embroidered, lace- and-ribbon-trimmed full sleeves. Rich silk weaves, such as satin, taffeta and velvet created luxurious gowns. In the 18th century, formal dress started as the mantua, but later developed into the elaborate sack-back gown. The farthingale so popular during the 16th/17th centuries, evolved into the pannier to give dresses and skirts extra volume and the desired court silhouette.
During this entire period, a ball or evening dress was synonymous with court dress, as balls took place at court or in the palaces and salons of the nobility who copied the latest fashions at the courts. Starting with the late 18th century, the term “evening or ball gown” emerged, as balls and formal dances were no longer the sole domain of royals and aristocrats. The French Revolution had caused social upheaval, and firmly cemented the place of upper-middle and upper class citizens in society. A common silhouette for evening wear, just as for day wear, was the high-waisted Empire or Regency dress. Evening versions featured lower necklines, short sleeves and elaborate fabrics and embroidery.