low angle shot of cinderella castle in disney world

Best Dressed: How Cinderella Got into the Ball

I’ve been thinking about balls a lot lately, thanks to my translation of Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 2: Spectacle. The author, Céleste Mogador, attends her first ball as young woman and eventually earns fame and her sobriquet, Mogador, while dancing with and for all the high-born young men in Paris.

As a break from my first pass at Volume 3 of the memoirs and my revisions of that translation, I’m reading Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour. Her fame as Louis XV’s mistress came about seventy-five years before Mogador’s time, but it keeps my mind in France and on fancy parties. I was reading about the celebration of the Dauphin’s marriage in February 1745. This would be the wedding of Louis XV’s son, also named Louis but never a king himself, and his wife Marie-Teresa-Rafaela of Spain. This is not the future and more famous king and queen Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette of Austria, who have not been born yet at this point in the story, though you would absolutely be forgiven if you could not keep these names straight. Louis XV hosted a ball at Versailles to celebrate his son’s marriage and to maybe audition a new mistress for himself. Here’s the passage in Mitford’s book that caught my attention:

Every pretty woman was there to try her chances with the king. When balls were given in the state apartments, they were entirely open to the public; it sufficed to be properly dressed to be admitted.

I did not know this about public balls. More than half a century later, Mogador was attending public balls held by wealthy society families in Paris, not royal balls. The revolution of 1789 had happened by then, so those heads had already rolled, and returned, and been rousted again. She lived through an entirely different revolution in Volume 3.

Now that I was considering how people got into balls, I wondered how Cinderella and her step-sisters were able to attend Prince Charming’s ball.

Getting Grimm

I first turned to the Grimms, who published Kinder und Hausmarchen (Children’s and Household Tales) in 1812. So this story was likely collected in Germany halfway between the Versailles ball for the Dauphin and the public balls Mogador attended. I found an English translation from 1853 to read.

Right from the start, this version tells the reader that the dying mother is the “wife of a certain rich man,” so the family is not poor. When the widower father takes a new wife, who brings along her two daughters. The three women “took off her [the man’s daughter’s] fine clothes” and relegated her to the kitchen with the maid. So the man’s daughter, who is not yet named because no one is in this story, had fine clothes, and the family had a servant who worked in the kitchen.

The father is going to the fair and he asks if anyone wants anything. The step-daughters ask for “beautiful dresses” and “pearls and precious stones,” which he agrees to without balking at the cost. Cinderella asks for the first branch to touch his hat, which he also agrees to without balking at the strangeness of her request.

The reader then learns that the king is to hold a three-day festival for his son to find a wife. “All the beautiful maidens in the country were invited.” So this ball is like the state balls of pre-Revolutionary France, where anyone can come and meeting the dress code was presumably enough for entry.

What follows is the familiar tale. The man’s daughter is filthy from cleaning and falls asleep in the ashes on the hearth, so her step-family name her Cinderella. She receives magnificent dresses and golden (not glass) slippers from helpful birds and attends the festival anonymously, each evening racing home before anyone can discover her identity. She, like her step-sisters, is dressed appropriately, and the prince dances only with her. In this German version, on the third night, the prince lays a trap of tar and one of her shoes sticks as she flees. He knows the mystery woman fled to a particular estate, so the next day he visits and tries the shoe on the step-sisters’ feet. You may know that in this version of the story, one sister cuts off her toes to make the shoe fit and the other cuts off her heel. The blood is a giveaway, and the prince rejects them. Then Cinderella tries on what must by now be a hideously bloodied gold slipper, and it fits. She marries the prince.

I found another translation of the Grimm collection from 1823 called German Popular Stories. In this one, the step-sisters are invited to the ball, so apparently it’s not open to all comers. Or if it is, the step-sisters’ presence was specifically requested, likely along with the daughters of other wealthy families. There are small translation differences, like this is  “feast” rather than a “festival,” and the translator chose to call the celebration a ball more often than the later translator did. He also calls Cinderella a “slut” at one point. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since much of the insulting language we use now was in use long before we assume, but I was.

The Forgiving French

I knew that there was a French version, so I went looking for it. In 1697, Charles Perrault published Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (Stories of Times Past). In German, the main character was called “Ashputtel,” in French she’s “Cendrillon,” in English “Cinderella.” They all mean a girl of cinders and ashes. Much is made of the violence of the German tale, but the older French version is far less bloody. It’s also a more direct source for the Disney version. It has the glass slipper, the pumpkin coach, the mice turned into horses, and even the fairy godmother, all of which are missing from the German tale.


In Perrault’s telling, Cinderella’s father is a “Gentilhomme,” which confers some social status on him in addition to presumed wealth. She sleeps in the granary on the top floor of their home, which is again typical of French families with some money and servants. Her step-sisters are described as having the best beds and, a true luxury, full-length mirrors.

Here the king gives a ball, and he invites all the “people of quality,” or high-born families. “Our two Demoiselles were also invited, because they had good reputations in the Country.” (All of the French translations are my own.) The two sisters must not be highly enough born to be included in the general invitation, so not royal or close to the court. But this does seem to say that the family had a country estate, and that despite being common, they were wealthy enough and well-mannered enough to earn an invitation to this ball. This is akin to the situation with Madame de Pompadour herself when she was still the lady of Etioles, an estate that abutted the royal hunting grounds, and not yet Louis XV’s mistress.

Cinderella’s step-sisters array themselves for the party in velvet, diamonds, and a gold-embroidered cape. They have the balls, pun intended, to ask Cinderella to come assess their outfits, “because she has such good taste.” After they leave, Cinderella gets her finery, plus her entourage, from her fairy godmother.  She also gets the midnight deadline. Midnight may be a traditionally mystical witching hour, but it’s not really that late as far as royal balls go. They would often last until sunrise, especially the large ones. If this tale was collected or written in the era of the 1697 publication date, that was during reign of the infamously powerful and luxuriant Louis XIV, the Sun King. His balls were certainly large. Popular. Well-attended. Anyway, having to leave before the stroke of midnight meant missing most of the party. This would have been a significant constraint.

Cinderella is more than dressed appropriately—as in the other tales, she is both beautiful and unrecognizable. Perrault’s prince runs out to greet her as she steps out of the carriage and invites her to return the next night before she leaves at 11:45. Her clothing is scrutinized at the ball by the “Dames,” or ladies of some standing, and found to be lovely. She does, after all, have good taste. In this tale, she loses a slipper as she runs away on the third night, no tar traps required, glass slippers being particularly slippery, I would think.

After she has fled before the midnight hour rings, the prince asks the guards if they saw a young lady leaving the ball. They answer no, that they’ve only seen a “paysanne,” or country girl, or even hick, go by. Not someone who would have ever been inside at the ball.

In case class divisions and ranking have escaped the reader up to this point, the prince sets out on his search for the slipper’s owner beginning with the princesses (of the blood, I presume), then the duchesses, then the members of the court. Then he ventures out to the estates surrounding the palace.

Not only are there no bloody feet in this version, which was published more than a hundred years before Grimms’, but there’s forgiveness. When Cinderella is revealed to be the owner of the slipper and the future princess and queen, the step-sisters beg her forgiveness, which she grants. She even brings them to live in apartments at the palace and they marry gentlemen.

Clothing Counts

In all of these instances, from Perrault to the Dauphin to Grimm to Mogador, clothing is the key to the gateway that leads to the upper echelons of society. The balls Mogador attended were public, but achieving the level of success that she did required cashmere, velvet, and jewels. Being fashionable in nineteenth-century Paris was expensive, and it required income. Mogador began as a courtesan, where she acquired her first finery. Then she had a shop, then she became a stage performer, and then a trick rider at the Hippodrome. At every step, she had wealthy boyfriends who bought her gifts in addition to her own income. In Mogador’s world, better clothing meant better company. Being underdressed for a public ball meant social death and financial ruin.

“In archetypal psychology,” wrote Clarissa Pinkola-Estes in her landmark feminist study of fairy tales Women Who Run with the Wolves, “clothing can personify the outer presence. The persona is a mask a person shows to the world. It hides much. With proper padding and disguises, both men and women can present a near-perfect persona, a near-perfect façade.” This is evident for Cinderella, Cendrillon, Ashputtel, and Céleste Mogador. Being nearly perfect gave you access to the wealthy—if you had the balls.


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