Calgary's history of fancy parties shatters Cowtown stereotype

Calgary has always always been at the cutting edge of fancy parties, and here are the pictures to prove it: top hats and tails, glittering gowns, avant garde fashions and even dance cards.

'From the very beginning, people have always talked about what everyone wore,' says museum spokesperson

By the 1920s, the Palliser Hotel had become Calgary's social epicentre with its frequent soirées and dances. It would remain a cultural hot spot in the decades to come. (Glenbow Archives)

Home of the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, Calgarians have never been the type to shy away from a party — not even in the early 1900s. 

We're not talking about frontiersmen and women wearing plaid and hides, stomping out a saloon dance or two in their muddy boots.

No, the city's earliest partiers dressed to the nines — picture top hats and tails, glittering gowns, avant garde fashions and even dance cards.

Calgarians posing at Hull's Opera House in 1904, dressed in their finest attire. (Glenbow Archives)

"From the very beginning, people have always talked about what everyone wore," said Jenny Conway Fisher with the Glenbow Museum.

"You see these breathy newspaper articles about all the dignitaries and what they were wearing," detailing the intricacy of the lace, the sheen of the satin and the quality of the brocade, she said.

"When we looked at all these old records of parties and the history of celebration in Calgary, we found that from the very beginning, those early, early city builders and community-minded people, they wanted parties," Fisher said.

Dancing, in particular, was crucial to these social events. 

"It wasn't just a practice of the wealthy elite," said Fisher, who pointed to photos from the Jenkins' Groceteria where employees are pictured "dancing foxtrots, waltzes, you name it."

"The Palliser Hotel was an enormously popular venue for dances and galas," with rotating house bands and dances every Wednesday and Saturday, Fisher said.

From the foxtrot to the waltz, dancing was one of the favourite social activities of Calgarians back in the city's early days. (Glenbow Archives)

A metropolis, not a cowtown, from the start

A 1912 article in the Calgary News Telegram takes great pains to break the stereotype of Calgary as a "wild, wooly cowtown."

It details the failed travel plans of British playwright William Somerset Maugham, who had intended to come to Calgary to study frontier life and gather material for a boisterous, gun-fighting play.

"The minute the playwright got here, obviously, he turned tail and left, because there was no wild west here to be found. It's a metropolis and a thriving, worldly city," Fisher explained.

The Glenbow Museum will continue the tradition of snazzy Calgary parties this weekend with its annual Schmancy gala fundraiser, with cocktails, theatre artists and local musicians. 

This 1924 article from the Calgary Daily Herald details how the latest Victorian dances, waltzes and quadrilles happened simultaneously in the ballroom and dining room of the Palliser. (Glenbow Archives)

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