In addition to our exhaustively described common appreciation for cashmere rollnecks, alpaca tweed and the later oeuvre of Faith No More, Will and I share an interest in the books of style writer Nick Foulkes. He was thus elated to learn that I had devoured Foulkes’ gorgeous, gigantic Bals this past weekend and couldn’t wait for me to share my impressions with him (In RJ's dreams. Ed.).
Foulkes has made himself a niche as a writer about expensive and glittering things and people, both in producing vanity histories for Mikimoto pearls, Turnbull & Asser, the Carlyle Hotel, Dunhill and other luxury brands, and in his very entertaining, engagingly written forays into history and biography, including one of Count d’Orsay. While his latest creation appears to have been sponsored by Van Cleef & Arpels in connection with that jeweler’s launch of a collection inspired by famous 20th-century soirées, there was nary a whiff of commercial taint in his Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century.
Rather, Bals contains nearly 300 oversized pages of text and lavish illustrations, including some by Alexander Serebriakoff, the artist who made something of a specialty of painting these events, discussing and evoking a series of famous 20th-century parties whose unifying theme was to transport and displace, to deny, roll back or refine reality. As such, many of the balls profiled were intentionally backward-looking, seeking to recall a lost ancient manner of entertainment in which not only was no expense spared in décor and costume, but décor and costume themselves reflected thought, creativity, elegance, at their best a certain genius. And they were at their best in the parties thrown by A Suitable Wardrobe favorite Baron Alexis de Rédé, who would no doubt be amused to have amassed such a posse of earnest Internet followers after his death.
However, de Rédé’s 1969 Bal Oriental was as much of an unexpectedly successful throwback as its host, and the rest of the series of balls discussed here (the 1903 Romanov Ball, Paul Poiret’s Thousand and Second Night, Etienne de Beaumont’s costume balls, the Beistegui Ball at the Palazzo Labia (I so enjoy typing that name), the Cuevas Ball, Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, Rupert and Josephine Loewenstein’s White Ball in London and Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s Proust Ball) appears to indicate a trend over time towards vulgarity and, as with Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball, towards the adoption of exclusion as a theme rather than a byproduct of these entertainments.
Foulkes provides an observant introduction setting the historical background for the 20th-century balls he profiles, mentioning famous balls of the 17th and 19th centuries which set the tone for their more recent examples. It is worth noting that even those earlier balls, such as Louis XIV’s Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée at Versailles, themselves were reactions inspired by prior festivities whose luxury and elaborateness they sought to outdo. No doubt my readers are reaching for their copies of the Vicomte de Bragelonne in recall of the famous fête thrown in honor of Louis XIV by Superintendent of Finances Nicolas Fouquet at his new chateau Vaux-le Vicomte, whose extravagance and beauty so captivated and enraged the Sun King that he had Fouquet jailed for embezzlement and used the same architect, decorator and landscape designer to transform Versailles from a hunting lodge into the magnificent palace where Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée was set.
Bals ends with Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild’s Proust Ball in 1971, not even three-quarters of the way through the 20th century. Guy and Marie-Hélène were members of the midcentury café society who had been fixtures at the earlier balls of the 20th century. Their Proust Ball heralded, as Foulkes indicates, the disappearance of this way of life. With the exception of de Rédé’s ball, the other 1960s balls featured focused less on setting and costume than on an invented exclusivity (in the case of Capote’s Black & White Ball) or a sort of Swinging London knees-up (in the case of the Loewensteins’ White Ball in London, where the Rolling Stones played and Princess Margaret showed up). That’s not to say that either was less fun than the more classic balls in this book. Foulkes is an intelligent enough writer to recognize that even in their own time, these events were criticized as extravagant and showy. Moreover, with few exceptions it appears that many guests could not live up to the cultural and costume expectations of their hosts, improvising ersatz masks or arriving with anachronistic costumes.
But Bals is not intended to be a book of deep social commentary. At its best, it provides escapist glimpses into events orchestrated for enchantment, that married luxury with a particular vision and taste, amid evocations of a pre-Brummell epoch of male peacockery. Such days are gone now; although as Hélène David-Weill notes in her foreword, over the past centuries, the fashions and lifestyles that permit such balls sometimes return. No doubt the rise of a new superwealthy class, secure in its finances but not in its claim to culture, could lead to a revival. Until then, as a great man once sang, “Some balls are held for charity and some for fancy dress, but when they’re held for pleasure they’re the balls that I like best.”