they really knew how to party

The most memorable costume balls in France occurred between the two world wars. *

image found here

Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucinge, who attended all of them and gave two with his late wife, Baba, a noted beauty, has described some of the better ones. “It was a mixture that created the event. Let us say Picasso would have done the decor, Valentine Hugo the costumes, Georges Auric the music, Lacretelle or Cocteau or Morand would have written a little scenario.”

Valentine Hugo by Man Ray found here

The theme would be announced several months in advance so that costumes could be made and invitiations be argued over (the people one invited to costume balls were not necessarily the ones one would have dinner with). The most important part was the guest’s arrival, or entrée, for which he or she might have commissioned an aubade by Poulenc or a verse by Cocteau.

Jean Cocteau found here

Sometimes guests included professional dancers in their entrées and underwent a training program to be able to keep in step. Although Elsa Maxwell once came as Napoléon III and the bearded Christian Bérard as Little Red Riding Hood, travesties were not the thing. The point was, quite simply, to look marvelous. And everyone did.

Christian Berard found here

To record the evening such photographers as Horst and Man Ray would snap individuals or groups. Among the inevitable beauties at each ball were Lady Abdy who, says Cecil Beaton, invented size, being over six feet tall, the Duchess de Gramont, Baba de Lucinge, Countess Jean de Polignac, Princess Natalie Paley and Daisy Fellowes. Chanel attracted attention among the frills of the Second Empire ball by wearing black widow’s weeds and attended another party dressed as a tree.

Coco Chanel and Lady Abdy found here

Some went to great expense, while Man Ray appeared in a rayon laundry sack whose corners he had cut out for his arms and legs and carried an egg beater in one hand. The Surrealist Roland Penrose attended another ball dressed as the clock that struck at the moment Tristam Shandy was conceived. 

Roland Penrose and Lee Miller found here

“People had taken such trouble to dress and prepare themselves that sometimes they weren’t very comfortable and they were so excited about appearing that by two in the morning they were tired out. It never lasted terribly late.”

One party where Lucinge and several other guests were extremely uncomfortable was the Bal des Matières in 1929, at which guests were asked to wear costumes of strange materials. Charles de Noailles wore an impeccable tailcoat in oil cloth, Lucinge was a knight in paper armor designed by Valentine Hugo. “It was rather coarse packing paper. I hated it. I disliked the look of it and it was very uncomfortable. I was pleased on no account.”

image found here

For the same ball, the writer Maurice Sachs pondered on whether to wear feathers or furnishing fabrics and decided instead to cover himself in pebbles, causing his dancing partners considerable discomfort. “I should have worn shells,” he said later. 

cicada shell headpieces found here

* extract from A French Affair by Mary Blume