For years in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to be invited to a small masked ball celebrating Twelfth Night and held in the lovely rooms atop the French Quarter’s Napoleon House bar. One year, I took inspiration from a vintage Bill Blass coat that was ivory with graphic hand-painted brown and black branches running up the front and back. My costume was born when I decided to keep the branch theme going and attend the party as a sort of surrealist tree.
I went to Walmart and bought a tennis visor (which is also an excellent template for crafting a major tiara) and positioned it so that rather than shielding my face, it stood straight up and provided a base strong enough to glue-gun the various elements of my “treetop.” In the handicrafts department I bought artificial stems of ivy and flowers and remarkably life-like butterflies and songbirds. To these I added real branches and a bird’s nest and I pinned more butterflies to the “branches” on my coat. I bought a feathered mask for my husband and made him little owl ears from tiny pinecones I sprinkled with glitter and affixed to an invisible headband. I hasten to add that he wore a tuxedo and not an owl suit, but it was just as effective and the photo of us at that party sits on my office mantel as a reminder of just how much fun make-believe can be.
The party itself was loads of fun too, as always, but I have to say I had even more fun conceiving of and making our costumes. Of course, you need a lot of leisure time for that, the kind that the people featured in Assouline’s Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century had plenty of (see the article on the book in this weekÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Fetch). Bals features Baron de Rede’s over-the-top Oriental Ball at which “Nubians” lined the stairs and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball to which Mrs. Alfred Vanderbilt arrived dressed as a sexy black-and-white tiger.
The breed of well-off male socialites (De Rede, Carlos de Beistegui) who gave most of the memorable balls doesn’t really exist anymore, but I’m glad I live in New Orleans where for a week or two or three every year, people still make the time to indulge in artifice and fantasy, in the crafting of creative costumes and creative fun. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. Bronson van Wyck, who we talk to in this week’s Fetch, says the Oriental Ball “looked so beautiful it drives me crazy,” but he offers up some slightly more attainable tips to create a party “with heart.” As chef Mitch Rosenthal, who is also featured in the current Fetch, says of his Mardi Gras inspired party: you can opt for excess and offer a bounty of New Orleans food, festoon every surface with purple, gold, and green, make masking de riguer and carefully curate a playlist of New Orleans classics. As long as you have the “spirit,” there is no wrong way to celebrate.