Return of the Beaux Arts Ball
Asking guests to dress in costume is a time-honored way of introducing fantasy, intrigue, and romance into a party. It gives us permission to create a disguise and to try on a different personality, if for just one night.
Truman Capote knew this when he threw his now legendary Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1966. The crème de la crème of New York and Hollywood made their red carpet appearances in the Grand Ballroom attired in either black or white masks.
The art and architecture students of the prestigious École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris knew it too when they held their first costume ball in 1892. And what a ball it was, if one believes the eyewitness accounts describing it both as a revival of paganism and a hymn to beauty, a living explosion of the senses and emotions, and one glorious night of concentrated revelry.
It didn’t take long for young Americans studying at the École to bring the artsy party known for nudity, cross-dressing, costume, and high style to the States. The Society of Beaux-Arts Architects in New York held its first official ball in 1914 with costumes and décor based on the theme “Venice through the Ages.”
Beaux Arts Balls weren’t the sole province of New Yorkers, nor were they only called Beaux Arts Balls. As the idea spread through American arts communities, some costume balls were termed artists balls while others were called “four arts balls,” a nod to the curriculum at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
I’ve read that the Provincetown Art Association held its first Beaux Arts Ball in 1914, but that old timers recall earlier artist’s balls staged in the barn of the well-known artist Charles W. Hawthorne. Hawthorne spent his winters in Paris and New York and his summers at Provincetown, where he founded and led the Cape Cod School of Art.
In Richmond, Virginia, one Beaux Arts Ball at the historic Jefferson Hotel drew 10,000 people, including then-New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Guests partied until dawn to the sounds of two jazz bands. The highlight of the evening occurred when a woman donned “The Spirit of the Ball” and was lowered from the hotel lobby ceiling inside a large tulip.
The most famous—or at least the most written about— Beaux Arts Ball occurred in 1931 when New York’s renowned architects descended upon the Astor Hotel dressed as the skyscrapers they had designed in celebration of the architectural exuberance sweeping the city. The star of the evening was William Van Allen who wore a four-foot tall replica of the top of the Chrysler building on the top of his head. Newspaper reporters and photographers loved it. And, despite the financial gloom of the Great Depression, all the tickets and tables were sold, so engrained had the Beaux Arts Ball become in the New York arts society.
The Beaux Arts tradition arrived in Rehoboth soon after the founding of the Rehoboth Art League. In 1939, the Art League held its first costumed artists ball at the now-defunct Rehoboth-Indian River Beach Club. According to Art League founder Louise Corkran in her memoir Sand in Your Brush, the event was started to raise important funds to improve the League’s physical premises.
In true Beaux Arts style, the Rehoboth Art League balls all had themes designed to inspire creativity in costume, such as “A Night in New Orleans,” “The World of the Orient,” and “Island Interlude.” The highlight of the evening was a grand parade of costumes, followed by judging and awards for individual and group costumes. General Omar Bradley was guest of honor at “An Evening in Paris,” where he presented the silver cup prize for best costume. The fundraising event would serve to close each summer season for the next 40 years. It was then held occasionally up until 1994.
This year the masks will be back as the Rehoboth Art League brings back the Beaux Arts Ball, scheduled for Saturday, September 21, at Belle Meade Farm, an equestrian ranch located just west of Route One, between Rehoboth Beach and Lewes, and opened only for this playful occasion. Dress is costume or black tie with mask.
If you’re interested in attending, you should check out rehobothartleague.org for tickets and details. What I know is there will be prizes for costumes, “living art,” a variety of musical entertainment, open bar (yah!), and dinner by (A)muse, Blue Moon, and Nage.
Funds raised will benefit the Art League’s outreach program for underserved communities.
Kudos to the Art League for bringing back the Beaux Arts Ball for its very special 75th anniversary and for giving us the chance to reconnect with an old Rehoboth tradition. The Beaux Arts provides us the opportunity to wear a mask and to step out of our everyday inhibitions. Do you dare?
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town. Rich Barnett's Blog