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S’mahvelous! (What Swell Parties They Were)

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A photo-excerpt revisiting the belles (and beaux) of the greatest 20th century balls, and why costuming was critical to putting your best face forward in those good old days.

Nicholas Foulkes’ Bals, a coffee table-crunching tome landing in time for party season—occupies itself mostly with the titled gentry of Europe taking hiatuses from their usual foppery and incompetence to indulge in some one-night-only, what-the-deuce-do-we-care foolishness under a single designated roof.
Oh, but how they planned for these events, like it were their last day on the planet.

The opulent parties recalled here, from Art Deco Paris to the Romanov dynasty (Rasputin!), swing between scenes reminiscent of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle (with richer people not dancing as gracefully) to something more opaque, say, a surreal scenario with deeper financing (anybody for a donkey-head mask?) Those with American prejudices will be delighted by the account of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball of 1966, and there’s a full-page portrait of a grim and aging Frank Sinatra squiring Mia Farrow, his 21-year old bride, to the festivities.

As you’ll see on these pages, the photography is the thing here, but Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the Twentieth Century, features elegant and wistful writing throughout. From the Introduction, “This is not just the tale of high society parties, but the story of a vanished way of life.” Indeed. —Peter Pavia