Paris -- It is nice to think of dressing up and smelling rose petals at a time of year when everyone is taking off his and her clothes and the pervasive perfume, if it can be called that, is Ambre Solaire.
The best dressing-up occurred in Paris between the two world wars. The occasions were costume balls of ravishing elegance. 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 parties in his book, Fêtes Mémorables: Bals Costumés.
The French have been dressing up for centuries. What makes the 1920s and 1930s so particular, Lucinge says, is that it was a period when society and bohemia joined in a brief and happy mix.
"A congregation of what is called gens du monde and painters, poets, writers, artists -- 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."
There would be three or four balls, for about two hundred guests, each season between April and July. Ideally they would be held outdoors, like the Faucigny-Lucinge Second Empire ball in June 1934, in the Bois de Boulogne, which ended at dawn with romantically costumed young couples rowing on the lake.
The most assiduous partygoers and party throwers were Count Etienne de Beaumont and his wife, satirized by Radiguet in Le Bal du Comte d'Orgel and creators of the Bal Louis XIV, the Bal de la Mer, the Bal des Tableaux Célèbres and one based on the fairy tales of Perrault to which seventeen-year-old Johnny Lucinge was invited as Prince Charming by a friend of his mother.
The boy was dazzled by the beauty of the costumes and by the appearance of his host, dressed in pink tights and tiny wings as Cupid. "He liked making appearances. Sometimes he would change his costume three or four times a night," Lucinge says.
For sheer magnificence the greatest party giver after the Beaumonts was Carlos de Bestegui, whose Venetian fete at the Palazzo Labia in 1951 was the last great ball. Lucinge's publisher insisted that he include later fetes, such as the Rothschild Proust ball and the Hélène Rochas "My Fair Lady" ball, but for Lucinge these were just collections of show biz and jet-set celebs. The party, he says, is over.
But when it was still going on, what larks! 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. 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.
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 (Iya) 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.
"She adored dressing up," Lucinge says. "She was at every party and disguised herself wonderfully. It amused her, she was at the height of her glory and started going out a lot and she absolutely loved it. She took great trouble and it was always very well done because she had her own ateliers."
It was also the time when colorful revues flourished in Paris so there were many theatrical costumers near Montmartre where guests could rent costumes. 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.
Lucinge says he and his wife loved the planning. One of their more brilliant strokes as a young married couple was a Proust ball in 1928, only six years after the author's death. Many of Proust's friends attended and one was only narrowly persuaded not to impersonate the Master himself. The Lucinges came as the Marquis and Marquise de Saint-Loup, their costumes designed by the painter Jean Hugo whose wife, Valentine, excelled at party costumes. The party ended at 6 a.m. under the Eiffel Tower but usually they ended earlier, Lucinge says.
"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 given by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles 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, I disliked the look of it on myself and it was very uncomfortable. I was pleased on no account."
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 later wrote.
Part of the attraction of costume balls, Lucinge says, was that they gave people a chance both to play another role and to be themselves at their best. It is touching to imagine this highly sophisticated world filled for one evening with childlike excitement and a sort of innocence.
"Absolutely," Lucinge says, "and it was innocent, which is a very strange thing, because a lot of those people were more than sophisticated and yet they enjoyed themselves like children." After 1936, he says, the feeling that Europe was heading toward tragedy changed the party mood.
Even Maurice Sachs asked himself if the enjoyment of such pleasures was morally justifiable, was it right to spend such vast sums for a single night? He concluded that what he would like would be to go to the parties and not think of such things.
The parties were frivolous, of course, but frivolity is no bad thing -- it has been called play at its most evolved -- and it should not be confused with triviality. The costume balls celebrated the ephemeral, which is a highly sophisticated way of celebrating life.
It was a brief moment when everything was important, and nothing. "My big regret," Lucinge says today, "is that Picasso wanted to do my wife's portrait and you know how it is when one is young, one says tant pis, another day.
"I was young and I was lightheaded, and the painting was never done."
August 3, 1987
Copyright © 1999 by Mary Blume
The Paris Beat, 1965-1998
A French Affair
The Paris Beat, 1965-1998
It is an affair that spans more than thirty years, from the time Mary Blume first came to Paris, beginning her renowned columns in the International Herald Tribune with a fine eye for the charms, and no aversion to skewering the pretensions, of her adopted home. As with the best chronicles of a time and a place, the narrator begins to emerge through the text. Only Mary Blume could have written these essays. Hers is a unique voice that has won her a devoted audience who have turned religiously, over decades, to her weekend features.
Quintessentially American, she has managed that fine trick of not assimilating, and yet coming to know, in the fullest sense, the place and the people in all their often sublime and sometimes ridiculous complexity. In the pieces themselves, whether she turns her penetrating lens on Frenchemen or their money or their socks, whether a bearded lady or Simone de Beauvoir, street performers or members of the Académie Française, whether the newest chic potato or the eternally chic St. Germain de Prés, whether the events of May '68 or the last presidential elections, she sees what would pass unseen -- were she not there to notice it.
In the simplest things, Mary Blume reveals the telling detail. In a piece ostensibly about cooking lessons given by two well-meaning aristocrats, she lays bare the acute French sense of class; in a deadpan explanation of the byzantine process of changing street names, she captures the Kafkaesque French bureaucracy; in looking at one beloved Left Bank bistro, she gives us the essence of every such restaurant; by describing the French art of window shopping, she gives us a reflection of how the French see themselves. Whether plumbing the nuances of their language, their rites, rules, or rituals; whether looking at the Mona Lisa or the political arena, film-makers or winemakers, the places and personalities come alive with an uncanny ring of truth.
Illustrated by Ronald Searle with the unique wit and delicacy for which he is world famous, A French Affair gives us not only a unique perspective on a time, a place, and a people, but a France that we can digest, distill, and revisit without ever leaving the comfort of home.