Bal du Siècle in Venice, 1951

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Carlos de Beistegui hosted the spectacular ‘Le Bal Oriental’, also known as the Bal du Siècle ‘Ball of the Century’, at the Palazzo Labia in Venice on this day in 1951, with the theme inspired by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Banquet of Cleopatra in the Palazzo’s Hall. Guests came from High Society around the world, including the Aga Khan III and the Begum Aga Khan, Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, Countess Jacqueline de Ribes, Lady Diana Cooper, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who said:

The extravaganza gave rise to green-eyed jealousy over invitations and was the talk of London, Paris and New York for months.  Andrew and I were lucky enough to be invited. He went in eighteenth century costume and I wore a simple, white muslin dress with a pale blue satin jacket, copied from a portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by John Downman.

The ball was an unforgettable theatrical performance with entrees of men and women in exquisite costumes. M. de Beistegui, in a vast wig of cascading golden curls and a lavishly embroidered brocade coat, stood on stilts as to be easily recognised.  Daisy Fellowes regularly voted the best dressed woman in France and America, portrayed the Queen of Africa from the Tiepolo frescoes in Wurzburg.  She wore a dress trimmmed with leopard print, the first time we had seen such a thing (still fashionable today, sixty years on), and was attended by four young men painted the colour of mahogany.  So many women threatened to be Cleopatra that the host decided to settle it himself and named Diana Cooper for the roll.

One memorable entree was Jaques Fath, the Paris couturier, who came as Louis XIV in a headdress of white ostrich feathers as tall as himself, and a shimmering white satin jacket and skirt – like a doublet and hose – embroidered with gold.  Cecil Beaton, dressed as a French Cure and dancing with Babara Hutton, was worth watching.

Wine, food and entertainment were provided on the public square outside the palazzo for the citizens of Venice.  At least one Frenchman of noble birth, who thought he should have been asked to the ball, enjoyed himself among the crowd who were climbing up greasy poles for chicken and hams, and he was visited every now and again by the glamourous figures from the palazzo.  As this extraordinary night turned into dawn, we splashed our way down the Grand Canal back to our hotel, having had the time of our lives.


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