Bals: Legendary Costume Balls of the 20th Century

Release Date: 
September 21, 2011
Reviewed by: 

“If you are still a believer in the tangible book then this is the Harry Winston of treasured books.”

Nicholas Foulkes has flawlessly told the history of an event that started way before many of us were born or had the technical ability to trace our lineage. The event in question was the fancy dress ball (bal), and event that no longer occurs in our society except for the occasional and rare debutante and high society soirées—bals at Palazzo Labia, the home of Paul Poiret; at the Hotel Lambert; and of course, the Truman Capote Black and White Ball at the Plaza.

The beginnings of the event began, in Mr. Foulkes’ telling, in Tsarist Russia. This is the Russia of Catherine the Great, the Romanoff Family, and Fabergé. Usually one does not conjure up images of luxury when one thinks of the Russians but my, my, my—how they indulged! Their costumes, which were more or less based on their native apparel rather than those based on fantasy that we see later in the book, may not have been the most stylish, but they are beyond luxurious.

These garments were sewn with real gold thread and embellished with real gemstones; their owners carried little trinkets, which may have commemorated the event, made by Fabergé especially for one night. This was all to be accessorized with unbelievable amounts of jewelry adorning both the men and the women.

The Russians started the telling of the “event,” but the story of the bal obviously does not stop there. Mr. Foulkes weaves a cloth that drapes us in a time of unimaginable wealth and social influence—both of which were to become a very distant memory after the late 1970s. To his credit, Mr. Foulkes provides us with so much information and proof that these were indeed the moments of greatness within the world of high society and those who were part of it as well as the hangers on.

This is a book that will inform you, pleasure you, engage you and most likely transport you to a “search of lost time,” to quote the venerable Marcel Proust. It is he who attended many of these events and it is he who was honored on his 100th birthday with probably the last of the great bals ever undertaken. This was given by Marie Helene and Guy de Rothschild at their home, Chateau de Ferrieres, outside of Paris. This was and will probably always be held up as the sine qua non of bals.

If you have any interest of what money and ego and social standing can do for you, it is a strong suggestion that you run, do not walk, and get a copy of this treasure. This is a source of unrivaled beauty and storytelling of what once was.

Available exclusively at Assouline NYC or online at