Tomorrow is Carnival, but in those countries and cities where this feast is celebrated people already started partying a few days (or even weeks) ago. The true meaning of Carnival doesn't have anything to do with fashion, yet the very act of putting on a costume that helps us transforming into someone else has got something to do with fashion. Every morning when we get dressed we assume a role in our society or try to be someone else, while fashion models sashaying down a runway in brand new creations by famous designers assume new roles, becoming elegant and seductive ladies or aggressive and attractive amazons.
Costumes are an essential part of the Carnival celebrations, but while the latter are usually open to all sorts of people with no distinction of class, the fashionable elite has its kind of Carnival events - masqued balls.
Mixes of performances, and fashionable entertainment, historically speaking masqued balls had multiple aims: if organised by a monarch's court they had a statement of intent, aiming at showing the power and national ambitions of that specific court; when organised by socialites they were attempts to escape from reality and recreate a parallel fantasy world in which everything was possible.
Paul Poiret's Thousand and Second Night Ball, the costume balls of Count Ètienne de Beaumont, patron of the surrealist movement (even Nancy Cunard and Tristan Tzara were at one of his balls in 1924) and subject of iconic portraits by Baron de Meyer, and the infamous Beistegui Ball in Venice all entered the history of fashion costume.
I'm leaving you today to ponder about Carnival and the power of the masquerade also in conjunction with fashion week mania and I'm doing so with two pictures: the first shows three masks, designed by Oliver Messel and worn by Lady Mendl (better known as New York decorator Elsie de Wolfe and as the organiser of spectacular parties in Paris in the '30s; the July 1939 party at her house in Versailles was the last great party before the war in France); the latter is a portraits of Marisa Berenson (by Cecil Beaton) dressed as the Marchesa Luisa Casati for the Baron Guy and Baroness Marie-Hélène de Rothschild's Proust Ball in 1971.
While the first picture has got a Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Poet mood about it, the second is very much linked to fashion: Berenson had just finished shooting Death in Venice at the time of this ball and had worked with costume designer Piero Tosi. It was Tosi who suggested her to go to the ball dressed as Marchesa Casati and who helped with the styling finding not only the Poiret design she donned for the occasion, but also all the matching accessories.