Radiating from the South of France to The Hamptons and now to Yorkshire, white parties are the coolest and most fashionable way to celebrate summer. Stephanie Smith looks at the history of the trend and offers tips on how to get it right.
Simple yet opulent, pure yet decadent, a white-themed party is the hottest – and coolest – way to stage a summer social event and, judging by social media and showbiz columns, it’s trending massively across the globe.
It’s not just the “anything, as long as it’s white” dress code; it’s the white decor, the white food and drink, the white-themed entertainment and music (the Beatles’ White Album, the White Stripes and, of course, Nights in White Satin and A Whiter Shade of Pale). Anyway, it’s probably best not to serve red wine.
Legend has it that white parties began in St Tropez around 50 years ago. Certainly, they have been a summer highlight of the Côte d’Azur social calendar ever since, attended by the fabulously rich and famous (Leonardo DiCaprio is said to be a fan).
But the origins of the white party, certainly white dress, could well lie much further back than the 1960s. The recent BBC and HBO TV series Gentleman Jack, starring Suranne Jones, saw Anne Lister finally, if briefly, swap her signature black mannish garb for a rather fanciful white gown, after being instructed by the Queen of Denmark that this was what ladies were expected to wear for her grand birthday ball in Copenhagen. Admittedly, this may well have been slightly reimagined for dramatic purposes. Recording the event in her encrypted diary, probably around the 1830s, Lister wrote: “One of the Queen’s Maids of Honour observed my magnificent blonde and said it was not from Paris. Yes, but I had brought it here. Was in black and had nothing white with me. Could get everything good but stockings.” In the 19th century, blonde was a term used to describe natural-coloured lace, so perhaps off-white is more likely, but in any case the TV adaptation depicted a sumptuous display of ladies in frothy white gowns, some of which are now on display at Bankfield Museum in Halifax alongside other costumes from Gentleman Jack, designed by Tom Pye and loaned by Lookout Point Productions.
White parties have long been a highlight of social calendars all over the world, from Miami to Marbella. In the US, they go back to the early 20th century at least. White was the coolest required look for the socialites of Long Island and the Hamptons, where affluent New Yorkers would summer. The Great Gatsby eloquently captures the hedonistic house party lifestyle of the 1920s, when young men – “old sports” – wore white flannels and, according to F Scott Fitzgerald, “Daisy and Jordan lay down upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses.”
However, there was an etiquette, including the fashion rule of no wearing of white after Labor Day in September, deemed the end of summer and summer style. Even now, wearing white cotton and linen does look a little odd come autumn.
Today, many white parties celebrate inclusiveness and the LGBTQ+ community, and indeed there has long been a statement-making, campaigning aspect side to the collective wearing of white. In the UK, suffragettes wore white on demonstrations in the early 1900s. Earlier this year, women members of the House of Representatives attended Donald Trump’s State of the Union address wearing white to honour the women who came before them and send the message that they were not going back on their hard-earned rights.
Here in Yorkshire, next Friday sees the return of the Tropical White Party at Alexander’s, in Skipton, with Balearic- inspired music and entertainment hosted by Leeds-based international DJ Luke Pompey and featuring white decor, white-clad stilt dancers, exotic fire dancers at dusk, a gourmet barbecue on the heated garden terraces, tenor saxophonist Spencer Moran – and, of course, a white dress code for guests.
The prospect of wearing all (or mostly) white can be a challenge, not least for those of us who share Anne Lister’s fondness for black. If you feel washed out, opt for off-white or for translucent layers of white (you might be able to get away with wearing a pastel shade of slip dress with a floaty white tunic or shirt dress on top).
Take care with white lace, as it can look bridal (or Miss Havisham, depending on your age). Mix it with something edgy or unusual – a black patent belt and/or bag and shoes could work.
A white tailored trouser suit or jumpsuit is definitely the way to go for this summer and it’s been a look favoured for special events by several celebrities including Sandra Oh, Jodie Cromer and Elizabeth Hurley. Try it (but stay away from any non-white food and drink).
Finally, the most important white-wearing special occasion rule – never wear a long white dress (or a short one, come to that) to a wedding at which you are not the bride. Just don’t.
For more information about the Gentleman Jack costume exhibition go to https://museums.calderdale.gov.uk/visit/bankfield-museum
Tickets for Alexander’s Tropical White Party on Friday include an arrival drink and three-course gourmet barbecue meal and cost £40pp. Visit www.alexanders-skipton.com