Fancy dress: Oh, the decadence

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As we gear up for New Year, Harriet Walker salutes the greatest party style


Marchesa Luisa Casati's masquerade balls, 1910-1920

Long before Nancy Dell'Olio and Anna dello Russo, Italy had another glamorous socialite, the Marchesa Luisa Casati. The country's first ever divorcée, the aristocratic Casati was an eccentric who lived for opulence and fabulousness: she was waited on by naked male servants covered in gold leaf, kept several cheetahs and monkeys as pets and wore snakes as jewellery. Clad in an array of outfits, including a red brocade dress by Venetian designer Fortuny and a panther-skin cap, Casati presided over the fashionable set for 20 years or more, and her image reverberates through the industry still, with John Galliano taking inspiration from her party wear for his 1998 haute couture collection, and model Natalia Vodianova wearing a similar crimson Fortuny gown to last year's Met Ball.

Leigh Bowery's Taboo, 1985-87



After the success of Steve Strange's Blitz night in creating a London club scene that catered to the outrageous and the outré, performance artist and fashion designer Leigh Bowery opened Taboo, the weekly place-to-see and be seen. With a door policy that focused on what you wore rather than who you were, Bowery set the bar high – he once turned up naked, but for a skull worn as a hat, and regularly covered himself in body paints. It set the pace for London nightlife in the 1980s and established the capital's reputation for its underground fashion and music scenes. Boy George was an attendee and later wrote the musical Taboo, which was a hit on Broadway and in the West End, featuring Matt Lucas as Bowery.

French Vogue 90th anniversary, 2010

How does the most fashionable grande dame in publishing celebrate its 90th birthday? With a masked ball at a private residence in Paris, of course, in a townhouse that Karl Lagerfeld used to live in. The strapline on the posters read "90 years of excess" and the evening was a celebration of unashamed luxe and decadence. You can always rely on the French. It was to prove something of a swansong for editor Carine Roitfeld, who announced her resignation from French Vogue earlier this month, and wore a transparent Givenchy gown with leopard-print panelling with a somewhat Batgirl-esque glitzy eyemask, while Jean Paul Gaultier was arrayed in feathers.

Kate Moss's 30th birthday party

By the time she hit 30, model Kate Moss had already been in the public eye for more than 12 years – and we were still desperate to know what she was wearing and where she was partying. Her birthday festivities started at the Mandarin Oriental, with Moss wearing the same 1920s floor-length sequinned gown that actress Britt Ekland had worn to the 1973 premiere of the The Man with the Golden Gun. Guests, including Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones and Gwyneth Paltrow, were dressed in flapper dresses and sharp bobs according to the Fitzgeraldian Roaring 20s theme. They then moved on to a suite at Claridge's, where they drank champagne well into the next day and danced with a hired troupe of strippers.

BoomBox, London 2006-07

After bling and before the banking crisis, there was a brief moment of Hoxton history when fully glitzed-up fashion hedonism occurred. To the strains of electro-disco dancefloor belters, BoomBox was presided over by the infamous transvestite bouncer Jeanette and Mandi Lennard, the ultimate insider's PR guru, as well as designers du jour Henry Holland and Carri "Cassette Playa" Munden.

Outfits were cartoonish and gothic, inspired by the particular brand of streetwise clubwear that had started appearing on the capital's catwalk from the likes of Giles Deacon and Gareth Pugh. Dayglow lurex and Eighties-inspired sportswear was mixed with ferocious vintage Westwood and Wayfarers. But after a brief Hallowe'en incarnation as DoomBox, the club ran a final New Year's Eve party in 2007 and closed its doors, before the rest of the world really knew what it had been about.

Truman Capote's black and white ball, 1966

Fed up with giving presents to other people? Treat yourself, just like writer Truman Capote did, by throwing a ball as a "great, big, all-time spectacular present" to himself. Masked and monochrome-clad senators sat with showgirls, while diplomats danced with debutantes at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan; the likes of Lauren Bacall, Norman Mailer and Frank Sinatra mingled with Jackie Onassis and Joan Fontaine. Mia Farrow, with her cropped gamine hair, wore a white Directoire-line dress, while interior designer Billy Baldwin arrived in a unicorn head-dress and writer George Plimpton had to take off his mask because the glue gave him a funny turn.

Bianca Jagger's 27th at Studio 54, 1977

There are all sorts of ways to ensure you make an entrance at a party, but Bianca Jagger's arrival in a draped Halston dress atop a white horse led by a naked man to her 27th birthday party surely tops the list. Studio 54 had just opened a week earlier and Halston, the designer of the decade, persuaded the owners to throw a party for rock royalty Jagger. The club became achingly hip, synonymous with fashion, fun and flamboyancy, while Halston's signature jersey maxi-dresses perfectly encapsulated the laid back but elegant feel of the times.

Elton John's 50th birthday, 1997

An elaborate pompadour has been the centrepiece of many a party over the centuries. From Marie Antoinette's pink-powdered coiffure via Victorian costume balls to the teetering heights of Reg Dwight's half-century knees-up at the Hammersmith Palais, the voluptuous head-dress is a symbol of opulence, tasteless decadence and, most of all, party spirit. Still, you're only 50 once and you might as well make the most of it. Elton certainly did. With an elaborate brocade Louis XIV outfit that cost upwards of £50,000. Leaving all traces of Reg Dwight at the door, he was lowered into the party from the back of van.

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