The party of the decade: Truman Capote's Black and White Dance

Museum of the City of New York

Mr. Truman Capote requests the pleasure of your company at his black and white dance

Truman Capote's Black and White Dance
The most spectacular party of the 20th century took place in New York on November 28, 1966. Author and socialite Truman Capote had invited New York's socialite to attend his 'Black and White Dance' which marked the ultimate confrontation between New York's staid old guard, and a new, avant-garde destined to fascinate the public eye for decades to follow. Temperaments flared, generations collided, and the resulting fashion show was spectacular. The legendary event saluted Washington Post editor Katherine Graham, and was observed at the time as a “tour de force of social engineering.”  The Museum of the City of New York holds a remarkable collection of the dresses worn at the party. 

The Location

The event took place on November 28, 1966 within the Grand Ballroom of the Plaza Hotel.

The Host

Celebrated author Truman Capote hosted and choreographed the event following two monumental literary successes. His first 1958 novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” was adapted and released in October, 1961 as an era-defining film, featuring Audrey Hepburn as the quintessence of New York élan. His second novel, “In Cold Blood,” was deemed a smash hit, and catapulted him and his “hot book” to command the January 24, 1966 cover of “Newsweek.”

The Guestlist

In order to avoiding criticism elicited by throwing a lavish gala to celebrate the movie and book’s resounding success, Capote identified an alternative recipient in his dear friend Katharine Graham. He set to work, and spent his entire summer laboring over a guest list that had tapped into every facet of the day’s social, political, and cultural scene, finally whittling it down to an intimate 540 “friends”. Guests included Frank Sinatra, Mia Farrow, Babe Paley, Candice Bergen, Gloria Guinness and Lee Radziwill.

The Invitation

Katharine Graham recounts the event in her Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Personal History:

"The publicity and higher profile frightened me a little, and might actually have hurt me - probably should have, given the serious, professional person I was trying to be. Oddly, however, the party itself for the most part escaped being described as Marie-Antoinette’s last fling.

Perhaps this was because the women’s movement had not yet come to the fore, and it was before the most serious racial urban problems surfaced and before Vietnam became the burning issue that so dominated our society. This was the last possible moment such a party could take place and not be widely excoriated."

(New York: Knopf, 1997)

The Admittance Card

The invitation and reply card in the Museum's collection was a gift from Mr. Charles Baskerville (1996-1994), a prominent portrait painter and muralist. He also illustrated a nightclub column for the New Yorker under the pseudonym "Top Hat."

The Dresscode

The dresscode was inspired by the costumes worn in the film My Fair Lady from 1956. Fashion photographer Cecil Beaton costumes added to the success of the film.

The costumes
True to the name of the event, the Black and White Dance required guests to restrict their costumes to a black and white palette. Men wore a black tie and mask, and the ladies wore a black or white dress with a white mask or fan. 

Candace Bergen

This gown, designed by Halston for The Boutique on the Second Floor at Bergdorf Goodman was worn by a young Candace Bergen, who had just made her screen debut in The Group.

The bunny mask

Bergen's accompanying bunny mask was also from Bergdorf Goodman. The bunny mask is made of white mink with long ears and has a pink satin nose.

Brooke Astor

This lace dress from Bergdorf Goodman on the Plaza was worn by Brooke Astor, philanthropist, socialite, and writer. Her third husband was Vincent Astor, great-great grandson of John Jacob Astor, America's first multi-millionare.

The design

It has an A-line silhouette with a fitted bodice, full skirt, floor-length; scoop neckline; elbow length sleeves, flared lace at the elbow; natural waistline with attached belt of white satin with black silk and velvet rose on proper left front.

There are three horizontal satin bands from the calf to the hem, and the hem is edged in lace scallop with back zipper.

Isabel Eberstadt

This double-knit wool jersey dress by James Galanos was worn by Isabel Eberstadt, daughter of poet Ogden Nash, and known patron of New York's avant-garde.

The design

The left side of the dress is white, the right side is black, and divided at the center front. The floor-length A-line dress has an asymmetric neckline with a single white strap at the left shoulder.

The headdress

Ms. Eberstadt's black and white swan mask and headdress was designed by renowned photographer Bill Cunningham (1929-2016), who was an acclaimed haberdasher early in his career.

The mask is made of white and black-dyed coq feathers, adhered to buckram and forming the shape of pair of intertwining swans. The eyeholes sits at nose.

Katherine Sullivan Meehan (Mrs. Joseph A. Meehan)

This dress by an unknown maker was worn by Katherine Sullivan Meehan, wife of Jospeh Ansbro Meehan, head of the family owned Good Humor Ice Cream Corporation.

The design

The floor-length evening dress in white silk gazar has an A-line cut with a fitted bodice, full skirt. It's strapless with a straight neckline, and decorated with black beads of various shapes and sizes at neckline and from below-knee to ankle.

Carol Bjorkman

This Halston (for Bergdorf Goodman) organza and ostrich feather dress was worn by Women's Wear Daily columnist Carol Bjorkman.

The design

The floor-length evening dress of black organza is covered with black ostrich feathers and has a round neckline. It is sleeveless and the underdress is of pink silk crepe. The stole of black organza is covered with black feathers.

The mask

Carol Bjorkman's accompanying mask and headdress was also by Halston for Bergdorf Goodman.

Adele Astaire

This black lace dress was designed by Jenkins, and worn by theatrical personality and vaudevillian Adele Astaire, elder sister to Fred and co-performer for over 25 years.

The design

The lace dress is decorated with black sequins on a black silk underdress with fitted sheath, and a cut-away front. It has a sweetheart neckline at the front and a deep V-neckline at the back. It is sleeveless with a lace ruffle on the right shoulder.

Frank Sinatra's departure at 2:45 am signaled the end of the party, but Capote's ball was deemed a pinnacle of New York's social season.

Credits: Story

The work to digitize, conserve, and catalog these women’s garments from our celebrated Costumes and Textiles Collection is supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) Museums for America program.

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