The Arts Club Ball: some early costumes

I found today’s illustrations in one of our scrapbooks while looking for something else entirely, but they fit very well with other examples of fancy dress we’ve looked at on the blog.

The first costume balls associated with the Chelsea Arts Club were held in the artists’ studios in Manresa Road, the first in 1887 to celebrate their own Mardi Gras. Later they used Chelsea Town Hall but the first of the famous fancy dress balls was at the Royal Opera House in 1908. The first organiser George Sherwood Foster, emboldened by the success of the event decided to move to a bigger venue.The first at the Albert Hall was in 1910, where there was a huge space for dancing, the Great Floor.

The Ball was now an artistic  success and was making a modest profit. It was, according to the Illustrated London News “the greatest fancy dress ball ever held in London.”

ILN 1910 03

That year there were 4000 people on that dance floor. (The big chicken was probably a homage to Chanticler, a play whose characters were all birds which was a sensation on the Paris stage that year.)

Coverage followed in the other weekly illustrated magazines. The Graphic published this picture of rehearsals for the Ball in 1912:

Arts Club Ball 1912 green room combined - no caption

Some rather shady characters there, up to no good in a dimly lit room perhaps.

This double page spread from the Sphere on the other hand, shows guests taking a convenient rest between dancing at the 1912 Ball.

17 March 12 1916 CM1485

To appreciate the costumes you have to take a close-up look:

19 detail

Clowns, harlequins, characters from history, and minor deities sit together casually, a far cry from other costume balls we’ve seen on the blog. Other exotic young women disport themselves below, along with an early outing for the Guy Fawkes/V for Vendettta persona so popular at modern protests.

18 detail

An issue of the Sketch for March 5th 1913 featured photographs of some of the guests. The main theme was “the Goya period”, although only a few guests seem to have gone along with that idea.

05 Fair ladies and brave men

A group of “fair ladies and brave men.”

02 Miss P Lacon in manly garb

Miss P Lacon in “manly garb”.

07 Chess-board and Domino - mrs Richard Davis and Mr R Grey

“In chess board and domino”, Mrs Richard Davis and Mr R Grey

Below, Miss Heron as “a queen of Egypt”, “and a pharaoh” (any old pharaoh, played by an unknown gentleman).

06 Miss Heron as a Queen of Egypt and a pharoah06

The caption has to be quoted for these two “As Hitchy Koos: Mr Frank Levison, and a friend”

10 Hitchy Koos - Frank Levison and a friend

The reference is to a musical revue, although this seems to be quite an early usage.

On the same page Mr Cole as the Keeper

08 Keeper and bear - Mr and mrs Cole

With Mrs Cole sweating inside the bear costume. Hardly fair, is it?

I include the next one purely for the link to another post.

13 the red fisherman - Tom Heslewood

The Red Fisherman (don’t ask me) is portrayed by Mr Tom Heslewood, whom we previously encountered as the costume designer for the 1908 Chelsea Pageant. You can see some of his designs here.

By 1920 the Arts Club Ball was a regular feature of the artistic/social scene in London. The 1920 Ball had a theme of Pre-History (“By the genius of Augustus John” according to the Ladies Field magazine of December that year.)


As well as this Egyptian gentleman, there would be a “70 foot Sun Temple” in which an “everlasting flame” would burn, flanked by two huge canvases depicting the Paleozoic Era. Some reference is made to costumes of the Atlantians (Atlanteans I guess) so the designers obviously didn’t feel enslaved by historical facts.

And best of all there were some fanciful sketches of costumes from ancient history:

20 December 25 1920 CM1485 - Copy

To me these look like they belong in humorous pictures from the 50s or 60s, but maybe that’s me, remembering artists like Norman Thelwell, Osbert Lancaster and others.


Let’s leave the prehistoric folk now and go back to 1912. Did you notice who was standing in the background behind the lady in the face-concealing bonnet?

Is that the Michelin Man?

19a detail - Copy

Bibendum, as he is properly known, is one of the oldest trademarks, first seen in 1894, so his presence here is no anachronism. The Michelin House building in the Fulham Road was opened in 1911 so he’s bang up to date for the 1912 Ball. I cannot resist one final picture I stumbled across in the Illustrated London News while looking for more coverage of the Ball.

ILN 1910 01 - Copy

He was no stranger to carnivals.


Background detail on the origin of the Arts Club Ball came from Tom Cross’s book Artists and Bohemians. The Chelsea Arts Club has its own archive relating to the history of the Club and the Ball which is open to researchers.

5 responses to “The Arts Club Ball: some early costumes

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