The fabulous Bloomsbury Ballroom, still resplendent in original 1920s deco glamour, oozes sophistication from a former age.
Just pushing open the heavy, geometric-stark doors in chrome and wood and glass, descending those gleaming marble steps and passing silver lanterns in moderne style notches-up the excitement to Harlem-level. Reflected in mirrored wall panels the red-lit bar tells a tale of decadence and deco, hot nights and hotter jazz.
A single spotlight picks out a flapper in fringes and beads. In the shadows a vamp in Louise Brooks bob adds a pastel-pretty cocktail cigarette to her foot-long holder. At a corner table a pair of Broadway Babies sip champagne from china teacups; the world’s least-likely-to-succeed wheeze when trying to conceal illegal booze at a speakeasy.
Prohibition is retro party organisers Bourne & Hollingsworth’s tribute to all things 1920s. Admittedly it’s broad-brush-stoke 1920s – cocktails, cravats and cupcakes – but it’s such fun that it really doesn’t matter the DJ’s playing the Andrews Sisters or that there are rather more guys in clip-on braces and pork pies than white tie.
For one-night-only, Bright Young Things dress up in sequins and headbands and dance the night away in the hedonistic spirit of the 1920s, a glorious mashup of American speakeasy, Boardwalk Empire and the great Mayfair balls of post-war London.
A live band, complete with sousaphone, plays jazz, a fan dancer struts her stuff with even more feathers than there are strewn on the ballroom floor and the roulette wheel spins into the small hours.
Walking the gangplank to board the SS Atlantica, a similar frisson of excitement bubbles. We’ve moved on a decade, to the 1930s, to join a cruise harking back to the classic years of transatlantic ocean liners. The ‘captain’ of the Atlantica (actually the Silver Sturgeon, probably the swankiest boat on the Thames) hob-nobs with glamorous guests in bias-cut satin and backless velvet gowns and jokes with chaps in white tie (and a few more of those braces and pork pies…) Guests take their places in low-lit booths waiting to set sail on a cruise taking us from Southampton to New York Chelsea to Tower Bridge.
The night is clear and cold, but the lights of London sparkle. The Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and the twinkling fairy lights of Embankment and South Bank conjure memories of Cecil Beaton’s monochrome photography.
On board, it’s more like images from one of his notorious fancy dress parties. People have been less sure what to wear here but they have all made a massive effort, using the opportunity to break out their most enticing gowns and outrageous furs.
Cocktail glasses chink, roulette wheels clatter and a live band plays novelty tunes while the daring burlesque floorshow bares (almost) all before guests’ very eyes.
Back across town, a cavernous, brick-lined railway arch behind Liverpool Street station is pierced by the ominous howl of an air-raid siren. We’ve moved on yet another decade to a time when London is a terrifying, darkened labyrinth of fog, blackout, sandbags and gravy-browning stockings.
Blitz Party is Bourne & Hollingsworth’s tribute to the war years and it’s here that London’s hip generation seem to feel most comfortable. A stone’s throw from Brick Lane, the girls channel victory rolls and tea dresses; the guys riff on hep-cat, spiv, de-mob and, most effectively of all, RAF officer.
The image works beautifully as they party with the dashing abandon of young men about to go into the fray; of young women trying to hold the country together back home. A generation who don’t know if tomorrow will be their last day on earth. The décor works superbly.
The bunting isn’t overdone and they avoided Keep-Calm-and Carry-On cliché, wisely preferring to let those massive brick arches do the talking. Individual spotlights pick out fleeting glimpses – an immaculately made-up face, a splendid moustache, a flashy, geometric tie – before disappearing back into a darkness that can really does you feel you’re at a secret party in some kind of underground bomb shelter. Take that, Mister Hitler.
Every so often an explosion of red, white and blue confetti lifts the spirits with VE-Day exhilaration and the floor erupts with cheers. The band works at its best here, too, with a singer whose voice – and image – truly reflects the style she’s immersed herself into.
Bourne & Hollingsworth parties are not for what a re-enactor friend of mine calls ‘authenti-nazis.’ Serious vintage lovers may have a few issues with the DJ’s choice of music or some of the costuming but that would be missing the point.
These are fantastically fun nights for dressing up and having a good time in a themed atmosphere that can, just for a second, transport you back to another era. And that is a rare thing indeed.
Bourne & Hollingsworth vintage parties are held regularly – see websites for details:
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in Vintage Life magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…