The Artists’ Ball: The Fairytale Begins

This Saturday night’s knees up at David Jones will be a tame affair in comparison with artists’ balls of Sydney’s racy past when police were routinely called to break up fights and drunken revellers shocked our demure society. The tradition will be remembered for History Week with an extravagant recreation of costumes, music and dance from the 1920s.

The Artists’ Ball: The Fairytale Begins will celebrate a history of artists’ balls from the first one on 21 August 1922 at Sydney Town Hall, which raised 3000 pounds (almost $100,000 today) in aid of a Red Cross project to set up a pottery workshop for disabled diggers.

Among the extravagant costumes and decor to be recreated in memory of the period will be the figure-hugging leopard cave woman outfit and dogtooth necklace designed and worn by artist and  “queen of bohemia” Dulcie Deamer, the original party girl who epitomised the joie de vivre of post World War I Sydney in the 1920s.

Sydney artists Reg Mombasa, Wendy Sharpe, Jenny Sages and Leo Robba have interpreted the spirit of the times with artworks paying tribute to artists of the times such as Dulcie Deamer, photographer and photojournalist Samuel Hook, interior designer Florence Broadhurst and Martin Sharpe.

The works will be on show On Seven at David Jones store from September 8 to 15.

Sydney has a long history of artists’ balls held at the Sydney Town Hall, the Blaxland Gallery, the Cell Block Theatre, Paddington Town Hall and the Trocadero. The balls were often controversial as artists, students and society figures let their hair down and danced the nights away to the rhythms of the best jazz bands in the city.

One memorable ball, dubbed the Night of the Great Scandal, ended in chaos when police were called to break up fights between high-spirited revellers, semi-naked women and gate crashers. At one ball in the 1930s National Art School teacher Jean Isherwood wore soup strainers for breastplates, key rings for earrings and a transparent dress to a ball at the Trocadero.

Art students from the East Sydney Technical College and the National Art School Students Club continued the tradition when they began organising their own artists’ balls in the 1930s.  On the evening of the 1933 ball, the actress Katherine Hepburn told college students that the plight of women was a “chamber of horrors”. This ball was to start a long tradition of fancy dress balls in the 1950s and 1960s and like the earlier balls in the 1920s and 1930s they became notorious for getting out of hand and being raided by police.

The balls were suspended during World War II but continued after the war at the Trocadero, the most glamorous dance palais in Sydney accommodating up to 2000 revellers. At one ball drag queens arrived in giant removalist vans because their frocks and hairstyles were too big to be transported in any other way. Management and police were unimpressed when one of the tables caught alight.

Balls at the next venue, Paddington Town Hall, were no less controversial as newspaper headlines sought to sensationalise the activities of the artists, who viewed their creations and outfits as an expression of art, a view not always shared by the management and the police.

The balls returned to the National Art School’s Cell Block Theatre and continued sporadically until 2002 when they became an annual event.  In today’s society the shenanigans of the past festivities would hardly raise an eyebrow but in their day, they pushed the barriers of art and social behaviour.

The ball will open a week of events on the theme of NSW History Week 2013 – September 7 to 15.

In 1933 David Jones hosted an Artists’ Ball on Level 7 featuring a fairy tale theme. In 2013 the first Artists’ Ball, ‘the fairytale begins’ will be the official launch of History Week 2013. This event is a fundraiser for the History Council of NSW.

When: Saturday 7 September, 8pm – 11:30pm
Where: On Seven at David Jones, Elizabeth Street Store Sydney
Cost: Tickets $125 and include drinks and a light supper. Click to book
Dress: The audience will be invited to dress to theme.

More information at


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