Christian Dior arrived in Venice in 1951 on the Orient Express with seven mannequins from his famous cabine of chic beauties who were subsequently photographed disporting themselves around Venice in his signature New Look day dresses with their extravagant volumes of finely pleated silk skirts. Dior presumably also brought his own costume for the ball—Vogue dubbed it a “housewarming”—to be given by the mysterious Mexican silver heir Carlos de Beistegui at the Palazzo Labia, the storied building with its famed Tiepolo frescoes that he had recently restored.
Dior was one of 1,200 guests bidden to the fete, while a further 10,000 Venetians were invited by the host to a party in the square outside. The Marquis de Cuevas ballet performed, the footmen dressed in the historic liveries worn by the staff of the Duchess of Richmond on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, and the host—who was, in real life, 5-foot-3—wore a full-bottomed wig and platform shoes under his doge’s robes of crimson damask so that he appeared 8 feet tall.
The gratin of café society was present, from Mrs. Winston Churchill to the Aga Khan and Prince Rainier—who, in those pre–Grace Kelly days, brought another gorgeous Hollywood star, Gene Tierney, as his date. (Charles Wrightsman and his glamorous wife, Jayne, then at the beginning of their social ascent, were not invited and had to stay on their yacht for the evening.)
Lady Diana Cooper and the Baron de Cabrol were costumed as Mark Antony and Cleopatra as depicted in Tiepolo’s frescoes (although the famous Jazz Age beauty wore a more decorous dress that the one Tiepolo painted, which revealed the fabled temptress’ bosoms in all their glory). Couturier Jacques Fath came as the Sun King, with his ex-model wife, Genevieve, in pale satin and starbursts, while Barbara Hutton dressed as an 18th-century nobleman in a staggeringly costly ensemble made for her by Cristóbal Balenciaga. Christian Dior, though, stole all laurels with his own entrance, one of 18 tableaux that included Arturo and Patricia Lopez-Willshaw as the Emperor and Empress of China as they appeared in the Beauvais tapestry series The Story of the Emperor of China.
Dior conspired with Salvador Dalí, the artist he once represented when he staged a Surrealist group show in the art gallery that he ran before turning his hand to fashion. Together they chose an appropriately surreal entrance featuring masked “giants” (on stilts hidden by the long pants of the costumes) preceded by a “dwarf” in a giant head mask. Dior also dressed many guests at the ball, notably the renowned society hostess and Singer sewing-machine heiress Daisy Fellowes, who represented America, 1950 in an amazing crinolined dress of yellow taffeta and leopard-print chiffon with a headdress of rare lyrebird feathers, her majesty captured in a fabled portrait by Cecil Beaton when she entered the Tiepolo-frescoed ballroom shaded by a parasol held aloft by her chevalier servant James Caffery.
A mere decade later, De Beistegui was drummed out of town (there were rumors of liaisons with gondoliers), and in 1964 he sold the palazzo he had lavished so much time, care, and expense on, along with its contents. It was acquired by RAI, the national television company, as their HQ, and, because of the inevitable security issues, the palazzo has been largely off-limits to the general public ever since.
So what a great joy it was when Venetian Heritage announced that the highlight of their 20th anniversary year would be a Dior ball at this legendary place. As the organization’s president, Toto Bergamo Rossi, pointed out, the tickets sold out almost overnight—many to local Venetians keen to finally visit this fabled place in their midst.
I caught up with Dior’s artistic director, Maria Grazia Chiuri, at the Danieli hotel on the eve of the ball, where she explained how Venice is in her DNA: Chiuri’s husband, Paolo, is from the Veneto area, and as a Roman she spent much time in the city from childhood on. “Venice is a part of our cultural patrimony,” says Chiuri. “We are very lucky that we live in a country where there are so many beautiful cities—not just the known ones like Florence and Rome, but Naples, Lecce, Catania.”
Venice, though, is a city she knows especially well, delighting in its hidden architectural wonders and its fabled craftspeople.
“Codognato is my obsession,” she laughs, and Chiuri’s hands are indeed laden with the signature memento mori skull rings of Casa Codognato, founded in 1866. (For the gala she will wear Codognato’s magnificent necklace of skulls and butterflies framing a miniature skeleton in a glass-topped coffin.)
“I tried to work with the heritage that came from Venice,” says Chiuri of her work on the ball, citing the textile houses of Fortuny—whose iconic, subtly colored printed textiles were used to cover the tables for the gala (its sumptuous decor brilliantly orchestrated by Dior Maison’s creative director, Cordelia de Castellane)—and Rubelli and Bevilacqua. The latter supplied their signature “soprarizzo” cut velvets for the famous handbags of Roberta di Camerino, notes Chiuri, who has loved them since she first began to sleuth them in her local vintage stores as an impoverished fashion student. To this day, the fabrics are woven on narrow 17th-century looms in the painstaking, time-honored way. “The atmosphere is so authentic, so beautiful,” Chiuri avers, and she used these precious textiles for the delicate bodices on the ballgowns she designed for Dasha Zhukova, Karlie Kloss, and Sienna Miller, marrying them to full, airy tulle skirts “to mix the heritage of Venice with the heritage of Dior,” as Chiuri points out.
Chiuri also loves the gesture of draping the traditional Venetian tabarro cape (still worn during carnival). “Venice is like Rome in that its very cinematic,” she says, “like a theater set.” The faintly sinister Venetian full-face masks—as seen in the paintings of Pietro Longhi—seem to have no visible means of support. Stephen Jones researched the mystery and discovered that they were often held in the teeth with a button on the inside. His solution was to mount his black velvet Dior masks on a long stick so that the wearer could choose to reveal or conceal at will. Devastatingly, someone nabbed mine when I left the table to dance. It was certainly a covetable collectible.
Recalling Dior’s collaboration with Dalí, Chiuri worked with artist Pietro Ruffo, a fellow Roman, on the constellation prints that were used for the performers’ costumes, which were made from glow-in-the-dark reflective material and spangled with lights like the ethereal headdresses that Jones had created.
As dusk (but, thankfully, not rain) fell, the watercraft bearing costumed revelers crowded into the side canal where the Palazzo Labia stood, bathed in soft pink light. The ParolaBianca performers danced on stilts outside the adjacent Church di San Geremia, evoking the “giants” in the 1951 Dior-Dalí entrée.
There was a theatrical, even operatic, quality to the entrances of the Dior swans—Sienna Miller in a billowing buff-color taffeta silk domino, Amira Casar in a white ruff and black cloak, and Cindy Sherman in a sleek black suit and tabarro cape, among them.
Peter Marino, chairman of the board of Venetian Heritage, engineered the Dior liaison. For the ball, he translated his signature biker look into a leonine mask of molded black leather designed by Marco Piemontese (responsible for several of the lavish costumes on view) and made by Lynne Mackey. Marino accompanied Cornelia Guest, who was dressed in lilac taffeta (created by John Galliano with Oscar de la Renta) with fairy face painting by MAC.
Everywhere one looked were truly amazing costumes—Toto Bergamo Rossi appropriately costumed as Mark Antony in the Tiepolo frescoes; broad-skirted ballgowns out of a Pietro Longhi painting; quaint 18th-century occidental takes on fancifully imagined Turkish and Chinese dress.
As guests mingled downstairs, shaded by lemon trees and fragrant jasmine plants, I hied upstairs faster than my violet satin Manolos could carry me to see the murals, which are indeed of absolutely transcendent beauty. So too were the rooms that De Castellane and her team had decorated, 11 in all and each with a different theme—Egyptian, French, Murano, Sicilian—and completely different tablescapes, with superb flowers by Eric Chauvin. The French room, for example, was set with exquisite porcelain figurines and plump pink Pierre de Ronsard roses, and in Murano—where I was seated with Chiuri, Zhukova, Sherman, Ellen von Unwerth, et al.—the yellow theme extended to the antique Murano glass candelabras that were flecked with gold. Master chef Silvio Giavedoni provided the scrumptious comestibles.
Houston’s Becca Cason Thrash (in towering ostrich plumes and a fabulous vintage Galliano Dior from her closet) played auctioneer for the impressive lots donated by Georg Baselitz, Vik Muniz, Sir Anish Kapoor, and Edmund de Waal—a challenging role in a room crowded with noisy revelers, with raised bidding hands hidden by a forest of headdresses.
Mission accomplished, we repaired to the dance floor, where capes swished, hooped skirts bobbed, feathers trembled, and a rollicking good time was had by one and all.