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Beaux Arts Ball returns as Art Center Sarasota fundraiser

The center is reviving the eccentric event to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its iconcept runway show fundraiser.

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  • | 3:01 p.m. May 9, 2018
Beaux Arts Ball was known as one of the most popular and outlandish events of the season in its heyday. Courtesy photo
Beaux Arts Ball was known as one of the most popular and outlandish events of the season in its heyday. Courtesy photo
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It was a different time. Instead of ballgown-clad socialites sat at neat tables with sparkling centerpieces, locals from all walks of life took to the dance floor wearing outrageous costumes that transformed them into saints, sinners and even a slice of cake.

In the ’40s and ’50s, perhaps the biggest event of the Sarasota social season was the Beaux Arts Ball. And on May 11, Art Center Sarasota is bringing it back to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its iconcept unconventional fashion show.

“I think it’s time, that’s why I started iconcept, to bring an event to Sarasota that was unique, nontraditional and accessible,” says Art Center Sarasota Executive Director Lisa Berger. “In this crazy world right now it’s a good time to allow people to let go and just have fun, not worry about a $2,000 gown.”

The iconcept fashion show will still include a sit-down dinner for guests at the highest ticket level and light bites for general admission ticket holders before the runway show, but this year it won’t just be the models wearing outrageous outfits. Guests are encouraged to return to the Beaux Arts Ball tradition of elaborate costumes, and like the original event, they’ll have the chance to show them off on the dance floor at the after party.

Beaux Arts Ball began as a Ringling College of Art & Design event invented by Guy Saunders, the chairman of the school’s fashion design department who was also known as “Pappy.” According to “The First Fifty Years — Ringling School of Art and Design” by Robert E. Perkins, Saunders was a well-known fashion and costume designer in New York City before moving to Sarasota. He created costumes for everything from Sally Rand and Faith Bacon burlesque performances to the 1933 World’s Fair in New York City.

Saunders’ extensive career gave him the unique ability to pull off a large-scale costume party like Beaux Arts Ball, which he first held in 1936 in the Mira Mar Auditorium. In 1947, the Art Association (now the Art Center Sarasota), started hosting the event, which attracted artists, students and other intrigued locals to total a rumored 1,000-some people in attendance at the height of its popularity.

This year, Berger offers a fresh take on this decadent event that faded out in the mid-’60s, was revived in the ’70s by the Ringling School of Art Library Association and the college’s Alumni Association and faded again by the ’80s.

At the original ball, cash prizes were given out to the most inventive costumes, which were centered around outlandish themes such as “Mother Goose at the Ball” and “Gay Nineties.”

The reinvented ball will also feature a costume contest, but the prize will be a flashy sash and bragging rights for the evening. Content categories are cleverly named and offer inspiration to guests with titles such as “Cease and Desist: Best copied/parodied character costume,” “Don’t Post — I Like My Job: Best naughty costume” and “Golden Glue Gun: Best constructed, crafty costume.”

Past themes include Jungle Ball, Underseas Ball, Aztec Ball, Saints or Sinners, Arabian Night and many more. Courtesy photo
Past themes include Jungle Ball, Underseas Ball, Aztec Ball, Saints or Sinners, Arabian Night and many more. Courtesy photo

Guests can still expect the runway show of unconventional fashions — which Berger encouraged designers to go more avant-garde with this year — to be the main event, but there will also be several other performances such as a Fantasy Girls Drag Show (and they’ll even be able to watch the queens get ready in their pipe and drape-walled dressing room in the middle of the event that will be hooked up to two live closed-circuit TV cameras).

Berger says there are plenty of other surprises in store — but guests will have to check them out themselves.

“It’s just a new adventure, trying to bring back a ball I’ve never been to,” she says.

Eric Cross, the local designer who’s participated in seven iconcept shows but recently took some time off, is making a big return for the 10th anniversary show. His Chrysler Building-inspired dress is made of champagne caps, paper and vertical blinds and took him six months to complete.

As a former Ringling College student who attended the Beaux Arts Ball in 1979, his return is fitting. The birthday cake outfits he made for himself and his sister Tania won first place in the costume contest.

Cross says he always has a good time with iconcept, and he’s excited for this combination of two events that have led to so many fun times.

“It's all about the creative process for me,” he says. “And seeing what others have come up with!”


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