My first white party began, like every good fairy tale, with an emailed invitation from a PR professional.
“Does anyone want to go to this?” forwarded Jane Marie, the editor of Millihelen. “Oh my god me,” I responded, 15 seconds later. I love the Real Housewives, and I love Lisa Vanderpump. The prospect of rubbing shoulders with a bunch of irritable Herve Leger-bound loudmouths, whose fights, heart-to-hearts, and marital disputes I can recall with as much clarity as if they happened to me, nearly brought me to tears. I would do anything to get there.
Two months later, after a lengthy combination of subway/Jitney/friendly AirBnB host’s truck, I was finally in the Hamptons for the first time. It was okay. Immediately upon our drop-off at the Capri Hotel, the party’s venue, it was clear that I had not really needed to strong-arm my friend—who deeply loathes reality television, small talk, and minor celebrities—into coming with me. This was not the kind of event one might feel embarrassed to attend alone, as everyone around us appeared just as bewildered to be there as we were. “I dunno, a friend brought me as a plus-one,” was the overwhelming response when I polled the crowd on their backstories.
The first housewife to appear was Aviva Drescher, who lost her spot on the New York franchise last season after throwing her fake leg on a table in a premeditated fit of rage. Today, she was remarkably calm. Chatting with a pair of blonde twins with matching hair, matching makeup, and matching skintight eyelet bodysuits, Aviva made her way to the step-and-repeat. “I think the White Party theme is so chic, and so much fun, it brings back a little bit of an old Hamptons feel,” she told me in her signature disinterested timbre. A few minutes later, she left.
Today, the phrase “white party” certainly conjures up that “old Hamptons feel” Aviva mentioned, along with glossy images of Diddy dumping out entire bottles of perfectly good champagne and that time Nate kissed Serena on Season 2 of Gossip Girl. But, as it turns out, the general concept has been around for much longer.
The earliest documented evidence of a white party in Western European society might lie in a 15th century painting, unattributed, titled “Hunting With Falcons at the Court of Philip the Good.” It was around that time that “we started to see fashion for fashion’s sake become more asserted,” said Daniel James Cole, adjunct faculty in the Costume Studies MA program at NYU, whose book The History of Modern Fashion is out Sept. 15. “This party that we see in the painting might coincide with fashion becoming a more active part of the visual culture.”
White clothing, because of the maintenance it requires and the high likelihood that it will become ruined, has often, throughout Western history, been associated with status (and, of course, brides, ever since Queen Victoria married Prince Albert in a white silk-satin dress in 1840). During the Victorian era, the popularity of “summer whites” became more widespread amongst the who’s who of American, British, and French society, partially due to the fact that Prince Edward of Wales (later King Edward VII) had a thing for both sports and fashion. “Playing golf, yachting, those kinds of sporting pursuits become very common during the mid-19th century onward,” explained Cole. “[Prince Edward] and his wife encouraged sports wardrobes for people of affluence”—wardrobes that lent themselves to white.
This summertime trend began to materialize in East Coast enclaves like the Hamptons and Newport, Rhode Island, which Shamus Khan, a sociology professor at Columbia, described to me as “islands of isolation and protection” for the elite. An article in a 1894 issue of Harper’s Bazaar makes note of the “many white gowns worn this summer,” while a 1900 article in Vogue about Newport society sternly pronounces that “all-white gowns remain the dominant note in every assemblage out of doors.”
Throughout the 20th century and well into the next, debutante balls, sorority rituals, and private school graduations have utilized white clothing to help construct private worlds of exclusivity, virtue, and leisure within wealthy communities, which are often white themselves. In a recent Guardian article about Wimbledon’s increasingly aggressive clothing requirements—the all-white rule dates back to 1963, but was altered this year, limiting sartorial disruptions to, literally, “a coloured trim of 1cm width”—author Paula Cocozza writes:
White is the colour of carefree living. This was hammered home to girls growing up in the 1980s by the Timotei ad, whose blonde, white-frocked protagonist was so carefree that she washed her hair in a waterfull, heedless to the danger that white when wet turns transparent.
To layer white on white, as argued on the spring/summer 2014 catwalks of Phillip Lim, Victoria Beckham, Thakoon and others, is to appear to be living some kind of summer fantasy. It has to be really hot to wear white: with few exemptions, all-white on a cloudy day looks as if you’re kidding yourself. And, in your imagination at least, you need to be somewhere other than in a grimy city.
In plainer words, white is the color of being rich in the summer.
The crowd at BELLA New York’s Annual White Party in the Hamptons, hosted by Lisa Vanderpump, ranged widely in age from mid-twenties to late sixties, with a high volume of overzealous plastic surgery, thick Long Island accents, and unwieldy high heels. Celebrity guests included cast members from various Bravo reality shows, a FOX News host, and a handful of NASCAR drivers. In my grudgingly repurposed high school graduation dress, I felt both uncomfortable and bizarrely at ease, in the same way one might feel at ease during a dream about a large poolside gathering of friendly aliens. The closest thing to a white party I’d ever attended was an annual “Highlighter Party” in college, in which everyone bought white t-shirts from Wal-Mart and graffiti-ed each other with brightly colored penises.
A publicist ran up to Courtenay Hall, the editor-in-chief of BELLA, a “premiere women’s luxury lifestyle publication.” (Recent articles on their website include “St Barth Properties Announces Addition of Johnny Hallyday’s Vacation Home, Villa Jade,” “CONSIDERING FREEZING YOUR EGGS? Here’s What You Need To Know,” and “Show Your Lips Some Love With ChapStick®.”) “LuAnn is here, and she’s brought some guests who weren’t on the list,” she whispered frantically.
“LuAnn is fine,” Hall responded.
Moments later, resplendent in a low-cut white linen jumpsuit, countess LuAnn de Lesseps, cast member on The Real Housewives of New York City and occasional pop star—her Bravo-endorsed hits include “Girl Code (Don’t Be So Uncool),” “Money Can’t Buy You Class,” and “Chic, C’est La Vie”—breezed past a small gaggle of photographers and cameramen. She marched up to the step-and-repeat, taking in her surroundings with a bright, steely smile.
“Look at this crowd, stunning!” she cried, when I asked my third-favorite housewife what she thought of the party so far. I blinked.
The event, which ran from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., overlapped exactly with dinnertime. However, the only food available was as follows: trays of cookies plastered with Lisa Vanderpump’s face, a caviar booth, and several large black truffles in a bowl. Waiters walked around a few times with soggy mini-zucchinis and wrapped Lindt chocolate balls. My companion eventually gave up on food and retreated to a complimentary makeover booth, telling the makeup artist to “go wild”; I later found her underneath a thick crown of snakelike blonde mini-braids, her pale skin transformed to roughly the shade and texture of a light patio brick.
The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was filming at the party, with most of the cast in attendance. This was enormously exciting for me. The crew, many dutifully outfitted in white, zoomed back and forth through the entrance of the party to capture the “red carpet” area, which, while modestly sized, was quickly rich with drama. Lisa Rinna posed angrily for a few pictures, eventually storming off in the middle of an interview, hollering, “I’m done with you!” at a reporter. Ken Todd, Lisa Vanderpump’s husband, tottered over, the couple’s entirely immobile pet Pomeranian Jiggy in arms. “What did you do?” he asked the reporter accusingly. “Literally nothing,” she shrugged. “I didn’t even get my question out.”
Kyle Richards skipped press altogether, dodging questions about her sister Kim, who was recently arrested for shoplifting. And although I somehow, inconceivably, missed this, former Teen Mom/erotic novelist/occasional porn star Farrah Abraham reportedly attempted to crash the event uninvited. “Most celebrities would be embarrassed, but Farrah kept posing and smiling. She refused to leave!” a witness crowed to Radar Online.
Later, in the VIP section by the pool, a slightly more well-heeled crowd pretended not to watch the Real Housewives cast film a scene. Some, lacking the brass to walk inside the gate (when I asked its guard if I could enter, she sighed, “I don’t know,” and waved me in), shoved their iPhones over the thick shrubbery for a glimpse of, essentially, four heavily made-up women in white dresses sitting on a couch, drinking Pinot Grigio and furrowing their brows at each other. To be clear, this seemed perfectly reasonable to me at the time; I was equally fascinated by the quiet, largely motionless standoff being filmed.
Giant inflatable swans drifted across the water, taking on pinkish hue as the sun began its slow descent over the roof of the hotel. I stood by myself in the middle of the pool deck, a misguided and alcohol-fueled attempt to eavesdrop on several conversations at once. LuAnn danced alone with a cigarette, yelling, “My next single should be called ‘Don’t Be Such a Bitch.’” I silently agreed. Dorinda Medley, another New York cast member, was nearly pushed into the pool by her toadish boyfriend John, who had spent most of the evening flirting with another guest.
By 7:45, the event was winding down. I had one last task before me. Eyes glued to her sparkly black crucifix flash tat, I slowly approached LuAnn, who had stopped dancing to say goodbye to a group of admirers. “Excuse me,” I interrupted hoarsely, suddenly shy. She looked at me expectantly. “I heard you talking earlier about how you went to one of Diddy’s white parties...?” I trailed off. “What were they like?”
“Oh, I couldn’t possibly get into all that right now,” she said, patting me on the face as she walked away. “But they were fabulous,” she called over her shoulder.
The millennia-old use of white clothing in religious rituals was picked up in Alvin Ailey’s Revelations, a meditation on African-American heritage and the most performed work of contemporary modern dance in the world, which features a segment set to “Wade in the Water” where the dancers joyously enact a baptism, dressed all in white. In the 1970’s and 80’s, white underwear parties were held for gay communities in places like former NYC superclub The Saint; versions of this still exist in forms like The White Party™, an HIV fundraiser in Palm Springs that has become one of the largest gay dance festivals in the world.
In recent years, the all-white aesthetic has become a pop-culture go-to, invoked on shows like Basketball Wives, Empire, and, of course, The Real Housewives as an easy way to signify wealth and tradition. In turn, these events are mimicked by regular folks, often to somewhat bleak effect—if you search “white party” on Twitter or Facebook, the events that pop up include an #AllWhite40thBirthdayParty and an “Afro-Caribbean-inspired” lunch touted as “the most anticipated party in Columbus.”
So what prompted this evolution? Today, new money has the heat over old money. Finance, celebrity, tech, and professional sports have facilitated a contemporary rags-to-riches shortcut, either admired (Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey) or decried (Kim Kardashian). According to Professor Khan, over the past 30 or so years white social institutions like the Junior League and the Social Register slowly lost their dominance over American culture, making way for new power players whose fortunes allowed for a new kind of influence. Even Jack and Jill, a national organization for upper-middle-class black children known for their own white parties, is, with its own adherence to that extra-insular brand of elitism, losing sway.
The influence of flashy new money, though now unassailable, was hard-won. In 2006, Cristal strained against its popularity with black consumers (“What can we do? We can’t forbid people from buying it,” a company executive told The Economist), while in the ‘90s Tommy Hilfiger was widely rumored to have said he didn’t want minorities wearing his clothes; despite being persistently debunked, that rumor never quite managed to disappear.
Rapper and rising hip hop/fashion mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs flexed this agency far and wide with the Bentleys, Rolex watches, “Versace silks” and, of course, Cristal champagne that found new life in his lyrics and videos. Soon after plunking down $2.5 million on an East Hampton mansion in the late ‘90s, he begin hosting a series of exclusive, star-studded, and excessively opulent affairs known as the “White Parties.” His name(s) quickly became synonymous with the event’s form.
Diddy, then known as Puff Daddy, moved into East Hampton in 1998. His neighbors included Donna Karan and Alec Baldwin. The interior of his house was an explosion of white, with “white furniture, white floors, white linens,” according to a New York Times report. “Mr. Combs has been so thoroughly taken up by the preppy, affluent and, indeed, nearly all-white community he once thought would have no place for him that 1998 will no doubt be remembered as the Summer of Puff Daddy in the Hamptons.”
Though he was essentially doing nothing more than existing, some neighbors of Diddy’s were less than thrilled. Noise complaints proliferated as he settled in, some of which the East Hamptons Star recorded in a breathless article about the rapper’s Fourth of July barbecue in ‘99: “Retired Army Col. J.C. Barb sat in a folding chair at the foot of his drive way directly across the street from Mr. Combs’s front gates. Smoking a cigar, he spoke not a word, simply keeping watch.” Increasingly perturbed by the festivities, Col. Barb informed the publication: “Puff Daddy promised the neighbors that we wouldn’t be disturbed. I have been very disturbed.”
Despite Colonel Barb’s skepticism, Diddy’s annual summer events became tradition. Their over-the-top luxury eventually resonated all the way down to my landlocked Kentucky teenhood, during which I was convinced that situations like this were the apex of cool. At the 2004 Fourth of July white party, attendees included Aretha Franklin—whose transparent Chanel tote, the Times noted, “carried great fistfuls of $20 bills”—Mary J. Blige, Russell Simmons, Paris Hilton, Lisa Ling, boxer Lennox Lewis, and LL Cool J. The host arrived via helicopter wearing a fedora, white linen pants, and a matching vest accessorized with diamond buttons, diamond cuff links, and a silk ascot. His date was an original copy of the Declaration of Independence. “I promise not to spill champagne on it,” he joked.
The dress code that year, and over subsequent years, was strictly enforced; many were turned away at the door for various minor missteps (this door policy did not extend to a modelesque hedge fund manager who attended one party in a purple mermaid tail and pasties; she later sued Diddy for publishing the photos). From the Times report:
“One forlorn-looking man who identified himself as Allan Smith, tried to flout the fashion edict with red sneakers. He was finally allowed into the party—barefoot. ‘They wouldn’t let me in with them on,’ he said looking down at his toes, ‘so I hid them in the woods nearby.’”
Diddy seemed to relish the role of extravagant insider-outsider: in 2001, he told London’s The Independent: “Have I read The Great Gatsby? I am the Great Gatsby.” And to some degree, Diddy’s monetary displays were, like Gatsby’s, excessive by any measure. In Vogue, Plum Sykes wrote about his Fashion Week practices:
He’s booked an entire room in his hotel just as his closet. But then he’s shipped eighteen trunks of clothes, along with two stylists, a hair person, and a makeup person. There’s also a case of platinum and diamonds, 45 pairs of shoes, 26 hats, two assistants, four bodyguards, two publicists, record managers, road managers.
For a while, Diddy was explicit on the fact that he wanted the world to see him through the lens of his purchasing power. (“Look at the arm. The ring. The watch. Look at my canary-yellow diamond. Impeccable. Admit it, I am impeccable,” the rapper told the New Yorker in a 2002 profile.) But the public’s fascination with Diddy’s conspicuous consumption was perhaps as disproportionate as the consumption itself. It’s hard to untangle how much he was playing into versus overwriting and pushing against the way America still reads black wealth.
“There’s not a rhetoric surrounding the ‘problem’ of conspicuous consumption in wealthy suburbs, where you might see people wearing $400 shoes and driving Teslas,” Michael Jeffries, an associate professor of American Studies at Wellesley, told me during a phone interview. “But when black folks do it, there’s some sort of cultural pathology. So I think a lot of the moral panic is rooted in a kind of racism and anxiety around loud and unapologetic blackness.”
Although Prof. Jeffries warned of the dangerous history of attempting to map politics onto the pursuit of pleasure within black communities, he added, “there’s a lot of evidence that [Diddy] does understand himself as a subversive figure in the drama of the American dream.” There was the Gatsby name-check, the Hamptons mansion, the seersucker suits, the befriending of Martha Stewart. But, as Hua Hsu pointed out in 2009 for The Atlantic:
In a sense, Combs was imitating the old WASP establishment; in another sense, he was subtly provoking it, by over-enunciating its formality and never letting his guests forget that there was something slightly off about his presence.
Fab Five Freddy, hip hop pioneer and a longtime pal of Diddy’s (“old friends still call him ‘Puff’”), described to me a typical white party scene over email. Food was soul with an upscale twist, and liquor (Cristal, Veuve Clicquot, Hennessy) was flowing. “No one did drugs openly, meaning powders or pills, but weed was certainly wafting around.”
The crowds were generally comprised of “a good-looking who’s-who of A-list folks in black pop life,” alongside “folks from the streets who clean up well.” There was also, he added, “a sprinkling of some Hamptons regulars, overjoyed knowing they were among the few white folks cool enough to get invited.”
Precisely because of the friction of their coded locale, Diddy’s white parties were really a celebration of blackness; a vibrant and much-needed occupation of white geography and white tradition that demanded the world’s attention, and reveled in it.
Diddy’s white parties faded with the recession around 2009; in an economic downturn, the theme’s electricity seems to have gone out, and by now—when Kim’s got herself a Vogue cover and Kanye says racism is a “dated concept”—it’s clear that his Hamptons migration paralleled the rise of the 1 percent more than any meaningful social revolution. Anyway, “I’m sure my friend Puff would agree thats it’s really over when the housewives have hopped on board,” said Fab Five Freddy.
In the case of the BELLA White Party, it seemed that what was left of this centuries-old tradition was just the gesture towards wealth and leisure rather than the wealth or leisure itself. The branded, effortful, more-is-more attitude extended to the 50-pound canvas gift bags we were handed as we walked out. Their contents included, but were not limited to: a box of pasta, chimichurri rub, approximately 100 off-brand makeup products including a “Naked Princess” lip gloss, a candle that smelled like toilet cleaner, a “Hamptons White Party Self-Tanning Kit,” and a shoehorn.
Unsatisfied by the Vanderpump face cookies and the caviar, my friend and I donated our extremely heavy gift bags to a confused server at an overpriced Hamptons restaurant. After, walking barefoot down a pitch-black residential street, sealed off from Southampton’s superrich by their giant privacy hedges, we were uneasy. Despite a thrilling brush with some of my favorite Bravo-lebrities, the white party had depressed us both. It held at its root the dark reminder that, while status signaling hasn’t changed all that much in function, nothing truly cool can hold its form.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Images via Getty, Ellie Shechet.