29 June 2018




The Great Gatsby Garden party hosted by the Spadina House Museum is an era-appropriate bash held in a beautiful outdoor garden every year in late June. Running since 2014, this event has exploded into a success for the museum, as well as a social media phenomenon in its own right. This year, the weather was damper than preferable for an event that advertises itself as a picnic as much as a party, but the drizzle didn’t stop hundreds of people turning up for the event.

Attendees at the grey and cheerful Gatsby Garden Party (Spadina House). Photo courtesy of Samantha Kilpatrick.
The main event is a bring-your-own-food-picnic in advertising, but in truth is a meandering, cheerful wander through Spadina House’s grounds, doubling back and back again. Dotted across the grounds were vendors and historic society booths, offering to take your picture or quiz you on the uses of historic silver wear implements. Spadina House also had a pair of bands playing music, as well as an array of vintage gramophones playing to make the event sound the part of a party in the 20s.

One of two bands playing the Gatsby Garden
party, trying to stay dry (Spadina
House), photo courtesy of the Samantha Kilpatrick..

For the more involved, there was also a gambling den, a chance to learn several 20s dances on the dance floor under a tent, a screening of several silent movies courtesy of the Toronto Silent Film Society, and the opportunity to play croquette.

Vendors sold food and drinks, and many of them offered themed items. Chau offered, among others, ‘Daisy’s Dainty Tea Sandwiches,’ and Crystal Head Vodka, a sponsor of the event, offered several themed drinks, including the ‘across the bay’ cocktail. This, of course, was green. Throughout the entire event, there were also those who brought their own food, and had set up picnic blankets and were enjoying the event in jackets and dresses and headbands and hats.

I would like now to dwell on the other attendees because the other attendees are worth remarking on. Of the hundreds of people I saw at the party, only a dozen or so made no attempt to dress for the event at all. To be fair, my perhaps generous definition of ‘dressing for the event’ runs the gamut from ‘wearing an old-fashioned dress and a necklace as a headband,’ all the way to button-perfect recreations of suits and dresses. Some of the more creative and adventurous party goers came dressed as 20’s police officers, or aviators, (and one Charlie Chapman) and many were chattering happily with others about how they created their costumes.

The dance floor at the Great Gatsby Garden Party, where the wide array of costumes can be seen. (Spadina House). Video curtosy of Samantha Kilpatrick..
Again, the vast majority made some effort- this is not to say that everyone came in pink suits with straw hats, but that even most of the men found a pastel collared shirt and a pair of khakis to take pictures in. It created an atmosphere not only of a party but also a shared, secret experience, common only to the hundreds of other people at the party. I should, now, admit that I was one of these costumed attendees. There seemed no better way to experience the event than enthusiastically, without reservation, and with an additional dozen hours of work to create an era-appropriate costume before the event itself. 

The author (left), and Elizabeth Patti, maker of these dresses, and companion to the event (right). Photo taken on Spadina House porch, by fellow attendees. Photo courtesy of author.
A side effect of this mass costuming is the feeling that the experience of this party starts well before the event itself. For one thing, there is always the delightful ride on public transit in period dress, and the attempt to suss out whether or not your fellow passengers are simply dressed well or attending the same event. If you have never ridden public transit in costume before, I recommend the experience highly. It is in my experience, an event that brings you much closer to those who you are riding with, and makes you acutely aware of how comfortable you are with being stared at. As you draw closer and closer to the party, you begin spotting more ropes of pearls, and boater hats, and long dripping 20s shawls. It creates an atmosphere of anticipation and mutual excitement, this spotting of other partygoers, that is difficult to describe except to someone who has experienced a similar event.

Even before the ride itself, of course, there is not inconsiderable effort if you are one of those attending in more dedicated period dress. There is the effort of looking up historic photos, illustrations, or advertisements to attempt to find inspiration and ideas. There is the scouring of thrift stores, fabric stores, flea markets, or the back of one’s closet in search of a material you can wear or transform into something era-appropriate. There is the negotiation of ‘close enough’, where compromises are made to make outfits more fun, or flattering. Drop-waist 20s style dresses have the same tendency that high-waisted regency gowns do, to make the wearer look slightly pregnant. Many attendees opted to nip the actual waist of the dress in slightly, to create a more modern silhouette while maintaining much of the look of the 20s.

This pre-event energy is something that Spadina house plays into quite consciously. Spadina Museum has an incredibly robust social media presence, and their Instagram, as well as their Facebook page, has been promoting the event with great humour and success. Pictures from previous years, two-minute etiquette guides, and daily posts meant to run a countdown to when the tickets went on sale all served to heighten the excitement. It’s an annual event that’s a roaring success, and Spadina House has seized it as their blockbuster event of the year.

The event this year was a delight to attend, and I can’t wait to see how Spadina house harnesses this energy again next year.

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