The Bal du Bois is one of the premier events of the Richmond social season. It serves a dual function, first as a fund-raiser for Sheltering Arms Rehabilitation Hospital and also as a traditional debutante ball for young women (referred to as Sponsors) and their families. The invitations to this gala arrive in mailboxes about two months prior to the customary event date: the first Friday evening following Memorial Day.
Passionate about inviting and writing (I worked in the industry for six wonderful years), I always look forward to receiving the distinctive invitation. What will be the theme this year? What will be the colors, the paper, shape and size? Fellow invitationistas understand my passion and analyze what makes these invitations sing. Almost without exception, they achieve their goals of generating excitement and drawing guests to the formal event.
Lucky for me, when Alison and I were taking pictures for this year’s Bal du Bois post, I noticed a stack of large scrapbooks,
which turned out to be recently produced, chronicling the Bal from its inception in 1957 to present day. By the time we turned a few pages, I knew I wanted to pore over this treasure trove of vintage invitations. Mac McElroy, president of The Sheltering Arms Foundation, graciously lent them to Alison and me. What follows is a history of and commentary on some of my favorite invitations to this storied institution.
[The scrapbook holds the invitations between plastic page protectors, and I thought it unwise to remove them for photography, therefore only the front is shown from the invitations in the scrapbook.]
The first invitation to the Bal du Bois (French for Woodland Ball)
was an engraved two-color folded rectangle: simple yet elegant. The font is still widely used today. 1958 produced a thematic invitation
to convey a French garden with a Chinese Chippendale look. 1959 saw the first branding of the Bal du Bois, using the B du B insignia engraved in gold on ivory paper with a gold spine tassel.
B du B Insignia
The B du B insignia in gold on ivory was repeated five more times through the years, seven in various colors, and twice embossed (raised without color).
B du B Variations
Fantasy in Gold and White
Under the Sea
(The embossed figure on ivory stock for the 1966 invitation lends an authentic look, as if carved in stone.)
Celebration of Clifton House, first home of Sheltering Arms Hospital
Imagine my excitement opening this large square invitation.
The 2012 Year of the Dragon theme used a spectacular gate-fold invitation with the Sponsors’ names printed on an enclosed piece of velum. The invitation was secured with a faux wax seal of the B du B variation.
program for the 2012 Bal du Bois shown with invitation
Don’t you think this invitation set the tone perfectly for the 2014 theme, Bermuda?
Southern Soiree was the theme for this year’s Bal, with the gold magnolia introducing the guests
to the rest of the gentle color pallet of champagne, taupe, gray and blush
used throughout the decor of the event. The invitation set the tone for a gracious evening of tradition and conviviality.
Though it may not have been the first time one was used, it appears to be the first one saved. These cards present the ubiquitous conundrum that face event planners of all stripes: how to ensure an accurate head count. The earlier invitations simply read Please respond on the front of the invitation, with the particulars of the response (name, address and cost) on the inside. It was up to the attendee to write the response, enclose payment in an envelope and mail it.
For a fundraiser, obviously it is critical to get donations in hand prior to the event, so for those of us today it seems perilous to send out a fundraising invitation without a response set (card and pre-addressed envelope). I wonder when the tide turned and party planners found it necessary to include a response set, driving up the cost of the invitation?
So tell us please in the Reply box below, what is your favorite invitation? It’s hard for me to decide. While the design and execution of the Year of the Dragon (2012) and Bermuda (2014) invitations dazzled me, my winner is
Many thanks to The Sheltering Arms Foundation for saving the printed artifacts of the Bal du Bois. Like interior or fashion design, a well-conceived invitation maintains its relevance throughout the years despite changing times, and the Bal du Bois invitations are a testament to the staying power of exquisite and thoughtful design.
June 9, 2016