Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in October 2014 and has been updated with the most recent information.
Most people attribute Germany’s Bauhaus school with the following: being on the vanguard of minimalist design, the paring down of architecture to its most essential and non-ornamental elements, and the radical idea that useful objects could also be beautiful. What may be overlooked is the fact that the rigorous design school, founded by modernism’s grandsire Walter Gropius, also put on marvelous costume parties back in the 1920s. If you thought Bauhaus folk were good at designing coffee tables, just have a look at their costumes—as bewitching and sculptural as any other student project, but with an amazing flamboyance not oft ascribed to the movement.
These Bauhaus shindigs were nothing like typical Halloween parties, where everyone expects to find a few topical doppelgängers. Back in Weimar, competition among the creatives was fierce: Students and teachers like artists Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondian, László Moholy-Nagy, architect Mies van der Rohe, and furniture designer Marcel Breuer all tried to out-do one another by designing uniquely fantastical creations.
According to Farkas Molnár, the late Hungarian architect who was a Bauhaus student in the early ’20s, the school’s renowned typography studios and cabinet-making workshops were taken very seriously, but “the greatest expenditures of energy, however, go into the costume parties.”
“The essential difference between the fancy-dress balls organized by the artists of Paris, Berlin, Moscow, and the ones here at the Bauhaus is that our costumes are truly original,” Molnár wrote in a 1925 essay entitled “Life at the Bauhaus.” “Everyone prepares his or her own. Never a one that has been seen before. Inhuman, or humanoid, but always new. You may see monstrously tall shapes stumbling about, colorful mechanical figures that yield not the slightest clue as to where the head is. Sweet girls inside a red cube. Here comes a witch and they are hoisted high up into the air; lights flash and scents are sprayed,” he continued.
The parties began as improvisational events, but later grew into large-scale productions with costumes and sets made by the school’s stage workshop. There was often a theme to the evenings. One party was called “Beard, Nose, and Heart,” and attendees were instructed to show up in clothing that was two-thirds white, and one-third spotted, checked or striped. However, it’s generally agreed that the apotheosis of the Bauhaus’ costumed revelry was the Metal Party of 1929, where guests donned costumes made from tin foil, frying pans, and spoons. Attendees entered that party by sliding down a chute into one of several rooms filled with silver balls.
The theater workshop responsible for many of these resplendent events was led by Oskar Schlemmer, a charismatic painter and choreographer best known for his Triadic Ballet, an avant-garde dance production that premiered in 1922. The three-part play with different colors and moods for each act was widely performed throughout the 1920s, and became something of a poster child for the Bauhaus movement.
The Triadic Ballet’s 18 costumes were designed by matching geometric forms with analogous parts of the human body: a cylinder for the neck, a circle for the heads. Schlemmer made no secret of the fact that he considered the stylized, artificial movements of marionettes to be aesthetically superior to the naturalistic movements of real humans. These elaborate costumes, which were generally too large for their wearers to sit down in, totally upped the ante at the Bauhaus school’s regular costume balls.
Although there aren’t many photos of Bauhaus luminaries wearing the costumes they labored over in the name of socializing, thankfully Farkas Molnár has chronicled some of their style proclivities:
“Kandinsky prefers to appear decked out as an antenna, Itten as an amorphous monster, Feininger as two right triangles, Moholy-Nagy as a segment transpierced by a cross, Gropius as Le Corbusier, Muche as an apostle of Mazdaznan, Klee as the song of the blue tree,” Molnár wrote in 1925. “A rather grotesque menagerie…”
Walter Gropius used to dress up as Le Corbusier? It doesn’t really get better than that.