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Party like it’s 1929 on a weekend of Roaring fun in New York City

Every summer, guys and dolls descend on Governors Island for the Jazz Age Lawn Party

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Journalist Lucy White (left) with her friend Zoe at the New York Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

Journalist Lucy White (left) with her friend Zoe at the New York Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

Shades of the glamour of the Roaring Twenties on Governors Island. Picture by Rose Callahan

Shades of the glamour of the Roaring Twenties on Governors Island. Picture by Rose Callahan

David DeLucia at the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

David DeLucia at the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

Jazz Age Lawn Party founder and big-band musician Michael Arenella. Picture by Rose Callahan

Jazz Age Lawn Party founder and big-band musician Michael Arenella. Picture by Rose Callahan

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Journalist Lucy White (left) with her friend Zoe at the New York Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

I’ll bet your bottom dollar I wasn’t the only person on the ferry to Governors Island with F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous Great Gatsby quote ringing in my ears.

Because on that June weekend, we were crossing the Hudson River to be transported to the Roaring Twenties and we were dressed accordingly: ladies lovely in sorbet-hued, drop-waisted glad rags, gents dapper in high-waisted linen suits, ties and jaunty boater hats.

New York’s Jazz Age Lawn Party is the brainchild of big-band musician Michael Arenella. It started small in 2005 with a 50-strong group of like-minded friends whose penchant for vintage clothing, photography, music, art and design seemed to deserve a celebration all of its own.

He chose Governors Island, south of Manhattan’s Battery Park, which was a military base until being gussied up fairly recently to host food and drink fairs, outdoor screenings and concerts from May through October.

The Lawn Party now attracts more than 10,000 impeccably dressed guests to its dappled lawns and dance floor over two weekends in June and August, to loll on picnic blankets and graze on afternoon teas that they’ve packed into pretty hampers — or, in my case, try not to get food-truck veggie burger and Aperol spritz down my white flapper dress.

The late, great New York street photographer Bill Cunningham was a Jazz Age Lawn Party regular, quipping, “I can’t think of a more delightful way to spend a weekend in the city” — and, indeed, it was his photographs of the event for The New York Times that put it high on my bucket list.

I eventually made the trip one warm summer’s day in 2019. As we poured off the ferry and into the party, it really felt like walking on to a film or TV set; I half expected Baz Luhrmann to suddenly appear and bellow, “Cut!” into an old-style director’s megaphone, whereupon everyone would throw on their hoodies and scoot off back to the mainland.

But no. The conceit carried on for the rest of the day and we were roaringly happy.

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Shades of the glamour of the Roaring Twenties on Governors Island. Picture by Rose Callahan

Shades of the glamour of the Roaring Twenties on Governors Island. Picture by Rose Callahan

Shades of the glamour of the Roaring Twenties on Governors Island. Picture by Rose Callahan


After having collodion-style portraits taken and watching a man have his whiskers wet-shaved by an old-school barber in a marquee, I met David DeLucia, a landscape architect from White Plains, NY, in the shade of a London plane tree — cool as a cucumber in a straw boater, cream jacket, white slacks, blue shirt with white collar, russet and navy bow-tie and over-clip sunglasses.

“Do you come here often?” I might as well have asked.

“I’ve been attending since the early days when it was pretty small and really just a 1920s-inspired picnic, with Michael and friends performing,” he told me. “It’s gotten bigger and way more organised each year, with a large stage and portable dance floor. A few years ago it peaked with lots of VIP packages, and special reserve tents.

“I just love the music, dancing, and people-watching. It is fascinating to me, observing the wide range of individual interpretations of the time period.”

A few years on, the party took a pandemic-related hiatus, with a scaled-back outing in June 2021, and a larger capacity one this weekend of August 14-15.

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Jazz Age Lawn Party founder and big-band musician Michael Arenella. Picture by Rose Callahan

Jazz Age Lawn Party founder and big-band musician Michael Arenella. Picture by Rose Callahan

Jazz Age Lawn Party founder and big-band musician Michael Arenella. Picture by Rose Callahan


“There were a lot of masks, and social distancing,” David said of the June party by email recently, “but being outside, the risk was low. I went on the Saturday and had a good time seeing a lot of friends for the first time in a long time.”

‘Festival fashion’ was once synonymous with Doc Marten boots, combat trousers and baggy band T-shirts, then transformed into something showier in the Noughties, inspired by Burning Man and Coachella with feathers, sequins, glitter — and that’s just the boys. But Jazz Age Lawn Party takes occasionwear to a whole new level.

I asked David where he got his sartorial inspiration.

“I really enjoy looking at old photographers from the time period,” he said.

“Over the years, I mix and match the clothes I wear to the party just for fun and to change it up a little.

“I wear either actual vintage or vintage-inspired clothing on a regular basis. I love the style of menswear from the 1920s to the 1940s. I came upon this from my interest in history, and have shared this passion for many years by attending very authentic living history events. I apply this authenticity to my everyday style.”

This is costume play par excellence, with not one outfit even slightly the same — unthinkable in an age of fast, multinational, mass-market fashion.

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David DeLucia at the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

David DeLucia at the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan

David DeLucia at the Jazz Age Lawn Party. Picture by Rose Callahan


Fast forward to 2021 and there’s much talk about how we’re on the cusp of a new Roaring Twenties — the carousing after the Covid storm apparently likely to echo the boom time that followed World War I and the Spanish flu. Except this world war has been of the culture variety, and social media our weapon of choice.

“Historically, the 1920s were a time of changing attitudes, and healing from the Great War and pandemic,” reflects David, over email.

“America entered a freewheeling stage of craving excitement, at the same time falling under Prohibition. The economy was booming — but racism was everywhere.

“I have no desire to revisit the morals or values of the 1920s but will continue to enjoy the styles so popular at the time. I’m not sure if the next decade will be Roaring, but I look forward to better times ahead, just like they did back then.”

If there’s anything ‘wrong’ with the Jazz Age Lawn Party, it is that it closes at 5pm. What would F Scott and Zelda make of such a curfew?

All dressed up with nowhere to go, we recalled the password to The Back Room, one of just two bars in New York City that operated during the Prohibition era — playing host to Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel’s “business meetings” — that is still in operation today.

There, we drank liquor out of teacups, busted a few Charleston moves on a tiny dance floor and rested in squishy wingback sofas.

Much, much later, I kicked off my shoes back at The Chatwal hotel — another Jazz Age institution — scraped off my Clara Bow-shaped lip line and remembered another Great Gatsby nugget, from Jay Gatsby himself.

“Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!”


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