Roaring 20s party: The complete guide to speakeasies, cocktails and the ghost of Gatsby

 

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From speakeasies and gangsters to jazz and flappers, the roaring 20s was a hedonistic era.

Emerging from the carnage of the first world war, people were determined to live for today, despite the introduction of prohibition, outlawing alcohol in the US.

Movies made stars of Louise Brooks, Clara Bow, Claudette Colbert, Greta Garbo and Clark Gable. Coco Chanel threw off the corset and created a streamlined silhouette, while Josephine Baker challenged convention with her risqué dances and skimpy costumes, both on and off-stage. Mary Pickford, co-founder of United Artists, pushed boundaries for women at work and F. Scott Fitzgerald created timeless icons in books such as The Great Gatsby.

It’s an era just crying out to be recreated – so if you want to throw a party every bit as glamorous at Jay Gatsby’s notoriously extravagant parties, here’s a little inspiration.

The invitation

Think black and white and stylised fonts. This is art deco at its zenith.

If it’s a very special occasion, the ultimate bespoke party invitations can be designed and hand-made by The Wren Press, but for a more casual approach, Paper-Shaker’s By Invitation or Elegance will fit the bill.

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The dress code

Options include embracing the speakeasy theme with ‘gangsters and molls’ – or simply plump for 1920s full-on glamour.

The typical flapper look comprises a short, finger-waved bob, perhaps with a headband – and plenty of makeup, including bee-stung lips.

Clothing-wise, the focus had dropped from those Edwardian nipped-in waists, to the hips. Beading and fringing added movement to the look – perfect for doing the Charleston.

For accessories, stockings and round-toe mid heels are ideal. Top off with an extra long cigarette holder, extravagant strings of pearls or a feather boa.

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The decor

Atmospheric lighting and lush fabrics are key to creating the intimate vibe of a speakeasy. Small tables (lavishly tablecloth-ed) should be subtly illuminated with lamps or candles – the old trick of pushing candles into empty bottles comes into its own here.

Speakeasies sometimes served their drinks in pretty little teacups and saucers – much easier to create the ambience of an innocent tearoom when the cops staged a raid. Dig out your finest vintage tea set and watch your guests smile as they sip a gin fizz from a floral cup.

Continue the art deco theme through your tableware (Wedgwood’s Arris range is suitably stylish) and serve canapés from traditional silver platters.

And don’t forget, gangsters traditionally hid their tommy guns in violin cases, so a few old ones lying around will be suitably menacing.

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The food

No need for a full meal – those devastatingly fashionable flapper girls were far too busy dancing to do more than pop a perfectly-formed morsel into their cupid-bowed mouths. Canapés are the way forward here:

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Devilled eggs

Terribly authentic as a 1920s treat but feel free to twist if you wish.

Blinis with smoked salmon, creme fraiche and caviar

Less of a recipe: more of a compilation. Choose the finest ingredients (beetroot-cured salmon has an even more enticing ruby hue) and pile everything artistically onto the blinis. Top with a snip of chives and serve.

Waldorf salad canapés

Created at the end of the 19th century, the Waldorf salad was still considered rather smart in the 1920s. Create individual portions and serve in lettuce cups or celery boats?

The drink

The 1920s were the heyday of the cocktail. Although we think of them now as rather glamorous, those created at that time were mainly put together to mask the eye-watering taste of bathtub gin and moonshine, brewed to evade the prohibition laws.

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Mint Julep

It may be a southern favourite, but the mint julep deserves to be liberated from the Deep South to lend its refreshing flavours to any hot party.

Martini

Of course, the martini has a thousand quirky spin-offs, but sometimes it’s immensely satisfying to return to the classic. To really make a statement, serve in Waterford’s Lismore Diamond tall martini pitcher.

Champagne cocktail

Another popular 20s cocktail, this is the absolute classic. For a really authentic feel, serve in a coupe, rather than a flute.

The music

Musically, the party decade doesn’t disappoint. From New Orleans and Chicago jazz, edging towards 1930s swing, it’s all about dancing and good times.

Artists such as Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Earl Hines packed the dance floors – and they can still get a crowd on their feet today.

If your budget allows for live music, a jazz band will be the icing on the cake and is guaranteed to get the joint jumping. A barbershop quartet or simple pianist and singer would also create an ambience of bygone fun.

For musical inspiration, we love the aptly-named Spotify playlist Prohibition: The Jazz Age – and there are enough tracks packed into it to keep the party going for hours.

The games

With speakeasies run by gangsters and soaked in illegal alcohol, it’s little wonder that gambling was all the rage in the 1920s.

Hosting a poker game or hiring a mobile casino will provide a thrilling experience – and no hard cash need really change hands.

The ultimate 1920s party caper though, must be to learn to dance the Charleston together.

The famous jig was considered terribly immoral at the time and was even banned in many dance halls for its provocative moves.

We’re slightly less easily shocked these days, so we’ll venture a dance lesson is perfectly acceptable. If you’re in London or the home counties, the team from Charleston Dance will come and teach your guests how to swing an elegant ankle. Alternatively, there are lots of YouTube tutorials – this is our favourite.

Whatever you do, remember the vibe is full-on glamour, living for today, edgy and liberated fun. Jay Gatsby will be itching for an invitation.
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