The history of the Black and White Committee provides insights into a fascinating segment of Sydney society. It documents both the activities of the women who have voluntarily raised more than four million dollars for the Royal Blind Society of New South Wales and the people who have attended their fundraising events over the years.
Since its inception in 1936, the committee has organised events such as bridge parties, fashion parades and tennis days as well as its famous balls. Since World War II it has arranged race days as well, cocktail parties, exhibitions and revues.
The Black and White Ball was at the heart of the establishment of the Black & White Committee. After encouragement from the Governor General, Lord Gowrie, Mrs Eric (Dora) Sheller led a group of women who organised the inaugural White Ball. Sydney in 1936 was not the cosmopolitan, sophisticated city that it is today. An exclusive ball, with the gentlemen in white tie and evening dress and the ladies wearing white gowns, was an enchanting prospect.
Mrs Sheller, the 1st President, and her team devised a pre-publicity strategy which became an essential part of the ball tradition- promoting the gowns to be worn at the ball.
With the Governor General as patron, the elaborately decorated Trocadero, George Street, was the place to be on the evening of Tuesday, October 6, 1936. Reports of the event were jubilant. Newspapers responded with pages of photographs and text laced with superlatives.
Many of the features of the first ball become tradition: attendance by the Governor; formal dress; thematic décor; awards for the best gowns worn by married and single women; and prominent reportage in the local media.
Although the ball went ahead in 1939, the outbreak of war interrupted the committee’s activities. After the Cocktail Roundabout at the Hotel Australia in 1940, the 1946 White Ball at the Trocadero was the first in seven years and was notable for the largest number of magnificent new frocks worn at a big ball since the end of the war. In 1948, President Mrs Marcel (Nola) Dekyvere selected the black and white colour scheme that has become tradition.
For the first three decades in particular, the committee was dominated by some of Sydney’s most glamorous women, usually married to successful businessmen. In that pre-television era, these women were icons of elegance. Stylishly clad and impeccably groomed, their activities were reported and their photographs appeared in magazines and newspapers week after week – at the races, playing tennis, having lunch, at fashion parades, exhibitions, cocktails parties, and, of course, at the annual ball.
Detailed pre-ball features and ecstatic post-ball reports in the media continued well into the 1960s. As a whole, these images form a fascinating record of the dual influences of Australian women’s evening wear: imported haute couture and local couturiers, designers and dressmakers; and the glamorous women who wore their creations.
Another enduring tradition, the Derby, was introduced at the 1956 ball, incorporating a mock horse race using felt-bottomed wooden cut-outs attached to fishing lines. Appropriately, the first race winner to be awarded the Derby Cup was Ronnie MacKellars niece, Judy White in 1957.
In the 1960s, the renown of The Black and White Committee reached a pinnacle during the long reign of Nola Dekyvere as President (1951-1970). She was respected for her powers of delegation, her diplomacy, good manners, managerial skills, not to mention her style and elegance. Her capabilities were so highly regarded that American comedian Bob Hope asked Mrs Dekyvere to organise the publicity campaign for his 1955 visit to Sydney.
The strongest photographs of the seventies are images of the revue, which reached new heights during the time. Director Richard Lyle taught his casts to mime and dance to favourite songs. An Austrlian Women’s Weekly photographer captured remarkable photographs of Mrs Andrew Peacock and Mrs William McMahon as Jane Russell and Marilyn Munroe in “Just Two Little Girls from Little Rock” from the movie Gentlemen prefer Blondes. Even more risqué is the 1977 line-up of scantily clad committee members in a jaunty rendition of ‘Take Back Your Mink’.
One ball per year was no longer enough for The Black and White Committee in the heady eighties: Marno Parsons A.M. (President 1976-1990) instigated the Champagne Ball.
The Tattinger Balls were not the only eighties addition to the committee’s menu of annual activites. In 1985, President Marno Parsons, assembled a number of successful speakers and so the annual Women of Achievement Luncheon was born.
As with the 1970s, there are comparatively few memorable images of the committee’s events in the 1990s. Media coverage is often the exclusive terrain of the Wentworth Courier. Perhaps the informality of seventies trends affected the more formal traditions and perhaps the nineties curbing of excesses from the previous decade has also lost sympathy with these traditions. Nonetheless, there can be little doubt about the ball’s relevance to contemporary Sydney life.
Nancy Melick (President 1991-1999) steered small but significant changes, moving the committee in line with present day life. Mrs Melick broke with the tradition to move the ball to September. Another innovation was introduced in 1994, when she integrated the married and singles categories for the ball’s best gown awards.
Australia’s most enduring fund-raiser seems well positioned in its sixtieth year, quietly and efficiently maintaining its traditions and prudently adjusting then when necessary. As Nancy Melick says; “We try to stick to tradition as much as possible. Some things are going to change whether we like it or not. But the girls still like to get dressed up, they still like to be jockeys. And the ball is still the ball.”
The fundraising events have increased over the years and now the Black and White Committee hold four major events each year, plus numerous other cocktail functions and exhibitions. The major events are the Black and White Ball, Women of Achievement and the Black and White Lifestyle Lunch.
Current President, Susan Diver has firmly brought about significant changes in keeping with the social changes in Sydney life. This has included encouraging younger members to join the committee as well as building up the database to include corporations. Australia’s most enduring fund-raiser seems well poised to quietly and efficiently maintain traditions and move with the times.