The Brooklyn Public Library let its hair down on Saturday night, shelving its books and rolling out a red carpet for locals to display their "most beautiful, courageous, and spirited personal style" at its inaugural People's Ball.
The BPL announced the party in October, and the idea immediately resonated with the roughly 3,000 people who registered before "overwhelming response" closed the list. Doors opened at 7 p.m., and by 8:30, BPL Vice President of Arts and Culture László Jakab Orsós estimated that about 1,000 people thronged the library's halls. Conceptualizing the event, which was free with RSVP, Orsós wanted to create an experience that spoke to the fundamentally democratic mission of libraries, but from an unconventional perspective.
"Fashion, which is becoming more and more removed from the general public, it's heavily corporatized and expensive," Orsós told Gothamist at the Ball. "We don't see expensive designs here [at the library], churned out by the big houses. But we do see proudly worn short coats, scarves given to you by your grandmother."
"We thought, why don't we... open our gates, open our doors, roll out the red carpet, have a catwalk, and invite people to really imagine what fashion is and what style is," he added. "There's an element of mischief, very intentionally, [and] an element of freedom." The combination of the two, he added, injected a politically subversive current into the event: In addition to offering its patrons the chance to "shine in the limelight" for a night, as Orsós put it, the evening also served to remind patrons why "authentic self-expression matters so deeply at a time when personal freedom is at stake."
Attendees posed for professional photographers upon entry; a long catwalk stretched out onto the dance floor, with partygoers invited to model their outfits at the top of every hour. The evening's MCs—actor Delissa Reynolds, of Luke Cage and Orange Is the New Black, and Buzzfeed Books founding editor Isaac Fitzgerald—shouted praise for participants' ensembles, straining over exuberant encouragement from the effusively supportive crowd.
Style choices ran the full low-high gamut: Walking across the dance floor, I watched two women, dressed in hemp-y looking garments and seated on the floor, fork something into their mouths from a clamshell, oblivious to the hem of a gown swishing by. Behind them, a couple sipped wine from small plastic cups, the man in a slim suit and the woman in a peplum dress, a cacophony of black and white patterns. All the outfits seemed equally at home, although some certainly screamed louder than others.
"My look is raccoon couture: Everything I'm wearing is castoffs and scraps and remnants, just little bits and pieces that I've come across," fashion plate Alex Augustyniak told Gothamist, speaking from under a homemade headdress constructed from foam core and hot glue. Accented with fake flowers and dangling silver chains, it floated over his face like a geometric cloud, and somehow this made stylistic sense alongside his black cape and witchy pendants. Augustyniak works in film—"but not in wardrobe or costumes"—and came to the Ball "to see all the different styles of people in Brooklyn."
"I've always been ... interested in putting together different styles," he said, "and this is just sort of an easy way to showcase it and just have a little fun."
Afua Addo, a third generation Brooklynite, came to the Ball with two old friends: Dame Cuchi—dressed in a bright blue, bobbed wig and a top spotted in Yayoi Kusama-type polka dots—and Tangerine Jones, a performance artist who designed her hot pink jumpsuit to evoke Studio 54.
"As I was getting dressed, I was thinking about how I could show up best for my two ladies," Addo told Gothamist. "I knew that they bring their A-game all the time, and it's been a long time since we've seen each other." It had also been about 10 years since she'd set foot in the library, a building she haunted during middle school, and too long since she'd been able to stray beyond her business casual work wardrobe.
Addo chose a long patterned dress by Haitian-Italian designer Stella Jean: "It's one of the ways I try to support women of color, and women artists who create their own designs," she said, adding: "We're going to call it an ode to my grandma. My grandmother loved color, she's Chickasaw native." The red Air Force 1 sneakers, she continued, were her hat tip to New York—"I can brave the train in them"—and her fedora, purchased from a "haberdashery" that recently sprouted up on Bedford Avenue, a nod to her neighborhood. "I'm from Williamsburg, and this hat represents to me a little bit of gentrification," she laughed.