These Photos Reveal How Extravagant Dinner Parties Used To Be

These days, gatherings are typically casual, requiring little more than solo cups, paper plates, and Spotify. But back in the 1950s and ’60s, dinner parties were taken almost as seriously as weddings are today. Hosts would prepare seating arrangements ahead of time, mail invitations, break out the fine china and cook a five-course meal to remember. Guests would arrive in tuxes and gowns and kids were left at home. From elaborate drinks to savory hors d’oeuvres, these images show just how much effort used to be put into dinner parties.

Dress Codes Were Vital

Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Frederic Lewis/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Since dinner parties were a more formal event back in the 1950s, it was vital to verify the dress code of any gathering. From birthday parties to holiday events, men had to know if a suit and tie was needed and women needed guidance when it came to choosing a dress.

Arriving at an event too casually dressed would come off careless, especially given all the efforts put forth by the host. On the flip side, being overly dressed could make you come off as superior or snobbish.

Coats Went Into The Closet

William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Decades ago, people dressed up for dinner parties. It wasn’t a casual barbecue, but rather a formal event akin to going to a five star restaurant. This meant that guests would often arrive draped in a stylish coat.

It would be rude to demand that a guest carry their expensive coat or drape it over the back of a chair. As soon as people arrived, the host would greet them at the door and place their coat in a designated closet.

There Was A Wider Array Of Invitees

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Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

Back before the days of social media, dinner parties were key to connecting with various groups. From dear friends to distant colleagues, guests from different parts of your life could intermingle.

That being said, it was of utmost importance to consider who would get along well when inviting people to a dinner party. It was up to the host to know who would be in good company at any event they threw. The goal was to maintain a jovial atmosphere free of awkwardness.

Hosts Made Careful Seating Arrangements

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Back then, disposable plates and solo cups would have been a travesty to see at a dinner party. On the contrary, hosts would often bring out their fine china, setting the table with precision before guests arrived.

Another important reason that the table needed to be set was because of place cards. With a variety of guests from different circles attending, hosts had to be careful about seating arrangements. They would decide who sat where to ensure that guests had pleasant conversations.

They Mailed Invitations

Floyd H. McCall/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Floyd H. McCall/The Denver Post via Getty Images

These days, inviting someone over is as simple as shooting them a text. Back in the 1950s and 60s, invitations were much more formal. While they could have called on the phone, if they didn’t answer, you were out of luck.

Thus, it was common practice to mail invitations. The effort put into them was a sign of respect, so not doing so would have been in poor taste. It would be like asking someone today to attend your wedding through text.

Children Were Not Invited

Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images
Evans/Three Lions/Getty Images

Since dinner parties were so formal, they were not exactly a kid-friendly environment. Guests would leave their children at home. If the host had children, they would be fed before the party started and sent to bed.

At most, the hosts’ children might make an appearance before trotting off to bed. Adolescents might head out with friends or help get things set before heading upstairs. Either way, they were not a part of the mingling.

Meals Were Carefully Thought Out And Prepared

Slim Aarons/Getty Images
Slim Aarons/Getty Images

While potlucks did exist back in the ’50s, formal dinner parties had a well thought out meal. From appetizers to desserts, the host would prepare everything beforehand so that they could tend to guests.

Hosts had to skillfully time everything so that no one was rushed into eating. At the same time, the food had to be set at just the right time so that nothing went cold. Since the setting wasn’t as casual as it is today, the timing was everything.

Hors D’oeuvres Were A Big Deal

hor-doeurves
Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images
Archivio Cameraphoto Epoche/Getty Images

While today’s parties often have appetizers, they’re typically deviled eggs at best and a bag of chips at worst. At an elegant 1950s dinner party, you could expect to see an array of carefully planned out hor d’oeuvres.

From homemade cheeseballs to bacon-wrapped dates, these upscale appetizers would often require preparation and cooking times. You could expect to see an array of hor d’oeuvres served on a silver tray, but never pouring out of a package.

Presentation Was Of The Utmost Importance

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The saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” wasn’t as practiced in the 1950s. At dinner parties, it didn’t matter how good your food tasted. If it wasn’t pleasing to the eye, it wasn’t impressive.

This notion meant that hosts would bend over backward to present their food in the most creative ways possible. Whether it was a seafood tower or a fruit cornucopia, food was arranged to look like a work of art.

Drinks Were Elaborate

Archivio Cicconi/Getty Images
Archivio Cicconi/Getty Images

Guests would never help themselves to a drink, as doing so was considered rude. On the contrary, the host would get whatever drink the guest desired the moment that they arrived. To ensure that everyone’s preferences were met, the host would have to stock up on a variety of beverages.

Wealthier hosts would have their butler make the most elaborate of drinks, while less wealthy hosts would make it themselves. The key was to never let the guest feel burdened, even with something as small as pouring their own beverage.

Theme Parties Were A Hit

George Crouter/The Denver Post via Getty Images
George Crouter/The Denver Post via Getty Images

A slightly less formal, but equally well-planned alternative to traditional dinner parties was the theme party. These gatherings gave hosts the opportunity to break away from their ordinary menu and try something different.

Guests would dress up in their usual classy attire, but with a theme-inspired twist. Heading into the ’60s, one of the more popular themed parties was the luau. Featuring exotic food gave hosts a way to stand out among their friends and colleagues.

Fondue Emerged As A Party Must-Have

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Getty Images

With all of the care that was put into 1950s dinner parties, it’s no wonder that fondue emerged as a social gathering must-have. After all, who doesn’t love dipping delicious foods into a pot of savory melted cheese?

Due to the nature of the setup, fondue was typically reserved for more intimate gatherings. A man could certainly impress his date by breaking out the fondue, but it was also popular among friends. Fondue had a perfect balance between elegance and casual fun.

No Party Was Complete Without A Punch Bowl

punch-bowl
Paramount/Getty Images
Paramount/Getty Images

As we mentioned previously, it was exclusively the job of the host to make sure everyone had a drink in their hand throughout the night. However, the one exception to this rule was the famous punch bowl.

The big bowl would be filled with punch, a fruit juice drink that would sometimes be spiked. A big ladle would lay in the bowl and glasses would be placed on the surrounding tabletop so guests could help themselves.

It Was Important To Have The Right Dishware

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Paul Walters Worldwide Photography Ltd./Heritage Images/Getty Images
Paul Walters Worldwide Photography Ltd./Heritage Images/Getty Images

When throwing an intricate party for several guests, dishware was of the utmost importance. Having the right platters, trays, plates, bowls, etc. made a huge difference when it came to keeping things organized and impressing the guests.

It was also important that you had the appropriate glassware to correspond to any given drink. If something looked out of place, it would stand out like a sore thumb. Plus, you needed a fancy container for anything you put out for the guests.

Party Hats Were Popular

Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images
Kirn Vintage Stock/Corbis via Getty Images

Though guests would show up in tuxes and gowns, that didn’t stop them from putting on a party hat. The hats brought out people’s silly side. Though dinner parties were formal in terms of dress and decor, the purpose was ultimately to have fun.

Party hats and noisemakers were especially popular during the holidays, most notably at New Year’s Eve parties. Even the most prestigious could turn into a kid again by wearing a goofy hat and blowing a kazoo.

Kid Birthday Parties Were Simple

William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
William Gottlieb/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Considering how extravagant dinner parties were, you would expect the child version to be just as over-the-top. To the contrary, kids were arguably more simple back then than they are today!

Before the days of Chuck E. Cheese and Pump It Up, kids were stuck with inviting friends over for games and cake. Parents would decorate the house in streamers and everyone wore a birthday hat. Another key feature was balloons, a party accessory that hasn’t changed much since.

Smaller Gatherings Featured A Buffet

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Getty Images

For smaller gatherings, appetizers, main courses, and dessert would be laid out on a table, buffet style. The setup was overly simplistic for large dinner parties, at which there might be a hired staff who would serve the food.

But when it came to having a handful of close guests over, people could form a short line and make their way through the various dishes. Doing so was much less time consuming, but the decor and dishware were still highly important.

Someone Would Eventually Break Out The Record Player

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Wealthier hosts would sometimes hire a band to provide elegant music throughout the evening. If there wasn’t a band, you could expect a record player to appear at some point in the night.

Music sets the atmosphere, marking the shift from catching up to dining to partaking in after-meal activities. It was also a good gauge for guests to know when the night was winding down. After all, it was a part of social etiquette not to overstay your welcome.

Dancing Was The Peak Of The Night

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Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Slim Aarons/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Once the music grew loud, you knew it was time to dance. Couples dancing were a major part of dinner parties, but guests could let loose on their own, too. By the ’60s, the twist was a popular, upbeat dance that anyone could pull off.

Another popular dance– if you can call it that– was the conga line. It was a great way to include everyone in the party and you made your way around the dance floor like a caterpillar.

Games Were Another Party Activity

NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images
NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images

If you weren’t the dancing type, you could find solace by partaking in a table game. Monopoly was a hit by the ’50s. Card games like poker were also staples at gatherings. Since everyone had time to catch up towards the start of the evening, games helped prevent a lull.

Playing a game was also a good way to cap the night. Once a few rounds were over, guests would have a natural segway into saying goodnight.