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Me and my beau at Gatsby Summer Afternoon 2011.

This year I was honored to serve as a picnic site judge for the Gatsby Summer Afternoon. Wow! What a job and what fun.

On Sunday, September 11th over 700 dames and dappers showed up at the Dunsmuir Hellman Historic Estate in Oakland. Dressed in their swankiest 20s-40s summer duds, the crowd carted an array of period accoutrements and set up beautiful picnic sites.

I’ve been to the Gatsby Summer Afternoon before and I have put together my own picnic site, plus I have reported on the event for the San Francisco Chronicle. I know what to look for.

Authenticity is important, appropriate themes to the era, creativity, and charm are all key ingredients. Little things like having the right ground cover, adding fresh flowers, and using family plates and silverware can make a difference. The right food and food containers are important (a Whole Foods box eliminated one contender). Attention to detail is essential.

Two prizes are awarded – one for a grand site with 5 or more people and another for a small site with 2-4 people.

For the grand site award we chose a picnic with a home-made pavilion. The group used low tables with vintage tablecloths and decorated their site with lots of garden flowers and period pieces such as a Victrola and a croquet set. What we liked about this site was it truly looked like the 20s. It was real, creative, and charming.

The small picnic award went to a couple who have been attending the Gatsby Summer Afternoon for years. They covered a 30s fold-up wood table with a lace tablecloth, 1930s glass place settings and get this – wood fruit baskets also from the 30s. Vintage chairs are always hard to find, but they had them. Decorations included an old red cooler, paper parasol, and vintage picnic baskets, one of which had Bakelite plates. A bouquet of pink roses placed on the table and a small American flag to honor the day were just the right extra touches.

A rug would have made this site even better. Turns out these event regulars knew that but, they brought the wrong one and decided to go without. Smart move, because throwing just anything on the ground could be a bust. I saw a lot of that and it ruined some otherwise good looks. Everything counts.

The most interesting lesson I learned was that having people in the scene makes a difference. People sitting in their site completed the aura and made it pop with energy. No matter how attractive a site might have been, if it was empty it lost its vibrancy.  

Now, what was I wearing? I went with a 20s-style sheath dress paired with cream stockings and burgundy Oxford shoes. A straw cloche hat and long beads topped the look. It was a sunny but breezy day and that posed a challenge. Since the dress was at the knee I needed a longer coat, but what I had wasn’t appropriate for the season. There was a lot of riffling through the closet that morning. My jackets were either too modern or too warm. Finally I came upon something recently given to me, a vintage short sailor coat. As it turns out, everything came from my own collection.

The Gatsby Summer Afternoon 2011 passed too quickly but was, as always, a lovely day. Time to plan for next year.

Click here to see photos of the winning picnic sites.

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