San Franciscans are serious about partying. We've been to a lot of fancy dress events, and a lot of events that weren't "fancy dress" per se, but which were treated as such, apparently just for kicks. But the Vau de Vire Society's Edwardian Ball last weekend inspired the most spectacular -- and thoroughly thought-out and executed -- costumery we've ever seen donned by so many people in one place. The playboy mansion would blush at the amount of cleavage on display, blossoming over a whale graveyard's worth of boned corsets, and framed in taffeta, lace, and feathers. Men wore top hats and fedoras and multiple-piece suits. The Edward Gorey theme inspired more macabre features such as white contact lenses and cadaver-glam makeup. A striking and slightly confusing element was the pervasion of steampunk -- goggles everywhere, leather hip holsters, and jewelry made of old watch parts.
People dressed to party like it was 1909, and many also had the dances down. This was most apparent in the earlier portion of the night, when the ballroom floor wasn't filled to capacity, and many couples took advantage of the free space to perform elaborate and antiquated ballroom moves while the rest of us gawked enviously and wondered whether Arthur Murray's still existed. One couple danced an energetic skipping jig around the floor in circles; later that night they huffed through an escalatingly tempo'd Lindy to the honky-tonk trio in the basement. Many couples waltzed, most in a traditional box step, but one intrepid male couple swung a fearsome Viennese -- fearsome in that both parties executed complete 180 degree turns with every measure without spiraling into the wallflowers or crashing and rolling into inadvertent flagrante delicto on the dance floor.
The other party rooms hosted absinthe bars, old-timey portraiture, and Malvoye the Mentalist chastising underdressed attendees and suggesting people avoid death by not traveling in the near future. In the lodge was the Edwardian Odditorium, including a grimly fascinating array of dead animals and various steam-and-wheel machinery, as well as a performance of a dark Edward Gorey tale, The Iron Tonic, in a series of tableaux vivants like an Edwardian Dia de los Muertos. Dark Garden Corsetry offered a fashion show modeled by characters with lithe waists, "von"-embellished names, and unfortunate backstories. In the basement were vendors selling Edwardian-style (and, again, specifically steampunk) attire and accoutrements, such as bustles, leather masks, hats with the ubiquitous goggles, pocketwatch-part jewelry, bustles, cravats, bustles, goggles, and more. (Did we mention goggles?) There was a refreshing disregard for animal rights evidenced in the unapologetic use of real fur, leather, and stuffed birds. We already regret not buying a parakeet fascinator or the grey mink stole we found for only $70, but we would have had to write about the same event twice to break even on that.
As appealing as the musical, theatrical, and commercial attractions were, however, it was hard not to keep turning away from them to stare at fellow partygoers. The ingenuity, flamboyance, attention to detail, and exuberance on display in their dress and bearing was in itself the theatrical highlight of the night, as it is so often at events in our city.