by Maxwell Wood
“The Edwardian Ball is here, and I don’t have a thing to wear…”
That’s a common phrase heard in certain circles this time of year in San Francisco. But what is the Edwardian Ball, really? And what can you expect if you attend?
What Is The Edwardian Ball?
The Edwardian Ball is a celebration of the famed American writer and artist Edward Gorey. It takes place annually, in both San Francisco and Los Angeles. The event was founded by the music ensemble Rosin Coven thirteen years ago. They were joined by the Vau de Vire Society in 2005 and the two have been co-hosts of the event ever since. Vau de Vire is behind such events as the Bohemian Carnival, and they’ve performed with Primus and the Dresden Dolls, among many others. They’re one of the Bay Area’s premier avant-garde circus and dance companies.
This year, the Ball in San Francisco will consist of two evenings, Friday and Saturday, January 18th and 19th.
Friday night takes the form of the Edwardian World’s Faire, which features the intriguingly named Mystic Midway (“a mytho-poetic invocation and interactive alchemical performance”) and a selection of colorful, human-powered carnival rides from the twisted minds of the Cyclecide Bike Rodeo. There will also be live music (including the innovative hip-hop & jazz combo, Shotgun Wedding Quintet, and The Fertile Void, a moody new ensemble from the founder of Rosin Coven), along with circus and vaudeville acts. Kinetic Steam Works will also showcase a full display of steam-powered art and technology, complete with a steam boiler parked on the street below.
Saturday night is known as The Edwardian Ball, the centerpiece of which will be a live performance of Edward Gorey’s tale, “The Doubtful Guest”, featuring original music and choreography by Rosin Coven and the Vau de Vire Society. There will also be many other top-notch musical performances, including “Belle of the Ball” Jill Tracy, opera singer Diva Marisa, the enigmatic Shovelman, and more. Saturday night is also when you can see the annual fashion show from Dark Garden Corsetry, and revisit the Mystic Midway, now occupying into the Regency’s lush, fifth-floor Lodge. Saturday night also opens with an hour-and-a-half dedicated to ballroom dancing. Kinetic Steam Works will clear away much of their machinery and instead feature a steam-powered tea garden.
Edwardian Ball Fashion & Costumes
This is the issue at the forefront of most attendees’ minds. What the do you wear? After all, it is a costume party/dance. And some of the most creative designers and artists around will be in attendance! It seems that much of the appeal of the Ball is to admire all of the creative and wonderful costumes, not to mention to wear one.
So how does one dress? Edwardian Ball fashion is a mash-up of Victorian, Edwardian, steampunk, goth, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. One of the tenets of the event is that historical accuracy is not emphasized, unlike some of the other costume events in the Bay Area. The focus is more on creativity.
For some, preparations start right after the last Ball ended. There is research into fashion history. Various characters are examined and imagined. Patterns are drawn up and materials are searched for online and in small shops around the area. These dedicated costumers are often the ones you see pictures of in media coverage of the Ball, or when you do a Google Image search for “Edwardian Ball”.
If you’re into costuming, this is an opportunity for you to let it all hang out, so to speak. Says Miz Margo (aka burlesque performer The Flying Fox), one of the DJs at the Ball, “DRESS UP! Nothing is ‘too much’. Go dark, surreal, vintage, or as a character out of a Gorey story, human or not! These days, steampunk flies as well.”
Although creating and wearing an elaborate costume is wonderful and encouraged, it’s not absolutely necessary. I talked with Anna Q, the vendor coordinator, production assistant, social media director, and secret weapon of the Edwardian Ball, about costuming. “That’s the one thing people get hung up about,” she said. “But in reality, once you’re there, people don’t pay that much attention. People hear the word ‘ball’ and think that they need have to have an elaborate costume, but you shouldn’t let that stop you from coming.”
One easy approach is just to wear something nice and dressy. For women, something as a simple as a little black dress with accessories will do. 7×7 Magazine has posted its suggestion for what a woman could wear to this year’s Ball. As you can see, it’s a variation on the little black dress, with some accessories to give it that turn-of-the-century look.
For men, almost any kind of formalwear will do, even if it’s incomplete. RJ Johnson of Burlesque Photo of the Day suggests wearing a tuxedo shirt over black slacks. (Of course, if you can find the rest of the tuxedo, so much the better.)
If you need some accessories to give your outfit more of a steampunk/goth/Victorian/Edwardian/Goreyan look, you can always find some at the Edwardian Ball’s Vendor Bazaar. In addition to being open during both nights of the Ball, it’s also free and open to the public noon until 6:00 p.m. on Saturday.
And where else would you find clothing and accessories to wear to the Ball if you don’t already have them? One option is to rent from a costume store such as CostumeParty! or Costumes on Haight in San Francisco. Last year, I found a Victorian suit with tails at Debbie Lyn’s Costumes in Sunnyvale.
Another option is to buy your costume, which you may want to do if you’re planning to attend other similar events. Here is a list of Bay Area stores that specialize in Victorian and Edwardian era clothing. Prefer to have some expert advice when doing your shopping? At least one enterprising Edwardian is offering their services as a Fashion Consultant.
How much will your costume cost? If you want an entire costume, it could cost you hundreds of dollars even if you rent and buy some accessories. My suit rental plus a top hat and bow tie was a bargain at $60.00. But I will probably purchase a few accessories at the Ball, which will probably put the bill at over $100.00. I imagine that some people spend over $1,000.00, based on the elaborateness of their costumes.
Besides preparing your costume, there are a few things that you should to. The first is to obtain Edwardian Ball tickets from a trusted source, either online from this site, or in person at an official ticket outlet. You don’t want to be in a situation where you’ve put together your attire for the event, only to find out that Ball is sold out once you arrive!
If you’re coming from outside the city, you may want to consider obtaining lodging near the event, as it will be less hectic to have a room where you can put on your costume and crash after the Ball is over. Of course, booking a hotel room will inflate your budget. A more frugal approach would be to crash with a friend who lives nearby, and then gift him or her a modest item purchased at the Ball’s Vendor Bazaar as a thank you gift.
Navigating The Event
As one might expect given such an spectacular event, the lines to get into the Edwardian Ball at The Regency Ballroom can get ginormous! Thus, the earlier you arrive, the better. To be safe, you should probably plan to arrive at least an hour before the time you want to get into the Ball (i.e., arrive at 7:00 if you want to be in by 8:00). And don’t forget an umbrella if it looks like it might rain on the night of the Ball. Nothing dampens spirits—and costumes—faster than an unexpected soaking.
For the first time this year, The Regency Ballroom will be offering hot food from their kitchen during the event, available for order at the main bars. While it might not be the finest of fare, it will certainly satisfy that late-night need for something to accompany the abundance of cocktails. There are also no “ins-and-outs”, so you’ll want to eat dinner before you arrive. There are quite a few restaurants nearby, so no matter what your budget and palate, there’s sure to be something to satisfy your thirst and hunger.
Once you’re in, be sure to visit all of the areas of the venue. The Regency Ballroom is a large building with several levels and various floors. Kingfish of the Hubba Hubba Revue will be the emcee for the Edwardian World’s Faire on Friday evening, and he offers this advice for those new to the Edwardian Ball. “The event is huge and if you don’t move around you will definitely miss stuff. The exhibits on Friday, World’s Faire night, are always awesome (I particularly like the operating steam engines from Kinetic Steam Works) and there are rooms and rooms of vendors.”
Amidst all these divertissments, it’s easy to forget that The Edwardian Ball is, at its heart, a social event. Lots of people attend in groups, and since the Ball attracts like-minded folks from the goth, steampunk, burlesque, and other communities, many people will know a good number of the other attendees.
If you’re new to the Ball and don’t know many of your fellow Edwardians, don’t despair! The Ball provides many opportunities to meet and mingle, such as while queueing for drinks. One good strategy to meet people was suggested by RJ Johnson, who said, “Mingling down in the vendor’s area is a lot of fun; don’t just park yourself in front of the stage or up in the balcony. Be sociable; complimenting folks on their finery is a great way to strike up a conversation if you are a bit shy at such things.”
And if you’re also a photographer like he is, RJ suggested taking some business card with the web address of where people can find the photos that you take of them.
Whatever you do, whoever you go as, there’s one thing that you need to do: Have fun! It seems pretty common for people to feel pressure and panic about their costumes before the event. But once the Ball is underway, trust me: nobody will notice that a bow tie is really just a shade off from being perfect for a suit. More important than any costume or fashion accessory is a sense of adventure and playfulness. The Edwardian Ball is waiting for you, in all its multifaceted glory. Resolve to have an unforgettable night, and then reach out and make it so!
Maxwell Wood is the creator of San Francisco Burlesque Review, a blog covering burlesque events, performers and culture in the Bay Area. An earlier version of this post originally appeared on SFBR.
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