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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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View more photographs in the Edwardian Ball slideshow.
“It seemed like the thing to do,” says a tall, thin man named Slim, asked what inspired his costume for our city’s first Edwardian Ball. A tiny candle flickers inside the ornate Chinese-palace lantern strapped to his head. He is swathed in silk brocade. His face and long, curling nails are painted gold.
“I look at the evening as just another lovely excuse to dress up,” he says. “I went to the previous ball and there were several of us in orientalia, so there must be something in the air.”
He twiddles his fingers at those words. The Edwardian Ball is a San Francisco three-day-weekend tradition that honors the artist and writer Edward Gorey. Now Los Angeles is finally being inducted into the Gorey cult of gloom and decadence.
The venue — downtown’s venerable Tower Theater — is appropriately ornate and decrepit, with genuine peeling ceilings and gilded walls. The women are dark-haired, pale-fleshed and lovely, spilling inappropriately out of their corsets. When I go upstairs to the balcony, I can see Slim’s lantern glowing softly in the darkness, swaying in time with the strange, swoony-woony yowling of a theremin.
Guests are playing fast and loose with the concept of “Edwardian.” The purists are dressed up as Gorey characters: murderesses, tormented ballerinas, vampires, bats, flappers, barons, dandies, sleuths, mysterious gentlemen in fur coats, that kind of thing. Rosin Coven, the group of Berkeley lounge musicians who thought up the ball and produce it each year, intended the event to be a celebration of Gorey’s work and life. At the last one, in San Francisco, a group of people showed up as the entire cast of doomed little alphabetical children from Gorey’s satirical Victorian cautionary tale The Gashlycrumb Tinies, all 26 of them. Slim was going to come as Hector, as in “H is for Hector smothered under a rug.” But another fellow beat him to it. The guy was shorter, but he raised the bar too high. “Oh, he was amazing,” Slim exclaims. “He wore two black-and-white rugs back to back, with only his head and two sad little eyes peeping out.”
Period-reenactment types are wearing vintage military uniforms and large curling moustaches. Other lazy — or maybe just practical — types throw on a top hat, goop on some black eyeliner and call it a day. A few metaphysical types are dressed as pirates. Pirates? I suppose the Edwardian period had some of those as well.
“So, how long have you been into the Edwardian scene?” a man asks a woman.
“Oh, a lo-o-o-ng time,” she says. “Since 1984.”
The Edwardian era proper goes back a bit further than that, encompassing the years between 1901 and 1910, when King Edward ascended the throne after his mother, Queen Victoria, kicked the royal bucket. It was a period of pleasure sandwiched between the industrious Victorian era and the innocence-annihilating World War I. Like a long golden sigh, I’ve heard it called. A time of Gibson girls and garden parties, it is when the society hostess came of age, when champagne and haute couture were invented.
It’s one of those lesser-known periods you’d surely want to go back to once you learn about it. But then looking back at the past is always like that: rosy, wistful, droll. Even the tragedies seem sort of romantic. And tonight’s contingent of women dressed as survivors from the Titanic would probably agree. Gorey, who died nine years ago, certainly did. The present seems too sharp, too plasticky-bright.
Those who have tired of waltzing or dancing the Charleston, or of lounging dejectedly (but elegantly) on sofas, or of faking British accents, or of trying to picture the grotesquely flexible trapeze artists of Cirque Berzerk naked, are doing what most everyone does when they are bored, Edwardian or not. Namely, shopping. On the dance-floor periphery, vendors hawk accessories and clothes in a kind of impromptu goth marketplace, presumably for those who feel an urgent need to supplement their outfit with a last-minute feathered headband or spider brooch. For a while, I admire jewelry made out of parts of insects, and old watches, inspect the black-lace parasols, then consider and decide not to buy a pair of skeleton-hand hair clips.
For next time, may I suggest an ancient Egyptian Ball? All the girls can come as Cleopatra. All the boys can be pharaohs. It will be an evening of mummies, slaves and curses. It will be just another lovely excuse to dress up.