I am blessed to have had many amazing opportunities to wear beautiful historical clothing in stunning historical spaces while doing fun historical activities. Newport Vintage Dance Week in 2012 was full of them, most notably the mid-century ball at Ochre Court. But I’ve had these moments in other time periods as well, for example while wearing Regency clothing at numerous balls in historic halls, such as at the first CVD Regency Weekend in 2013 and at the second CVD Regency Weekend in 2014, and at the Commandant’s House in the Charlestown Navy Yard in 2012.
My recent trip to Versailles was right up there in terms of these amazing opportunities. It was staggering to be comfortably lounging with friends as often happens in other places and then remember that this venue was indeed Versailles! It almost required pinching to make sure it was real. The pictures prove the reality, I think. Come join me for a pictorial review of a (likely) once in a lifetime evening at Versailles for the 2016 Fetes Gallants.
The weekend before the event it rained. Hard. And rained some more. By the Monday of the event it was still raining and did not appear to be letting up. It’s hard to capture rain in photos, but here’s a view of Versailles from the Hall of Mirrors towards the beginning of the event while it was still light outside.
As you know from my posts before leaving for the trip, I’ve been sewing a silk robe a la francaise for this event since January. I wasn’t about to walk through the streets of Versailles and let it get wet in the rain. Neither were the friends I was staying with. The plan: to go out midday to the grocery store and pick up trash bags to make dress covers. Well, entire body covers, really.
When we arrived, people looked at us like we were crazy (well, we are, I suppose), but when we left people were looking at us enviously and asked if we had extra bags to share! What a change. Each of us is wearing about four trash bags taped together with masking tape I’d brought along.
Luckily, there was a coat check, where we checked a reusable shopping bag full of our wet trash bags. Then it was on to get our complimentary glass of champagne, arrange ourselves for the first pictures of the evening, and head upstairs to the King’s Apartments and Hall of Mirrors.
This is the Hercules Drawing Room. It’s one of the first rooms we entered as regular tourists during our day visit as well as one of the first rooms we entered during the event. And my, what a stunning change between one visit and the other! During the day this room (and the rest of them) are absolutely stuffed with large tour groups and tourists. There is a constant movement to the flow such that you can’t really stop and have time to admire everything. Plus, it is so full of people that you rather want to keep moving to escape them. Not so at this event! You can see the floor!
From the Hercules Drawing Room you can proceed through another six drawing rooms towards the back of the palace and the Hall of Mirrors. These drawing rooms are all arranged in a line such that you can look from one end to the other. They are named after various gods: Apollo, Diana, Mars, etc.
You walk the same path during the day, but it was such a better experience at the event. There was a steady stream of people, but there was space to stop and look around, have a conversation, enjoy the spaces, and get pictures. The scale of the ceilings, the windows, the paintings… it all seems that much more grand and impressive when there is empty space to balance out the grandeur.
In one room, we had a picture with the “king.” Which king, you ask? I think we was supposed to be Louis XIV or XV, but I can’t remember.
There were interactive period games set up in multiple rooms. The king himself was not above the entertainment. Neither were we! In one room we took the opportunity a few times to play each other at the billiard-like game. (If you know what this is called, please share.)
Proceeding along, we reached the War Drawing Room, on the corner between the long line of drawing rooms and the Hall of Mirrors.
Turning the corner is the Hall of Mirrors. I wasn’t much impressed with the Hall of Mirrors when I visited Versailles about 10 years ago as a tourist. It’s crowded and the mirrors are not what a 21st century mindset is likely envisioning in terms of elegance. And visiting it again as a tourist on the trip I was still not over-the-top impressed. Beautiful, of course, but that’s about where my praise stopped.
However, seeing the room full of people in 18th century clothing and illuminated once the sun had set, the room became the spectacle that I learned of while studying art history. This is how Versailles should be seen.
The next two pictures are from early in the evening while natural light was still pouring through the windows along one side. The two pictures after that were taken later, after the sun had set and it was dark outside.
One friend had felt that our sacques were rather unflattering… until she saw herself in a mirror in the Hall of Mirrors! I think it might be impossible to wear a robe a la francaise in the Hall of Mirrors and not feel the elegance of the clothing and of the space.
Our tickets included two activities (chosen at the time of purchase) out of about four options. My first activity is not hard to guess. Dancing! And where else, but in the Hall of Mirrors?
Along the way to the Hall of Mirrors we found a friend of a friend who had been introduced online. It was lovely to meet her and it turned out we had the same activities on our tickets so we chatted and took part in activities all evening! In fact, she was my dance partner! Being French, she was able to help translate the dancing instructions that I didn’t pick up from watching the instructors. Unfortunately, while we were learning all my friends were either dancing or attending other activities, so the only picture of me dancing is a staged one.
Here are our shoes: my two traveling companions and our new friend. We all made or embellished our shoes. Neat!
We also found more friends! In fact, there was a group of seven of us from Boston who met up at the event, as well as a group of four we knew who traveled from Scotland, and the friend we met who is French. We didn’t all make it into one picture, but here’s most of us. The impressive thing is that we’re all dressed. I’m pretty sure most if not all of us were still sewing the day of.
Every time the king entered the Hall of Mirrors this special unit of musicians would play a fanfare. You could certainly tell something was happening even at the other end of the hall. And wow, did these guys have great hats! They rival the ones worn by Buckingham Palace Guards in awesomeness.
My next activity was back at the other end of the line of drawing rooms. As the group meandered our way through we were wrangled into another group picture, this one intended to be in the style of Annie Leibovitz’s Marie Antoinette photos.
Then it was actually off to my second activity, a concert of sacred music in the Royal Chapel. We had to wait a bit to enter as the previous concert hadn’t yet finished when we arrived, but that gave us time to look around the Hercules Drawing Room a bit more than we did upon first entering it. Part of the room was cordoned off to provide space for a dance and music performance, a portion of which we were able to watch while waiting.
As a daytime tourist, we were only able to look through the doorway into the Royal Chapel, so it felt like quite a treat to be allowed to enter and sit for the concert. We were all seated on the second level of the chapel. And to my great delight, the concert’s music was provided on the organ! How exquisite, to listen to the music fill the room and fade away in echoes between songs. Some pieces also included singers. It was a lovely rest for the feet and quite a stunning and special experience.
I was starting to feel tired, but the event was not ready to conclude. We headed back to the Hall of Mirrors for a dance performance and for fireworks! We weren’t sure they would do the fireworks with all the rain, but they did!
The fireworks were the finale of the evening, but the event staff didn’t rush us out. In fact, we stayed and lounged for another hour after the fireworks ended. There was a line of event staff very slowly moving through the rooms and herding people, but it was a very civilized and non-intrusive herding.
It gave us more time to admire other people’s clothing, including these two, and to be admired. I was impressed with myself when I understood a compliment given to me in French!
We slowly walked back through the line of drawing rooms, not wanting to leave because it meant the end of the evening. This is back in the Hercules Drawing Room before we headed down to get suited up in our trash bags.
If you appreciate stepping into history and you ever get the chance to attend this event, you should. It was stunning and special. This is how Versailles should be not only seen, but experienced.