My evening in a 19th century Parisian Salon

Last week I had the extreme pleasure of attending The Salon Project at the Barbican, an event we booked tickets for months in advance and one I’d been so excited for that I was jumping up and down all day in anticipation!

Why, you ask? Because it was essentially playing dressup in amazing costumes and attending a modern equivalent of the salons that the Enlightenment made famous.

Or in in the official blurb, it’s explained as:

The Salon Project Revisited recreates the exclusive meetings at the heart of what was French society’s golden age – an era of change, excess and inquiry. Your evening begins with a transformation into full period costume by a coterie of dressers and make-up artists, before you emerge into a mirrored impression of a 19th-century Parisian salon. As you mingle with guests, pioneers in their fields will provoke discussion, speaking on subjects at the vanguard of 21st-century thought on science, politics, technology and the arts. Revel in the Salon’s splendour, contrast it with the present and imagine what the future will hold in this beautifully crafted night of fashion and conversation.

You can also view a a great, short video of the performance experience here to get a better idea of how it happened.

To start with, each of us sent our measurements to the team about a month ago – and it was rather more than just Bust, Waist, and Hips! But it was all worthwhile, because when we arrived, a costume selected just for us was waiting on a hanger with our name on it, along with shoes, gloves, jewellery, hairpiece – the works!

We each had our our dresser to help us get the dresses on, as many of them involved corsets which tied or hooked at the back, and elaborate draped pieces. I squealed with delight to see a sleeveless, corseted, dark grey velvet, floor length gown had been chosen for me! How did they know!? My dresser also found me better fitting shoes when my first pair were too small, and I tried on no less than four pairs of gloves before they found ones they deemed acceptable! The dressing team really did have an amazing array to choose from (way more than what was needed each night) so they really hunted to find the best pieces for each person. Then it was time for hair and makeup – the hair lady curled my entire head with tongs before pinning it back and affixing the jewelled feather piece. We ladies got a few minutes to marvel at each other before the gong sounded and we joined the men in the specially-built salon room!

The men were mostly in 3-piece tuxedos, which was more than James wore for our wedding! Doesn’t he look dashing?? He brought his own pocket watch, which was the envy of the other gents!

Here’s a better look at my jewellery (clip on earrings!) and feather headdress from the back. I love that my gown has a square neckline back and front, but yet isn’t nearly as, umm, saloon-girl low cut as others’.

All the guests mingled and sipped on prosecco, and we were explicitly told to not put on an act, and just be ourselves, in the 21st century. We were treated to two guest speakers and a variety of performances evocative of the 19th century salon experience, but with a full view of the 21st century. Our first performance was from two “gramophone DJs”, there was a nude tableau where the subjects had various laptops, tablets, and phones in still-life poses, and some video art, too. I found the speakers to be the most enjoyable – the first woman was an actress, speaking on the act of measuring oneself, vanity sizing, and RTW (very me!). The second speaker was a neuroscientist, speaking about memory and the brain’s adaptive pathways. We went up to both women afterwards to speak at greater length!

We had two hosts for the evening who were wonderfully welcoming and entertaining, plus a pianist who read his sheet music off an iPad, which I’d never seen before!

But of course I spent most of the time checking out all the details of fellow guests’ dresses, including this lady with amazing bustle gown and hat with full face net and bird on top! Happily they gave her a bendy straw so she could drink her bubbles without having to keep lifting the veil each time.

Here are some views of the other fellow guests, so you can get a feel for the variety of the costumes, which ranged in styles from 1895-1915, and were actually on loan from a variety of different Scottish theatre companies (I was told mine was from an opera company so I tried my best not to burst into spontaneous arias). Take special note of the lady with a full feather collar! I got some strange reactions when I complimented others’ dresses – usually a person can take credit for choosing what they’re wearing, and it reflects something of their personal style, but here, they were all chosen for us without our input (other than measurements).

James and I both had an absolutely unforgettable time, and we both marvelled at how wonderful it was to have a full evening of conversation stimulated by a) the unusual dress code, b) the wonderful speakers and performers, and c) the lack of any interruptions by smartphones. I’m as guilty of the last as anyone, but it was refreshing to only have people taking photos throughout the evening, and not preoccupied.

All in all, our salon experience lasted about three hours, and I was thankful when my dresser released my corset hooks and I could exhale and relax again! The corset was a wee bit short for my waist so I couldn’t sit down without it separating from the skirt, and I found I was tensing my shoulders and holding my arms in front all night. It makes me appreciate those who wore (and still wear!) corsets regularly!

Obviously, this event is something I’d do again in a heartbeat, so I really hope the concept takes off!

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