It was a very exclusive party; open only to those who knew the right sort of people.
In the final years of the 18th century, France staggered out of its national abattoir. The French Revolution took liberty, fraternity and equality and twisted those noble ideologies into a petty mayhem. Those that survived its sharp judgements were equally twisted. They celebrated their endurance and survival in debauched celebrations that bloomed in ragged ballrooms like sickly flowers.
But the invitations presented at the door had to tell a wretched story before one could be let in. Attendees to these Victim's Balls had to show proof that a relation or spouse had felt the Widowmaker's bite and had their lives end between her jaws.
Dress was satirical, mocking the earnest brutality of the 'citizens' and copying the vandalized postures of their victims. Women wore thin red ribbons around their necks, as if they could reproduce the line of the blade's attack in velvet or silk. Men and women entered these macabre rooms dressed in 'le toilette du condamne': they cut their hair very short, as if a ghostly guillotine was still waiting – and nothing must impede its speedy journey.
Men and women dressed extravagantly, lavishly, dangerously – a profligate's response to years of denial. Ribbons crossed the back of the bodice, marking the wearer like a target.
Gowns were low-cut: so low, in fact, that the only thing in danger of being executed on those amber evenings was the lady's modesty.
They danced wildly to the music of the revolution - 'Ah! Ca Ira', 'The Campagnole' – without respect, without grace, falling limp to the floor at the end of each measure; mimicking the dead that had gone before them. They crushed the vivid symbolism of these hopeful songs beneath their vengeful, painted heels. Gallant salutes became an executioner's sweeping motion cutting through the air. The finishing touch to a bow was the head drooping suddenly and lifelessly, as if the neck had been newly severed.
And when the festivities were done, they emerged into the cold, early morning, running with rivers of pearl, mauve and gray. Their feathers wilted. Their jewels dimmed. They touched the red satin gashes at their throats and nervously studied their fingers.