In a big plastic box at the top of my linen closet is a ballgown I never have a reason to wear. It's pale blue with a hint of silver, shiny, bustling, and trimmed with ornate beadwork, reminiscent of Elsa from Frozen but purchased, I promise, a decade before Frozen was a thing.
My dress sits wasted because there are entirely too few occasions for formal wear in ordinary adult life. Celebrities have the red carpet; the rich go to charitable galas for museums; teenagers have prom. But the rest of us get, if we're lucky, the occasional invite to a semi-formal wedding, where perhaps your cocktail attire won't feel absurd but there definitely will be guys in polo shirts.
This is a great loss. Fancy parties shouldn't be the sole province of the famous, wealthy, and young. (In fact, those are probably the three classes of people who need them least.)
Ours is an informal culture, which is often convenient. But formality has a quality informality can't duplicate — it's an excitement, a buzz, the slightest light-headedness. Formal wear is a game: The rules make the fun. There is a paradoxical intimacy that comes of talking closely while you all look very grand, an elaborate joy the same conversation couldn't have with everyone in sweats. A fancy party is an occasion for mutual admiration, which we all crave and need. The whole arrangement invites us to tell our loved ones how lovely they are, how we are delighted to be with them. By dressing up we grace not only ourselves but our friends, and they do the same for us, as together we conspire to create a scene at once familiar and extraordinary. This sort of formality can be escapism at its best, a few golden hours to forget there are dishes to wash and tax returns to file and instead enjoy being with each other at our finest.
The trouble is most of us have so little chance to participate in such a scene. This is a disappointment of adulthood I did not anticipate. My youthful consumption of Jane Austen and Agatha Christie novels suggested balls would feature much more prominently in my schedule than they do. And why is prom a school-hosted event if it prepares you for nothing later in life?
What few formal parties do persist are out of reach for all but a fortunate minority. I suppose elite private social clubs must have them — another institution, by the way, about which childhood reading (of Jules Verne, Dorothy Sayers, and Arthur Conan Doyle) gave me unduly great expectations — but I don't think I'll ever find out firsthand.
I'll never snag an invite to the Met Gala, and its local counterparts are costly and infrequent. Even if I could convince myself to drop several hundred dollars on baseline tickets to, say, our city orchestra's annual ball, I couldn't convince many (if any!) of my friends to do the same — so what's the point of going? The glitter of a formal evening amplifies awkward loneliness at least as well as merriment. Loitering around the corners of a party where you know no one is uncomfortable under normal circumstances but downright miserable in a gown.
This is the case for democratized galas — galas not hosted in a huge hotel ballroom, not raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, with a potluck for refreshments and no one looking askance at thrift shop finery. The celebratory air inherent in dressed-up get-togethers need not be rarefied. When I tweeted on this topic several days ago, one reply pointed me to Austria, where organizations as mundane as volunteer fire departments host balls regularly. One such event this very month in the tiny town of Unternalb "was opened with an impressive polonaise," a writeup of the festivities reported, and the "guests had a lot of fun." But of course they did.
There is "a time for everything," says Mrs. Morland in Austen's Northanger Abbey, "a time for balls and plays, and a time for work." She means this by way of reproof — her daughter has had "a long run of amusement" and now must "try to be useful" — but we might take the advice in its opposite sense.
Our schedules are so built around work (workism, even) that our amusements tend to do double duty: a night of Netflix is both entertainment and rest; a restaurant meal both diversion and sustenance. These have their own merits, but they are very different from the balls Austen poses as a contrast to daily obligations. They offer no special conviviality, no rush of anticipation, and no opportunity to see ourselves and our friends transformed, taken out of humdrum life and, just for an evening, made splendid and bright.
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