Venise sous Paris

February 3, 2016By Heidi EllisonTales of la Ville

Dressing Up
Is the Best Revenge


At Venise sous Paris. All photos on this page by Audrey O’Reilly.

It was billed as the “party of the century”: a Venetian Carnival ball to be held at the end of January in a “secret underground location” on a canal in Paris, complete with gondolas and obligatory 18th-century dress for all guests.

In fact, the location was not very secret since there is only one underground canal in Paris, the paved-over part of the Canal Saint Martin between Bastille and Rue Faubourg du Temple. Five of us signed up in November and paid our €50.

We were sorely disappointed to receive e-mails a couple of weeks ago informing us that the organizers, an events agency called WATO (We Are the Oracle), had failed to get permission from the city to use the canal and that the party would instead be held in a “magical” townhouse. So much for the gondolas. It turned out that they weren’t going to use real gondolas anyway but those white-plastic electric pleasure boats that are rented out in the summer on the Bassin de la Villette. Not the same thing.

In spite of it all, we were determined to make the best of it. Serious preparations began. I’ve always thought it was cheating to rent a costume for a dress-up party rather than make one’s own, but a quick look at 18th-century costumes on Google convinced me that creating even a minimally authentic costume was far beyond my talents, so I trundled off to a costume shop and rented a beautiful gown made of heavy tapestry fabric, dripping with lace and judiciously studded with rhinestones. My cleverer friends managed to put together brilliant costumes on their own.

Having now worn an 18th-century gown for the first time, I finally understand why ladies’ maids were required by the elite of yore. Although I managed to tie on the panniers that make the skirt so bouffant that it was nearly impossible to pass through a doorway, there was no way I could have laced myself into that heavy dress alone.

Luckily, four friends came over for a dressing-up pre-party lubricated by lots of champagne. Aside from a few meltdowns caused by wardrobe malfunctions and decidedly un-18th-century problems like difficulty in printing out tickets and lost smartphones, we had a wonderful time as we swapped masks, feathers, cunning little beaded


My gang with the Doge.

clutch bags, wigs and bijoux, and supplied mutual aid in applying heavy white pancake makeup, bright circles of rouge and heart-shaped beauty spots.

When we were finally all assembled – painted, masked, bewigged and berobed – we gathered into our carriage (an extra-large taxi) attended by only one footman (times are hard) and rolled off to the ball.

The “magical” mansion dated only from the end of the 19th century but had some lovely features, notably its sweeping staircase. After


being handed plastic flutes of champagne at the door, we were obliged to pass through a series of rooms decorated as 18th-century dungeons and torture chambers with actors playing prisoners to give us a taste of what Casanova went through when he was thrown into prison. Like Casanova, we escaped, but as we ran down the hall toward the party, we were chased and herded back into the torture chamber by a warder.

We finally made it to the party, where we had to buy ducats at the “bank” to pay for drinks and piadini (Italian flatbread sandwiches).


There were a couple of dance floors with DJs alternating techno and cheesy-but-fun oldies like “It’s Raining Men,” but the best part of the ball was checking out the costumes of the crowd and absorbing the atmosphere, slightly marred by the smell of cooking onions from the piadini.

The ball that turned out to be “Venise sur Paris” rather than “Venise sous Paris” was something of an anticlimax after all the preparations and definitely wasn’t the “party of the century” but was more than worth it for the great fun of dressing up for it.

Note: Just as I finished this article, I discovered that after holding four Venetian balls with 3,600 people, WATO has cancelled the rest of the scheduled parties because it has run out of money, according to a video on the agency’s Facebook page.

Heidi Ellison

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