The Salon Project: Dressing the Set

I attended a piece of installation theater encompassing spectatorship, cultural commentary and camp costume party. It was fabulous.
If you like you can start with how I found myself here.


When I’d booked my ticket to this fancy-dress-party masquerading as theater-cum-installation I’d been assigned to group Jonquil.

The girl on the box office phone (and the subsequent emails from the costume coordinators) took great pains to impress upon me the gravity of our timing.

We were the 7pm seating and I must be there, ticket collected and coat checked in, by 6:45 at the absolute latest or all would be for naught.

I rushed to the theater after work in a panic. My opportunity to wear an opulent, champagne-colored watered-silk ball gown hung in the balance. ( I’d finally settled on wearing something akin to Scorsese’s Age of Innocence in my now alarmingly regular daydreams on the subject.)


I turned up at the theater bar at 6:28, breathless and slightly frantic.

At 6:45 on the button we were summoned by gong and loud-speaker. Jonquil to the dressing rooms.

Our motley crew assembled at the stair, treated first to some instructions. I must confess I hardly heard a word. I was surreptitiously sizing up the rest of our group, trying to imprint their modern selves on my mind for later comparison with their impending Edwardian splendour.

Also I was concentrating very hard on not giggling hysterically.

I failed. Dismally. So did most people in my party.


We were all giddiness incarnate by the time they led us down to the dressing rooms. Our troupe may have been on its way to a stately turn-of-the-century gala, but we exuded a locker-room pep-rally euphoria.

Down the dark, dank, twisty corridors of life behind-the-scenes we wound our way to a temporary dressing room which looked much like the cavernous black wings of any theater.

Suddenly standing in the tiny hall, waiting our turn to enter and catching glimpses of gowns and stoles and jewels, it all became very real.


The Salon Project was dressing up but it was also theater.

Entering this space we were taking up the mantle of tonight’s performance like many an actor on this stage had done before and would do again.

We were the dressing, the set, the actors. We were the company. No one would be a spectator tonight.

I felt a silky confidence thrill through me. This was going to be even better than I had imagined.


Individually we were ushered into the makeshift suite, lined on all sides with gowns.

The costume designer confessed later over bubbly that should anyone in Scotland wish to put on a Victorian or Edwardian production this winter they’d be hard pressed to find a single available costume.

After seeing this dressing room I’m not surprised.


Those little white tabs? Name plaques for each attending guest.

At the threshold a matronly-type prompted me for my name (I was openly gaping at the feathered corsetry). She nodded briefly and bustled to the endlessly long rack, picking out the gown with my name attached.

Matron handed it to a demure and chipper girl on her left and moved on to the woman behind me.

The girl, my dresser for the evening, led me away to an endless row of chairs chattering kindly as she casually ordered me to strip. She was a theater student and sometime moonlights as a cigarette girl at the infamous Vegas club night. Her flame-red tresses and ivory face put me in mind of Rossetti muses.


I stood naked in a bustling room and suddenly things were moving fast. Very fast.

Twenty-odd women in various states of undress surrounded me and the Muse, all being individually dressed by one (if not two) assistants, and more pouring in the door every minute. It was a hazy blur of rustling and zips and hairspray.

I was sorely tempted to stop and watch — this seemed like a performance in and of itself — but I was being dressed and turned as fast as anyone.

The Muse was joined by another girl,  all smiles and charm as she shimmied me into something black I hadn’t had a chance to peek at in the rush. It unfurled over my head, cascading loose and silky. Before my head even popped out my heart was in my shoes.

You can’t spill a corset on over your head like that.

There hadn’t been enough fabric in her arms for a full skirt.

Wait, black?

Even without a mirror I knew I was defeated.

A 1920s black gown sloshed over my frame like a nightshirt. A crew neck and long sleeves, not even a waist to speak of, and forget about sherbert-colored laces.

My dream of elegant, sumptuous costumery puddled on the floor. While I watched my sisters-in-arms be poured into corsets and tied into kimonos I was standing in a black silk sack.


I think the Muse and associate saw my disappointment. Both girls huddled around me cooing ever so slightly.

They found me giant chandelier earrings (also black).

They pet my fox-fur-lined bolero.

They tried to show me how amazing my vintage fascinator would look; I tried to smile politely.

All the while I looked forlornly at the ruffles and lace twirling round me and felt like it was at a 7th grade school dance all over again.

Other girls looked like this:


and this



I was in a retro-potato sack parading as mother-of-the-bride funeral garb.


After dressing I waited my turn at hair and make-up.

In the mad dash I had at least three people prodding my head in different directions simultaneously.

Pictures covered the walls of period make-up concepts to spark inspiration as the artists whirled from one eager face to the next.

The rush of powder poofs and flying hairpins mimicked glamorous backstage photos of posh fashion shows.



My elaborate fascinator (3-feet of antique porcupine quills) was firmly ensconced and I was given the all clear.

At this point I could hardly look in the mirror. The dress was a disappointment, the weaponized hairpiece unfathomable and the pièce de résistance: my makeup stylist had chosen the garish baby-doll face of early cinema. White eyeshadow and a bright rosy blush threatened to swallow my whole face.

I was aghast and rather embarrassed.

At any moment I would be summoned to a collective performance and promenade focused on observing your neighbors and in turn exhibiting yourself.

I found myself thinking (not for the first time) things would be so much easier if I was male.  After all, how do you fuck up white tie and tails?


All my superficial woes aside, my costume was entirely period and rather deliciously eccentric.

Even in my giddiness I ought to have remembered the cusp of the Edwardian era was interesting precisely because it was transitional – liberal and traditional all mushed together.

Of course there would be sleek, almost 20s stylings. Intellectually I enjoyed the contrast of people playing out politics and social ideals through fashion:



I had just childishly expected them to be on someone else.


I had assumed, rather unfairly, that by taking my measurements along with my money the company would be personally seeing to it that I looked as gorgeous as possible. That I, and ever other one of the hundreds of women they’d be dressing during the run, would be absolutely unique and absolutely catered for. Namely that my needs (and vanity) were paramount in this performance.

But of course in that frantic ballet of preparation, as long as it fit it would do. Flattering ensembles for such a large and motley troupe would be the least of the costumer’s concerns.

My crushing costume disappointment was my own fault. I had excitedly  convinced myself I was buying a ticket to a dressing-up party not a work of art. They are in fact quite different.

To my knowledge no large-scale event has ever successfully put the private needs of each individual participant over the overall aesthetic experience, certainly not with any success.

While I could ruminate on the ideological structures of individual vs. social needs and draw parallels to the political pedagogy both then and now, there will be enough time for that when I’m dead.

This was modern theater and we all had a job to do, whether the role in which I found myself was flattering to my vanity or not.

Next up: The Performance.

4 Responses to “The Salon Project: Dressing the Set”
  1. throckmorzog says:

    She surrendered herself to art as a virgin ascends to the volcano: frightened, innocent, brave, and in a way not achievable by mere mortals…beautiful beyond words.


  2. Ah, but you looked utterly utterly fabulous lady.
    And one of the things I only realised later was that actually I hadn’t really looked at myself in a mirror at all throughout the evening, so only really knew what I properly looked like once I saw all the photos. Strange to have that transformation, and then to only really experience it through how others see you.


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: