How to Prepare for the Bal de Versailles
For years I’ve dreamed of attending the Bal de Versailles, an all-night masked party in the style of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette in the gardens and Orangerie of the Chateau de Versailles. (I have my friend Sara to thank for writing this Marie Claire article that planted the seed.) Despite a few misfires in past years, it somehow feels fated that the year I would attend also happens to be the 7th anniversary of my getting my French citizenship. Vive la France!
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of planning, first I must point out this is not an event that you half-ass. It’s not the kind of place where you feel like you’re dragging people along to go with you (although I’m fairly certain that they’d still have fun). You want to go with people who are just as—if not more—enthusiastic about going as you are.
For my “crew” it all started shortly after Christmas when my friend Shweta and I were talking and realized we really wanted to go and bought our tickets. We spread the word amongst friends, and it soon became clear who was ALL IN. It also became clear that the anglophones were far more into this hoopla than my French friends. I extended the invite to friends overseas, but knowing the likelihood they’d come was slim, but I wanted to ask and there were some close calls. (Apparently, there are a lot of folks who travel just to come to the event.) Thankfully, we were all enthusiastic enough to get our tickets before they sold out a couple of months later.
Before I knew it I had a posse of HELL YES friends who were in. Most of them didn’t know each other, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to join anyway. I realized it’s what I love doing in life—connecting awesome people. So the first order of business was starting a WhatsApp group. This became fun when we started finding our dresses, but also thinking about details like masks and wigs.
We’d only be in touch sporadically in the months leading up to the Bal, but I found great joy in the ridiculousness of this planning. It was immensely helpful having something fun to look forward to during the winter months.
I first went to the costume shop, Sommier & Fils and reserved my dress in mid-February. I went to Sommier in Passage Brady in the 10th because two friends who’d attended the Bal in the past had told me they were the best. (The Versailles website did include a list of costume places.) I thoroughly enjoyed the bizarreness of this experience. I felt like I time travelled by walking into a high school (or theater) costume room and I wasn’t totally sure how it’d unfold. It also was one of those experiences where doing it in French just added to the surrealness of it all.
When I walked into the shop guy handed me a photo book (think 1980s plastic photo album) with lots of dresses while he was helping someone else. It’s funny I picked a favorite but it didn’t matter when he took me to the back to see what they had. None were actually the dresses in the book!
He pulled at least 5-6 dresses (at the shelf I had been yes, no, no way, yes to decide). And brought out a couple others later based on what I liked. For women the only thing that matters is the size of you’re top. The length of dresses can be adjusted (hemmed or lengthened, which is included in the price—you just have to know to ask! The other thing you tell him as he pulls dresses is your budget (think they run ~50-200€). (Make sure you request a bag too! It’s in matching fabric.)
The changing area was rather spacious, so you easily could go with a friend or partner. You’re amongst other eras as you try things on (and there’s clearly more storage nearby in the passage.)
I fell in love with the first dress I saw but it was a bit tight. I decided that it was too long of a night and I wanted to be able to breathe. (It was a rich brown color but honestly looked like vomit colors in the lighting 😜). Another one I liked was hot pink but velvet + a flannel under skirt—so that was a hell no when I remembered that there was a heat wave last year during the Bal. A yellow one was too short, and I didn’t realize at the time it could be lengthened, but I didn’t love it enough. I wanted to LOVE my dress, and I was willing to splurge given how many years I’ve been waiting to go to this event.
For women, dresses come with an underskirt. I could have chosen between 2 varieties, rather than with the two side hip ones. I went with the one-piece hoop, but it’s also what worked with my dress. Overall the dresses are shockingly heavy! And they always go over your head (I almost got stuck a couple times when I forgot that). I also definitely needed help from the shop guy to tie and untie me. The other perk for women is dresses are so long that you can wear sneakers underneath! My friend Mark’s shoes don’t look as comfy! We also get bags that match the dress in the same fabric.
The initial dress I selected ended up being on the more expensive end, but I didn’t mind the splurge. I paid a 40€ deposit (will pay another 140€ when I pick it up — you can pick it up the day before or day of). A few weeks later I was chatting with another friend going and I realized I still wanted the first dress I tried on—the one that was too tight. On a third visit to the store, I tried it on again and realized as long as I didn’t hook the waist hook I could actually breathe. And it made me very happy. It conveniently was cheaper, but most importantly, made me feel good.
Hair-wise, I was keen for a wig, but I found the wigs shockingly hideous—on me at least. I ended up making an appointment at a salon to curl my hair, and also made a last-minute online purchase for a Marie Antoinette style wig hoping it’d arrive in time. I’d heard from past bal-ers that wigs are hot! In the end I was thrilled with my hair that my friend did, even if most of it was hidden by my mask.
The shop had masks you could both rent or buy. I tried on a few, but knowing I had months, I decided to wait. But tried on a few. One had a giant feather. By a stroke of luck, when I was home I found a mask in my bedroom that my mom had that worked perfectly with my dress.
I didn’t expect to spend 1.5 hours at the shop, but got a kick out of all the same. It’s more fun when you can grant yourself the luxury of time. There’s more choice the earlier you reserve, but also know that there are more options in their storage. A lot depends too on your size.
The week of the Bal I called to confirm when I could pick up my dress. I thought it was the day or the day before, but he asked me for the date on my receipt and checked and told me my dress was ready and I could pick it up any time this week and it’d be less crowded. (There was a guy trying on his outfit in the shop, so clearly there are last-minute rentals too.) I paid a 600€ deposit (I’d forgotten about that detail, but was grateful that some of my doctors make me pay with a check, so I had one on me), and left with my dress boxed up like something from a 1920s department store, and I was on my way.
As for getting ready, do it with friends, it’s far more fun! I also needed someone to lace me up. Luckily one of my friends did my hair (there’s a hair donut under there + tons of bobbypins and hairspray)! We took a van to Versailles because it was hot and we needed space with our hoop skirts (we took the RER/metro back for kicks!). MakeupbyJoleen is a fun account to follow and she does professional hair and makeup for people attending the ball.
Stay tuned for a follow-up post about the actual ball… It did not disappoint!