Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Private Ball in Antwerp, January 1842

Palais Palavicini in Vienna. These are the sort of marquetry floors that our narrator describes.

A different room in the Palais Palavicini, with marquetry floor and crimson damask panels on the walls.

Our English friend is envious of the fancy uniforms that show up in abundance at European balls and so am I! The chapeau bras that he mentions is a bicorn hat which can be folded and tucked under the arm. It was a common item in civilian as well as military dress in the early nineteenth century. At some point, civilian fashion replaced it with the top hat. It stayed on as a part of military uniforms for decades after civilians stopped wearing it. 

Our friend has better luck getting partners at this dance, perhaps due to the cousin's help. He still feels that it's work, so he jokes about it in business terms, as if waltzes, galops and contradances were being traded in the stock market.

Saturday, 15th.—A thaw commenced, filling the streets with black mud and water, and the atmosphere with a horrible fog.

Dined at the chief restaurant of Antwerp. The service was intolerably slow, and would not have been endured in Paris, where one of the peculiar excellencies of their restaurants is the brilliant cleverness of the garçons: a slow and stupid waiter is there put out of doors at once. I remember however, to have once met with a garçon at one of the most fashionable restaurants on the boulevards, who was drunk, so drunk as to be both stupid and insolent. I complained,—and his fellow-waiters said it was infamous.

After dinner, to the party, the first-fruits of my letter of introduction.

We were set down on carpeted steps, under a porte-cochere, and shewn into a small room, where ladies'-maids and a cheval glass were doing duty, respectively active and passive, and where people deposited hats, cloaks, and swords,—swords, because here all officers, as a general rule, appear at all dress parties, in uniform. As to hats, many men carry a small chapeau bras into the rooms. A servant enquired our names, and leading us through an ante-room, threw open the folding doors at the further end of it, and announced us at the top of his voice. Just within, we found the host, with his wife and daughter, all radiant with gracious and welcoming smiles.

I was handed over to a cousin, who took my arm, and plunged with me into the midst of a crowd of some three hundred people, where, with his help, I "* made my book' for the night: contredanses were still to be had, at a fair price, but valses and galops had been nearly all taken up, and were quite at a premium. A dancing stranger, among so many new faces, called by such strange and unfamiliar names, must use his wits, lest he should forget an engagement, or lose his lady or his vis a vis, all mortal offences.

The rooms had been recently redecorated, and this ball was, I believe, intended for a sort of house-warming after the process. There were five of them and a hall, on the ground floor, en suite; completing the square of the house, so that you could walk through them as long as you pleased, without turning back. They were elegantly and richly furnished, with silk hangings, turkey carpets, marble, and or-moulu chandeliers and candelabra. The principal dancing-room was a large square, the walls hung with crimson silk damask, let into panels, with white and gold wood-work and decorations, large mirrors, and a costly marble chimney-piece. The floor was of elaborate inlaid work, of various light-coloured woods and ebony, as fine as the marqueterie of a cabinet, and polished like glass. The lighting, by a profusion of wax candles, was perfect.

A crowd of guests, so dense that you could scarcely move, here waited for something to do, and talked as fast and as much as they could, in the meantime. At a given signal, the curtains of the centre window of three occupying one side of the room, were suddenly drawn back by an invisible hand, and disclosed the orchestra, in a small pavilion, opening by the window into the room, lined with crimson damask, and lighted by a lamp hanging from the centre of the roof: the effect was very theatrical and pretty. Simultaneously arose the preliminary groans and squeaks of the instruments, and immediately, partners were singled out, a space was cleared, and the dancing began. The band-master from time to time shouted out the names of the figures of the contre-danse, and directions for the different parts of them, and he did it in the oddest way, opening his eyes wide as he called out, so that they seemed to be worked by strings tied to his jaws, and puffing out his cheeks, and finally, appearing to make a violent swallow of a very large plum, exactly as if he went by clockwork,—all the time fiddling away, as for dear life.

One large room was appropriated to card-playing, in which both men and women here indulge most systematically. Ices and other pleasant things were carried about, and we had supper in a suite of rooms on the first floor. It was served out by servants standing behind long tables, as shopmen stand behind counters, and a welcome pair circulated about among the guests, one carrying a supply of Champagne, and the other, a basketful of long glasses.

It was a well-managed affair, and the company, the best of Antwerpian society,—the governor, the burgomaster, the two generals, the nobles, as they are called here,—that is, the class, who with us, are titled or untitled people, as the case may be, of established family and condition,—the consuls, leading merchants and bankers (many of the grandees here are in some way or other, engaged in mercantile pursuits) and a few of the staff, and officers of the garrison. Many of the women were strikingly handsome. We were, I think, the only English English there.

It is the established custom, for the invited to fee the servants handsomely on leaving the house, and you are sure to find a major-domo at the door, who receives the five-franc pieces quite as a matter of course. (Antwerp. A Journal kept there. London: John Olivier, 1847. p. 38-42 .)

1831 A gentleman in full dress still has his chapeau bras.

1813. These are the days when the chapeau bras was a regular part of full dress.

1878. The officer in the lower left has his chapeau bras tucked between his legs so that he can eat.

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