You probably won’t find an eligible husband at the Ton Ball, but you will find the fantasy.
A line of gorgeously coiffed and begowned guests stretch down the stairs and around the corner of Sydney’s Town Hall, mingling anachronistically with the rainbow flags, bright glitter and hot pants of revellers attending the Mardi Gras Parade on Oxford Street.
Patrick Lenton looking dapper at his pre-Mardi Gras Ton Ball.
The presence of this many bustles, tiaras, and corsets is eye-catching enough for people to pause and question whether this is WorldPride – or some kind of mass-time travel cluster.
It’s not any of those. It’s the Ton Ball, a (unofficial) Bridgerton-themed dance, that seeks to replicate the romance, aristocracy and good-natured historical inaccuracies of the hit Netflix series based on Julia Quinn’s novels of the same name. It is a world of high glamour and history, beautifully brought to life for one night only by the Ton Ball.
The Town Hall interior is dazzling, the majesty of the space beautifully adorned with flowers, over-the-top table settings and costumed actors in considerable wigs already twirling on the dance floor. A string quartet is on the stage, playing modern songs from Robyn and Taylor Swift in a ye olde ball style.
My guest and I are playing fast and loose with the dress theme – attempting to incorporate a later Mardi Gras commitment with Bridgerton style – so we’re a blend of high camp and regency. Initially, I was surprised that anyone would attempt to organise an event on the same night as Mardi Gras, but it was sold out, proving that the organisers made the canny choice of providing something for heterosexual people to do – as well as an opportunity for them to travel back to a time when they were more culturally dominant.
Patrick Lenton and his ball partner Shalane Connors tried their hands at life drawing.
As we promenade with our champagne flutes, other guests look us up and down, and a performer loudly proclaims, “someone invited a harlot” which is very funny. It’s precisely the kind of judgement and gossip that I imagine the real balls, from both Bridgerton and the period of history that loosely inspires the show, would have featured.
The balls from this era functioned primarily as match-making affairs, chances for wealthy aristocratic families to marry off their sons and daughters. As Dr Jodi McAlister, a romance scholar at Deakin University, tells me: “Balls were one of the key social events at which the ton mixed with each other. Making appropriate matches wasn’t the only aim, but it was certainly a key one – hence the phrase ‘marriage mart’, which was used to describe the season.”
Guessing from the mix of guests at the Ton Ball, matchmaking is not a high priority. It seems to mostly be friends, or groups of couples, who tend to stick together at their tables or on the dance floor. There are plenty of expertly costumed women absolutely living their best regency fantasy, squired by stoic husbands in their nicest business suits, nursing a-historical beers.
There was no shortage of wigs and feathers at the Ton.
I don’t think many single people were having their dance cards (which we all received, another cute addition) filled by eligible strangers, so they can embark on fruitful marriages filled with surprising amounts of lust as ballgoers in the series do. One of my favourite tables of attendees is a group of younger people who are dressed as though they’d just gotten off an old wooden ship. They tell me they all met each other at the Melbourne version of the ball, a year earlier, and enjoyed themselves so much that they travelled to Sydney for this one.
The other key historical function of balls – gossip – was also having trouble thriving at Ton Ball, as instead of a closely knit community of fabulously dressed rich weirdos, we were mostly all strangers, who would have to work very fast to find out anything of interest and then find someone else who cared. Perhaps we needed a Lady Whistledown figure to watch everyone with a critical eye and report on it – perhaps I, the only journalist in attendance, was the closest substitute? Unfortunately, I’m too nice, and I thought everyone looked great and was having a nice time, so I’ve struggled to write anything cutting and scandalous. What exactly is the draw of a ball re-enactment, I wondered, apart from eating food, drinking champagne and wearing a statement feather headdress?
There was certainly enough spectacle to entertain: dancers welcoming with a choreographed performance of Vogue by Madonna; the Queen Charlotte MC with a stunning voice searching for and finding the “diamond” of the season; some games of chance; and even a handsome live nude model in the corner that everyone could (and I did, obviously) draw. Guest goers doing their best waltzes periodically filled the dance floor.
Netflix’s Bridgerton satisfies a craving for historical romance.Credit:Netflix
But the more of the Ton’s whirling glamour I experienced, the more I came to understand that it was romance that drove the entire experience, that was at the heart of the ball. It was less about finding a suitor, and more about the opportunity to feel as though you were in Bridgerton. Everyone I spoke to was a massive fan of the series or the novels.
They weren’t concerned about historical inaccuracies of the ball, they loved the blend of fashion, music, pop culture, and romance of the event. The majority of guests I spoke to were the romance genre’s prime demographic – women aged 30 and older, often mothers, who were passionate about finding the romance in escapism and fantasy, enjoying the risque thrill of removing their pearl-encrusted gloves to swig their wine and sketch a naked man’s penis. Some were dressed in painstaking historical accuracy, others applied what they called a “Met Gala sensibility” to their outfits. Regardless, they were committed to immersing themselves in romance, and the Ton Ball provided a beautiful home for them to live out their fantasies.
Heading back out into the real world, I was immediately swept up at the end of the Mardi Gras Parade, and I was struck by some of the similarities between the two events: the parade is a lot of different things – protest, celebration, remembrance – but like the Ton Ball, it’s also a fabulous spectacle, one that takes you away from the mundanities of everyday life, for one night.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story will air on Netflix from May 4. A Wizardry High Tea will be held at the University of Sydney from July 6 to 9.
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