CHAPTER XIII

The Bal des Quatz Arts — Difficulty of obtaining ticket — My costume — Rendezvous at café — Indelicate costumes of ladies — Starting for the Elysée Montmartre — Sergents de ville guarding entrance — Stringent precautions — Impressions of ballroom scene — Gorgeous costumes of men — Distinguished painters — Nude girls — Blatant indecency of diaphanous evening dresses — Extraordinary spectacle — Wild dancing and deafening music — I meet a little model — Her costume — Processions of different ateliers — Wonderful effects — Supper served — The danse du ventre on one of the tables — No drunkenness a feature of the ball — Procession of students to Quartier Latin in morning — Arrest of a nude girl in street — True hospitality

THE The Bal des Quatz Arts was at that time, as it is now, one of the great events of the year amongst the ateliers of Paris. It is the Annual Carnival given by the art students, and preparations for it are begun long before the date on which it is held. I had heard such a lot about it that I was looking forward to the evening with the excitement of a débutante going to her first dance — and the more especially as all my friends would be there, and a lot of pretty women we knew. My idea, however, of what the ball would be like was based somewhat on the descriptions I had read of the Bals Costumés at the Opera House (where high-born, wealthy ladies go in masks and dominoes in search of intrigues with handsome but penniless artists). I imagined a huge crowd of people fantastically garbed, such as one would expect to see at any big fancy-dress ball in England, but with all the added verve and color and gaiety which the French art student would naturally impart. It would of course be a very beautiful and artistic scene, and many of the famous artists would doubtless bring their wives and daughters to witness it. My conception was rather wide of the mark — as will be gathered.

Had I not seen for myself the Bal des Quatz Arts, I should never have believed that in modern times and in a great city such "revelry" would be possible, even in the name of art. In my day the ball was held in the Élysée Montmartre, which for that night was closed to the public and given up entirely to the artists. To obtain a ticket, if you were entitled to it as an artist, or by reason of belonging to one of the big ateliers, was not a difficult matter, and the cost, including supper, as I will state later, infinitesimal; but to anyone not so accredited it was more difficult to get in, so it used to be said, than to be invited to an official ball at the real Élysée. Millionaire Americans have been known to offer untold wealth for one of the coveted pasteboards, but to no effect. "We don't want rich men and we don't want their money; this is quite a private affair and we intend to keep it amongst our own set," was the usual reply.

That, however, it was not a private affair or confined only to students and artists will be seen; and to my certain knowledge many outsiders did manage to get tickets, if they were in the swim. As a bal d'étudiants, it was not precisely a small gathering though, as the number present usually ran well into four figures. Whilst every precaution was, however, taken to prevent tickets being sold to men who had no claim to being in the profession, there were no obstacles placed in the way of the fair sex obtaining admission either accompanied or alone, with the result that every pretty actress and every model, and also many well-known demi-mondaines would be present.

I will endeavor to describe my impressions of the extraordinary scene as it appeared to me on the first occasion I went to one of these "balls," but I fear that even now, after the lapse of so many years, my stock of adjectives will be insufficient to depict in mere words the gorgeous spectacle and the galaxy of female beauty I saw around me.

The never-to-be-forgotten evening started a couple of hours before the ball opened — as a whole party of us arranged to meet for an early supper at a café close by. It was a stringent rule of the ball committee that everyone had to wear fancy dress of some description, and no mere faking up of an old dress suit or eccentric everyday attire was admissible. I had decided, after much reflection, that an Arab costume with burnous and turban would best suit my particular type of beauty, so in that I arrayed myself — staining my face and hands brown to give a sunburnt appearance, for I was nothing if not artistic in those days. On arriving at the café I found quite a little crowd assembled in a private room on the first floor. All my friends were there, and with them their petites amies and others — and I had my first impression of what the ball was going to be like. I shall never forget it. The men were in more or less fantastic garb, such as one would have expected to see, but what at once riveted my attention was the attire of the ladies. Most of them were décolletées, if one could call it décolletée when their bosoms were completely exposed, and several had costumes on of so transparent a material as to scarcely leave anything to the imagination; one could not imagine anything more suggestive. I must admit I fairly gasped when I looked around me — for we were crowded into a room of quite moderate size. No one, however, seemed to take any notice of all this indecency, so I regained my composure and shook hands all round as calmly as though it had been a reception and it was quite usual for the ladies to be so slightly attired. I must confess, though, that there were one or two very pretty women present I had long admired at a distance — habillées bien entendu — and it was not altogether unpleasant to regale one's eyes on the vision of their now revealed charms, and I did not stint myself either.

Well, after a lot of badinage and having something to eat, for supper would not be served at the ball till the early hours of the morning, it was at last time to go to the Élysee as there was no admittance after a certain hour. The ladies donned long cloaks to hide their nudity from the public gaze, and we all started. Outside the café the Boulevard was packed with people anxious to get a glimpse of the deshabille of the ladies; and as it was a fine warm spring evening they were frequently rewarded for their patience — as here and there a pair of dainty bare legs or a snowy neck and shoulders passed through. Whilst occasionally some particularly original costume would draw cheers or caustic remarks from the crowd, which was very good-humored, and evidently quite prepared for all this artistic eccentricity.

The actual entrance to the building was barred by a double row of sergents de ville, so no one not in costume could approach too closely; and at the door was a group of officials who would not admit anyone without his or her ticket being produced. And this was not all — for again, and before one could penetrate into the actual interior, one's ticket had to be submitted to the scrutiny of yet another line of officials who examined them closely, probably for fear of any imitation ones being passed; and then tearing off a corner, which they retained, you were at length allowed to pass in. All this of course took time and was rather trying to one's patience, but it was all taken good-naturedly, for everyone was in the gayest spirits.

"As Here And There...

At last I found myself in the big dancing hall, and the scene I had before me was certainly the most extraordinary that could be imagined. I had formed, as I have said, some idea in my mind as to what a French costume ball would be like, but never could I have conjured up such a vision, such a kaleidoscope of color and animation as met my eyes. Dancing was not in progress for the moment, and the floor was crowded with every conceivable costume of the world, ancient and modern, from the Stone Age to the Revolution of '48; the men's costumes being especially magnificent, and in many instances, I noted at once, were carried out with a regard for detail which was a sure indication of the artist.

There was an entire absence of the ordinary costumier's costumes hired out for the evening one always sees at fancy-dress balls. Military uniforms, and the garb of bygone ages, were worn by men who had evidently made a study of the particular period; so the effect was that of a reproduction of a fine picture. Distinguished painters I knew by sight, were actually in costumes representing their own masterpieces — all that, however, was to me the least interesting portion of the immense concourse.

The costumes, or rather what there was of them, of the fair sex must needs be described; and how to find words baffles me. I was somewhat prepared from what I had already seen at the café for décolletée corsages and scanty attire, but all that was quite eclipsed by what I now saw — for numbers of the girls were, with the exception of a pair of slippers, in a state of absolute nudity, and walking about among the crowd shaking hands here and there with friends as unconcernedly as though there was nothing incongruous in their appearance. Of course most of them were models and several had exquisite figures, so the effect when one got over the first shock of surprise was delightful — for it may be mentioned that only those with perfect shapes were to be seen thus unattired. They knew that no costume they could afford could be more beautiful than their own natural loveliness.

When I had got over my bewilderment a little, I managed to look round at those who were wearing some sort of costume, only to find that the prevailing note, however beautiful the conception, was generally indelicacy in some form or other; not coarse blatant indecency, but of a distinctly original kind. Still it was amazing. Lovely women could be seen walking round on the arm of perhaps some magnificent Napoleonic cavalryman; at first sight they would appear to be wearing ordinary black evening dress, extremely décolletée of course — but as they approached you noticed that the skirt consisted of only one thickness of tulle or lace or whatever material it might be to match the bodice, and that they had nothing whatever on underneath — not even pantalons. So that every part of their form from the waist downwards was completely visible through the transparency of the skirt.

For unabashed indecency I have never seen anything since to equal those diaphanous evening dresses; they were chefs-d'œuvre of immodesty — the nude women were quite commonplace in comparison. After a time many of these ladies would find their skirts incommoded them for dancing, and would pick them up and hold them over their arms in the usual manner of an ordinary ballroom — with a result that can be better imagined than described. One would not have been the least surprised at such "costumes" and abandon had one been at a fête in a brothel, but they came as a bit of a shock at a ball given by art students. The music was of a deafening character, but calculated to encourage wild dancing; and it did, to say the least of it.

Absorbed in my contemplation of the extraordinary scene, I had missed my friends and was quite alone when suddenly I heard a female voice say to me, "A quoi révons nous, Monsieur l'Anglais," and turning round to see who it was had recognized me through my disguise, I saw a little model I knew slightly, through meeting her in the Quartier — alyhough I had hardly spoken a dozen words to her. I had always thought she was rather a pretty girl, but as I now saw her she was one of the most charming and piquant figures imaginable. She might have been one of Grevin's sketches come to life. For costume she had on a large square piece of white satin with letters painted on it to give you the idea that it was a "Petit Journal," with a hole torn in it for her pretty head to pass through. This and a pair of white shoes completed her attire. The slightest movement displayed her nude form, as the satin was only the width of the small newspaper in question. It was delightfully original, and many men crowded round to admire it, as she had only just arrived.

"Vous êtes done tout seul? " she asked after I had complimented her on her costume, which she told me she had designed herself.

I explained how I had somehow missed the friends I had come with, then:

"Donnez-moi votre bras et faisons un tour," she said with the easy familiarity of Bohemia.

I was only too pleased — for it was somewhat tiring standing about alone. So through the crowd we went together ; she clinging to my arm as though we were old friends. I soon discovered that she was quite a typical little Parisienne of her class, and full of fun and intelligence, so I felt it was a bit of luck to have met her — as in fact it turned out. We were walking round when I came across one of the men of my party.


Those Diaphanous Evening Dresses

"Tiens vous voilà déjà collé," he remarked chaffingly, noticing how she was hanging on my arm.

"Pour cette nuit au moins," she replied in the same vein as we passed on.

As the night went on various interesting proceedings took place. There were processions through the hall of the different ateliers — each group representing the work of the maître. Some were mediaeval, others prehistoric, others Egyptian, and so forth — most magnificently and realistically arranged and costumed, or rather uncostumed; whilst for stage management they could not have been surpassed — and all went off without a hitch. In one especially where a wagon drawn by two huge oxen passed through the hall there was no difficulty whatever with the unwieldy brutes, and vehicle, horses, donkeys and dogs also took part with wonderful effect.

But even in these processions the nude was ever present, and no opportunity missed of displaying some beautiful female form. The compositions were always chosen with that in view — evidently. I remember two groups that impressed me particularly — one a sort of scene of the Inquisition, a lovely nude woman on the rack surrounded by hooded figures — the ivory white of her flesh against the somber hues of the men's dress standing out in startling relief. The other was Egyptian — a magnificent woman, entirely nude of course, reclining on rich silk cushions on a sort of dais under a canopy, carried on bamboo poles by Ethiopians, and preceded by a group of nude slaves dancing and beating cymbals. It was a dream of the days of Cleopatra, and could not have been better staged anywhere.

In one corner of the hall one of the ateliers had erected a big booth representing an Eastern slave market. The slave-dealer, dressed in tiger skins and carrying a heavy whip, paraded his wares in the shape of a dozen beautiful young girls entirely nude, and it was open to anyone to do a deal if they wanted a slave. It was very realistic and very tempting, and no doubt many men present would have liked to buy one or two.

And so the night wore on, and one gradually got so satiated with the female form divine that at last one took scarcely any further notice of it. About three o'clock there was a big movement and a crowd of workmen appeared, bearing trestles and boards, and in a very short time long tables were put up all over the hall; then white-aproned waiters came in with tablecloths, napkins, knives, and forks, and plates and glasses — and then with baskets containing bread and cold meats, poultry, bottles of wine and everything for a simple though ample cold collation. Then with much shouting the various ateliers sorted themselves out and sat down at their respective tables.

I had invited my little friend the model to have supper with me; so I had no difficulty in getting a seat as she looked after all that, and we were soon merrily fixed up. As may be imagined, one did ample justice to the homely fare. Towards the end of the banquet there was a certain amount of good-humored boisterous behavior; but it was all very amusing from an artistic point of view, although it might have shocked a prude, especially when a nude young lady got up on one of the tables and gave us a danse du ventre most realistically, as may be imagined.

But the night was long past — and one could note the daylight through the windows. Many little affectionate episodes, not usually enacted in public, could be witnessed around the tables as the hour for parting or otherwise approached. Lovely forms reclining on manly Roman chests — dainty Eastern princesses clinging to brawny Greek athletes — all combined to make up a picture of ribaldry which brought, I remember, to my mind the history of ancient Alexandria, and the stories one has read of the degenerate days of the Roman Empire, for it could not have been more debauched even in those times.

Yet amongst all this crowd of revelers I did not see one single instance of drunkenness, and that was, I recollect, what struck me as being one of the most remarkable features of the ball. Had it been otherwise all its picturesque interest would have ceased to exist, and it would have been nothing but a licentious orgy.

It had been broad daylight for some hours when it was over, and the crowd of tired and disheveled revelers began to disperse; but it was not finished yet. A procession of students and their lady friends who lived in the Quartier Latin formed up outside the Élysée, and to the accompaniment of a stirring chorus started on their homeward journey. The streets were already crowded with ouvriers on their way to their work, but the strange cortège did not seem to astonish them. They were used to such artistic vagaries, even to the spectacle of women in deshabille in the street, and in broad daylight. I learned afterwards that a girl-model in a state of absolute nudity was arrested at six o'clock that morning in the Rue Bonaparte!

My newly found amie and I were however too tired after the night's excitement to take much further interest in the proceedings. She told me that she lived in the Avenue Trudaine, which was quite close by; so we walked across together, she the while clinging quite affectionately to my arm. We must have looked a curiously assorted couple.

On reaching her door, I was on the point of leaving her when she said hospitably:

"Tu as ête très-gentil — you can come up if you like."

I hesitated, but only because of my Arab costume; then with ready perception she added — " u enverras ma femme de ménage chercher tes vêtements dans la journée." So I went up.



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