Where: The Swan Ball, Cheekwood Mansion
I'm standing in one of the most beautiful places in Nashville on one of those rare perfect summer evenings when humidity is low and the moon is high. The grounds of Cheekwood are bathed in dusk, and slowly illuminating as the installations in Bruce Munro's Light exhibit come to life. The Cheekwood Mansion, which already looks like something out of a fairy tale, is even more magical tonight, as hundreds of ladies in dazzling ball gowns ascend the grand staircase with their tuxedo-clad dates.
The legendary Swan Ball has just begun.
Those who grew up in Nashville are certainly aware of The Swan Ball, the crown jewel of the Nashville social calendar, which just celebrated its 51st year. The ball is renowned as one of the country's most extravagant galas — former Vogue editor-at-large and larger-than-life fashion personality Andre Leon Talley name-checked it when he visited Nashville earlier this year — and it also serves as the largest fundraiser for Cheekwood.
If you're wondering if your invite got lost in the mail, it didn't. Even if you're one of those people who can get on every list in town, this particular guest list is notoriously exclusive. If the committee — which is cloaked in secrecy like the Illuminati — doesn't invite you personally, you can't go. The only loophole is if you're the out-of-town guest of someone who was invited, because the revered committee already knows everyone in Nashville who should be invited. (That, or you could work the event, like me.)
This is just one of many Swan Ball rules I've recently learned about, including the fact that there are actually two parties divided by age groups: The Main Ball, for ages 39 and up, is held in a massive, luxurious tent on the back lawn of the mansion, and the Late Party, for ages 30 to 38, is held in the nearby Botanic Hall. There's also a Dance Committee, comprised of 26- to 29-year-olds, who help out during the event by manning the front gate, assisting couples to their seats, and helping with a live auction. No one younger than 26 is admitted, so there's no need for a kids' table, and if you ask why the party is divided by D.O.B., you'll likely be told, "Because it's always been that way."
For a lowly writer from central Illinois who didn't know the difference between black-tie and white-tie events until a few days ago (white-tie is as fancy as it gets, with tailcoats and floor-length gowns), this is a lot to digest. I'm on assignment to cover fashion at the ball for the Scene's sister publication, Nfocus, and I'm a little nervous. But I share a fascination — wrought in the tradition of curious commoners from Gatsby to Gossip Girl — to see what it's like, as an outsider, to go to such an insider event. I feel like I'm about to attend an extremely grown-up prom.
While the very notion of prom conjures memories of making out with someone else's date and someone else's brother all in the same night, I'm going to have to play it a little classier this time around. My good friend Milton, who happens to be an incredible stylist, offers to dress me, and thankfully he nixes my very bad idea of wearing the fanciest thing I own — my old wedding dress.
I show up at his house for a fitting a few days before the event, and after trying on multiple pretty but uncomfortable strapless and sequined dresses, we decide upon a stunning Amanda deLeon silk gown with a photographic print of the Greenwood Cemetery in New Orleans. I love it because it doesn't require Spanx, and because the idea of wearing a cemetery to Nashville's pinnacle social event feels somewhat rebellious. I'm not going to fit in at this party, I tell myself. Why should I try?
But as I stand on the patio at the ball, I immediately worry that in this glam-meets-goth cross-emblazoned print, I might be taking it too far, like some folks said Madonna did in her "Like A Prayer" video. But unless I can figure out how to fashion a dress out of a tablecloth, I'm kind of stuck.
I meander through the pre-dinner cocktail party, trying not to step on my own train, armed with a photographer and a list of women I'm supposed to locate and interview about their sartorial choices for the evening. Interrupting any conversation to talk to a stranger carries a certain amount of awkwardness with it, but it's even worse when everyone in the room seems to know each other. Everyone except for me, that is.
So I'm pleasantly surprised when each and every woman I speak with is gracious and friendly. In an ironic turn of events, nearly every one of them compliments me on my outfit, asking about the designer or how I found the dress, the very questions I'm supposed to be asking them. "This is not a night to be understated — everyone loves to dress up and have fun!" one woman enthused.
At this point, I realize it really doesn't matter if you can afford a couture gown from Paris or if you borrowed a graveyard dress from your stylist friend. Feminism be damned; from Barbies to Badgley Mischka, we all love to dress up and feel pretty.
Dinnertime at the Main Ball is an orderly affair, with a seating chart that surely combined the political strategy of the White House Correspondents' Dinner with the social hierarchy that divides a high school cafeteria. At the Main Ball, guests are enjoying espresso-rubbed Black Angus filet and pickled shrimp salad in the massive tent, enveloped by miles of ornate fabric and multiple chandeliers. A full bar canopied with 2,200 Lucite hummingbirds anchors the room. A cacophony of clattering silverware and constant chatter fills the tent. It's all a little overwhelming, yet breathtaking.
The media is sequestered in a separate room, but this is no Downton Abbey; we are served the same incredible meal, and barely have time to polish off our chocolate turtle tarts before we head back out for the highly anticipated performance from Kool & the Gang.
If you close your eyes, you could really be anywhere, surrounded by conversations about basketball and Arrested Development and shrieks of laughter bursting from the packed dance floor while "Ladies' Night" blasts your eardrums.
But when you open your eyes, it's a little surreal to see this the upper-crust crowd — fueled by hours of cocktails — dance without inhibition. And that's actually Kool & the Gang playing, not some party cover band. Now it's really starting to look like grown-up prom.
I watch from the sidelines. I don't have a date to dance with, and I have a feeling that at this party, dancing with someone else's date will get you in a lot more trouble than making out with someone's brother. And it's not like anyone's asking me to dance, anyway, although a rather mysterious older man did ask me to stand by him for a bit. Confused by the request, I obliged for a few minutes before sneaking away for a cocktail.
Part of me wants to blend into the intricately patterned fabric walls of the tent and disappear, but three cocktails and the truth reveals that I'm being ridiculous. I'm watching Kool & the Gang at a really fancy party. I ate a wonderful meal. I'm wearing a dress that costs more than my mortgage payment, and so far I haven't spilled a glass of wine on it or set it on fire. Also, I'm being paid to do these things! What the hell am I worried about? Would the average Swan Ball attendee feel like a fish out of water if they walked into a bar in East Nashville or a packed show at The Basement? Would they?
Regardless, as nice as everyone has been to me all night, I still know where I fall on the social ladder, and I know that will never change. And I'm OK with it; I didn't come to this party to lose my glass slipper and be rescued by some American prince. Especially not the one who just loudly announced that he was well-endowed and had an even bigger bank account. Charming, indeed.
It's past 2 a.m., and my duties are fulfilled, so I'm ready to call it a night. As I wait in the valet line, I talk to a woman named Eleanor. I'd chased Eleanor down earlier in the evening because she had a beautiful sprig of ivy woven throughout her hair, so I figured she'd be fun. As we chatted, I realized she knew Milton, so we snapped a picture with my phone and texted it to him. She texted the photo to herself, too.
The next morning I had a text message from sweet Eleanor, telling me that she had called Milton and told him that I won her vote as "best dressed at the ball."
Little does Eleanor know, she made me feel like the prom queen — no glass slipper necessary.