Everyone attending Thursday night's Diner en Blanc, a fine dining flash mob that descended en masse upon Yards Park in Southeast Washington dressed only in white, could have used an extra set of hands. There were so many things that needed to be carried: the BYO tables and chairs, the floral arrangements, the gourmet picnic baskets, the fine china, the sparklers, the champagne -- so much champagne -- and, of course, the smartphone and DSLR camera. The event, founded in Paris in 1988, was as much a dinner party as it was the most elaborately staged Instagram backdrop the District has ever seen.
Few events are so desperate to be snapped, shared and liked as Diner en Blanc. The evening brought together 1,500 people from across the city to form a communal table and break bread over wine and conversation -- which they did, in between selfies next to the pyramidal tower of Moët Ice Impérial, the event's partner, next to the DJ booth.
"This has been a 'gram type of event," said Natalie Lewis, one of the table leaders responsible for helping to usher guests to the party. She had been posting photos and updates of her group of 25 friends throughout the night, and was pretty sure that those who were tuning into her feeds from elsewhere were envious.
"They all want to know what they have to do to get an invite," she said.
Poor FOMO-afflicted souls. If only they knew about the incredibly high barriers to participation that Diner en Blanc erects to make sure those who gain access to this incredibly stunning photo opportunity have really earned it:
- First, you have to be invited by an organizer or a person who has attended a Diner en Blanc in a different city.
- Then, if you're lucky, you'll make it though the registration process and snag a spot, at $35 per person plus a $5 membership fee.
- But that admission fee (which goes towards music, lighting and administrative costs such as permits) only buys you access to the event. If you want wine, you have to order it through Diner en Blanc, whether it's a cheapo bottle of Pinot Grigio or a $100 bottle of champagne. No outside alcohol is permitted.
- You have to bring your own food, or order a picnic basket from Diner en Blanc's official caterer, ranging from $52 for a vegetarian spread to $72 for lobster salad and pate. If you bring your own meal, it has to be gourmet, meaning multiple courses and eaten with a knife and fork -- no Chipotle burritos allowed.
- And you have to bring the tables and chairs and plates and silverware you'll need to eat those meals, as well as a white tablecloth and cloth napkins.
- And you have to dress only in white: "This means no ivory, no cream or any other color will be permitted!" instructed a letter that went out to participants. Casual attire such as shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes is discouraged.
- Then, you have to haul all of this stuff to a pre-determined meeting place, on Metro and on foot. Your group leader will then take you to the dinner location, which remains secret until an hour before the event.
- If it rains, you are still obligated to come -- Diner en Blanc notes that once you RSVP, your attendance is mandatory. No-shows get kicked out of the club.
- And if you break any of these rules, you can be barred from entering the event and banned from all future dinners.
Conformity comes easily to Washington, so guests were eager to play along. Still, many of those rules were broken on Thursday: You didn't have to look too far to spot offenses small (ivory, off-white and taupe attire) and large (a pair of orange shoes, a vase of red roses, a pair of black folding chairs). Enforcement was lax.
Diner en Blanc didn't start out this way. The first event took place more than 25 years ago in Paris, when François Pasquier ran out of space to host a dinner party, so he told his guests to arrive at the Bois de Boulogne for a picnic, wearing all white so they could easily identify each other. Since then, the events have expanded and traveled to more than 40 cities across the globe, from Singapore to Cincinnati (Really? Cincinnati beat us to this?). Some of the dinners have as many as 13,000 guests. A simultaneous Diner en Blanc was held Thursday night in Calgary, Canada.
Attendance is not cheap. Lewis estimates that she spent $400 on food, supplies and attire for herself and her boyfriend, Maurice Taylor -- "which was too much," interjected Taylor.
"It was well worth it," Lewis said.
Of all the rules, the all-white attire was the one that participants took most seriously. Cue the adage about wearing white after Labor Day, which has become a cliche in Diner en Blanc write-ups.
"It was the only white dress I could find," said Leslie Chauncey, who was wearing a wedding dress she bought specifically for the occasion (it was on sale). Other attendees dressed in angel wings, bunny ears, and silver wigs. Jacqueline Battistini took the Metro in her Marie Antoinette-inspired costume, complete with powdered bouffant wig, with her friend Heidi Minora, in a cream sheath dress and fascinator.
"I was like, we're going to get photographed. We need to bring it as much as possible," Minora said.
"There have been a lot of selfies," said Battistini, who spent the evening getting swarmed by people who wanted a photo with her.
"At a certain point she was like, 'I know how celebrities feel,' " Minora said. "No!" said Battistini, bashfully.
Co-host Bryer Davis said that photography wasn't a consideration when she and the local steering committee selected Yards Park as the first D.C. location for the dinner. She had hoped to have it on the Mall, but because alcohol is prohibited there, it was impossible.
"With 1,500 people dressed in white, with lit up tables and sparklers, that is a photo op itself," Davis said. "We did not pick a location based on photo ops."
But several of them were built into the schedule. Arriving guests marched across the park’s futuristic bridge -- conveniently also white, and perfect for framing photos once the sun went down. After they set up their tables and chairs in rows, guests signaled the start of the dinner by waving their napkins around their heads like a lasso. Other photo ops were available throughout the site, such as a pair of white Vespas that guests could pose on, and a photo booth bearing a step-and-repeat of the sponsors’ names -- the line exceeding 40 people at some points throughout the night.
"It's where diversity meets opulence meets Instagram," said Jennifer Sweeney, attending with a group of four women who noted the crowd’s mix of ages and races. Tweets about "all of the white people!" this time, referred to attire.
After grazing on dishes ranging from homemade pasta salads to elaborate seafood platters (cocktail sauce, gazpacho and red wine were for the brave -- or at least for those equipped with Tide to Go), group leaders signaled to the diners to light their sparklers to the swell of Ellie Goulding’s "Burn." Both hands went in the air -- one for the pyrotechnics, the other for the cell phone.
The moment was lovely. And it was not any less lovely when viewed through a digital screen. It wasn’t just about making people who weren't invited jealous, though it certainly succeeded on that front. It was a way to harness the ephemerality of that one sticky night in early September when you and your friends had to carry a table and chairs up a broken Metro escalator, and you took off your six-inch heels to dance barefoot by the water after they sunk into the grass one too many times. Because if you're going to pay $40 for an event where you bring your own table, chairs, plates, food and beverages, how can you get your money's worth other than a great selfie?
Not everyone viewed the night through a lens, though. In the corner of a VIP Lounge, artist Andy Greenlee was commissioned to quietly capture the scene the analog way -- with an easel and Impressionistic brushstrokes of paint.