Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Mitt Romney's Inaugural Ball—A Partygoer's Guide to "Pop Outs" and Poor Dressing

The invitation to Governor Mitt Romney's inaugural ball read "black tie optional." My husband, Eric, owned an old tuxedo but said he'd much rather wear a suit, so I figured my black velvet pantsuit would be fancy enough for the occasion. On the morning of the inauguration, though, the Boston Globe ran a piece about past inaugural parties and described the dowdy Dukakis crowd of twenty years ago—"velvet-clad supporters rode the T to his inaugural ball." The article was accompanied by photos of women in the gowns they planned to wear that evening to the Romney affair—each one more gorgeous, glitzy, and low-cut than the next.

This was my first inkling that an old black velvet pantsuit might not be quite the thing for a twenty-first-century inaugural. Still, I'd never liked formal gatherings and had always refused to spend a fortune on a dress that I'd probably only wear once or twice. I wasn't about to start now, just to impress a bunch of Republican fashionistas.

But this party promised to be different than others I'd attended—Eric and I would be noticed. Eric was Romney's newly-appointed Secretary of Administration and Finance, a high-ranking Cabinet post. So this wouldn't be one of those gatherings where we could go off and hide in the corner. We would have to mingle.

Eric arrived home late in the afternoon with a surprise announcement—he'd decided to wear his tux after all. It turned out "everyone" was going in black tie, even the most outdoorsy member of the new administration, an environmentalist known for wearing blue jeans and biking twenty miles to work each day. Though normally not susceptible to peer pressure, Eric was persuaded that he'd stand out more if he were the only cabinet official without a tux than if he went along with the crowd. Despite my determination not to be self-conscious about my outdated outfit, I felt a rush of anxiety.

In a last-ditch effort to glamorize, I nearly asphyxiated myself with hairspray and painted on a coat of nail polish. Then off we went to Boston's World Trade Center, where we'd been invited to a pre-ball gala for family and friends of the new Governor, a VIP event that included an open bar and an elegant sit-down dinner. The women looked resplendent in long shimmering gowns. I hastily removed my velvet jacket—the velvet tank top underneath looked a bit more dressy—and fortified myself with a glass of white wine.

We had just started dinner when Eric was tapped on the shoulder by Rob, a member of Mitt's security crew.

"In a few minutes, the Governor would like you both to come downstairs with him to greet people. I'll come get you when it's time," he said.

Downstairs. That was where the main party was just getting underway. Sixty-five hundred supporters gathering to eat, drink, revel, and listen to the Boston Pops Orchestra. I allowed myself a small shiver of excitement. We were being singled out to accompany the Governor. I took a bite of filet mignon and waited for the call.

A few minutes later, Rob approached our table, gesturing urgently. "We need you now, Mr. Secretary," he said. I would be tagging along as Mr. Secretary's spouse. That was fine with me. Though fascinated by celebrities, I was far too shy to seek the limelight myself.

We followed Rob to the exit, where Mitt and his wife, Ann, waited with a few other Cabinet Secretaries, as well as Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and her husband, Sean. Rob and several other security types hovered next to Mitt and Ann, who wore a dazzling black beaded gown. At the signal, we followed them through a labyrinth of back hallways.

"It feels like we're rock stars," Eric whispered to me. Dowdy rock stars, I thought.

We all crammed into a large service elevator. Rob explained that we'd be taking part in several "pop outs" behind Mitt and Ann. I didn't have a clue what a "pop out" was—a dramatic entrance accomplished by jumping through flaming hoops? Nothing quite so exotic, it turned out. "Pop outs" referred to the several adjacent party venues on the main floor. Mitt and Ann would "pop out" and greet the guests in each locale and our job was to follow behind the couple and add our welcome to theirs.

Emerging from the elevator, we were led through a large coat-check area into a cavernous space filled with partygoers. Within seconds, Mitt and Ann were surrounded by bright lights and cameras. Not surprisingly, no one was interested in Eric, let alone me. Even though articles had been written about Eric’s appointment, it dawned on us that no one was likely to actually recognize him. We hovered at the edge of the press frenzy encircling the Governor, feeling a bit silly and very anonymous. On the other hand, the new Secretary of Transportation, also a member of the "pop out" entourage, was in his element greeting partygoers. He'd run for State Treasurer, albeit unsuccessfully, so people recognized him and wanted to say hello.

Eric was trying to work up the courage to shake an old lady's hand, when we realized that Mitt and Ann were moving at breakneck speed through the crowd and on to the next "pop out." We caught up with them just as they disappeared through a curtain, emerging on the other side to greet more glittery guests in yet another vast and drafty hall, a space far too chilly for all the décolletage in evidence. I was actually glad I had my velvet jacket with me. Eric and I paused so I could put it on, then we looked around and realized our entourage had vanished without a trace. Giving up, we slowly made our way through a claustrophobic crush of people back upstairs to what was left of our dinner. The entree had long since been cleared and almost everyone had proceeded to the main party. We sat down at our empty table to enjoy coffee and dessert before rejoining the crowd downstairs.

"Fame isn't all it's cracked up to be," Eric remarked.

Maybe not, but if I ever get another chance at my fifteen minutes, I vow to dress for the occasion.