Having a ball in Venice

Diana Barton has made two extravagant dresses to wear to the Casanova Ball in Europe. (MORRIS...

Diana Barton has made two extravagant dresses to wear to the Casanova Ball in Europe. (MORRIS LAMONT/QMI Agency)

FRANCES HOWEY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 2:47 PM ET

VENICE, Italy - A dream come true, Diana Barton is finally going to the ball.

But this is no fairy tale in which a fairy godmother waves a magic wand. And it's not just any ball.

This is the real life story of a London, Ont. woman who is claiming the prize of a lifetime through her own determination and ingenuity. Barton has even crafted her own fabulous gown to wear to the storied Casanova Ball in Venice, Italy.

A gifted dressmaker with a zest for history and travel, Barton's journey to next month's ball is the result of a labour of love.

Fitting, perhaps that the prestigious event honours a man best known for his many love affairs. Giacomo Casanova lived large in Venice in the 18th century.

"His" annual ball, this year only, renamed the Mascheranda Ball, and relocated to Palazzo Pisani Moretta due to reconstruction, is part of Venice's annual carnival.

The gaiety is an ancient celebration related to the Christian church calendar that takes various forms including Mardi Gras in New Orleans.

In addition to Casanova - a gentleman elected from the attendees to preside over the party, Carnival notables include Harlequin, Pierrot, Pierrette, Scaramouche and Columbine - characters from the famous Commedia dell' Arte.

Despite Papal efforts to suppress, and at other times, promote the annual bash, it has survived and along with gondolas and San Marcos Square, has become synonymous with Venice. Although it remains an exuberant outburst of pre-Lent excess, the main aim today is to promote Venetian culture in all its aspects and to attract tourists to the area.

It begins 10 days before Shrove Tuesday with opening ceremonies, such as the Flight of the Angel - a high wire act in which the angel descends in a cloud of fluff into a crowd of thousands assembled in San Marcos Square - and culminates in the Grand Casanova/Mascheranda Ball on Shrove Tuesday.

The Doge's Ball, which takes place on the fest's eve, is the most expensive -$1,500 (approximately $2,500), while the Mascheranda will cost a paltry $390 or a little more than $500. Drinks, a multi-course sit-down dinner, and circus-style entertainment continues from 8 pm. until 3 a.m.

To attend such a presitious event, Barton, it seems spared no effort in creating her beautiful red silk gown and hunting down the materials from the wig on her head to the white leather shoes on her feet. She researched the costume on line.

A trip to the Superstore yielded the basis of a mask - everyone must wear a mask to the ball - which she "restyled" with some large black ostrich plumes from McCullough's. The gown itself is a Simplicity pattern and uses only pure silks and laces from the Fabricland store where she works. The main ornamentation is rusching, made with an Olfa cutter (used in quilting) with a scallop blade.

In addition to the collapsible (for travel) pocket hoop, skirt and bodice, it features a Watteau back - a sort of built-in train - and a Stomacher which fills in the front of the bodice and forces a flat silhouette.

In those days, Barton advises, these were held in place with straight pins - "the costumes were literally pinned together with the help of a dresser, of course." Lacking this amenity, she uses a combination of sewing and hooks and eyes.

Barton quickly taught herself to do bead embroidery. She admits to be a fast sewer too, estimating the gown took her about 80 hours to construct compared to the 500 hours she says it may take to make a similar gown for the Stratford Festival.

The shoes are "Marthas," so-called for Martha Washington. Made of white leather, they have the typical Louis heel and are held onto the foot with interchangeable ornate and eye catching buckles.

After all, when a lady goes up and down those spiral staircases, she needs to lift her skirt far enough to give people a glimpse.

She completes the costume with a mysterious black lace fan and stunning wig.

Her jewelery - mainly pearls - real ones, were purchased from Bead Effects in Toronto. After teaching herself how to knot beads, she made a rope that hangs down to the hips, plus a choker and earrings.

A tremendous effort for just one outing? No, insists Barton. She and like-minded friends plan some get-togethers such as a Renaissance/Baroque night - dress up, play stately gavotte and minuets on their CDs and, of course, there is always Halloween.

In addition to the festival, Barton- who is making the trip sans husband - is planning some sight-seeing in Rome and but is also planning to seek supplies for her sewing passion, including a bead hunt, via gondola of course, on the Islands of Murano and Burano, plus a search to see if some of those ancient looms of the textile manufacturers still exist, are on the must-do list.


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