A Target parking lot was never so full of fascinators as the one near the Med Center was on Saturday night. Ladies pulled out all the stops—whether the effort was in spending gobs of money on designer duds or throwing together bits of faux fur or tutus from Party City—in their all-white ensembles. A pair of heavyset gentlemen were sporting white crowns. One lady was in full Carmen Miranda regalia, complete with fake fruit on her head, all spray-painted white, while a gentleman nearby was in white tails and a top hat. And they were all loaded down with tables, chairs and a fair share of what most Houstonians would consider camping gear. Many of the outfits did not stay white for long. But the greatest indignity? Each pair of guests had paid $90 to wait to board one of the shuttle buses parked by the department store.
A ticket price of $45 per person is very fair for an evening's entertainment under most circumstances. But in the case of Le Dîner en Blanc, guests are mostly paying to be dehumanized. Am I overreacting? Maybe, but being told to wear your best clothes, the forced to lug around your belongings and then parting with them, being herded in single file onto a bus and not told where you're going smacks more of the Exodus or a World War II-era trip on the Deutsche Reichsbahn than a glamorous evening. And even Hitler might think the rules are going a little far.
The clever part of Dîner is that details roll out slowly. Unless guests read every part of the website's FAQs before signing up, there will be unpleasant surprises. Once they've made it through the irrationally baroque (a phrase that suits every element of the confusing event) three-step registration process, "each guests’ participation becomes mandatory, regardless of weather conditions." Apparently, if you don't have a white or transparent raincoat, umbrella and wellies, someone will hunt you down and make you buy them.
Of course, conspicuous consumption is kind of the point. First, there are the clothes. "All guests must dress elegantly in head-to-toe white," the rules state. "This means no ivory, no off-white, and no beige… Originality is always encouraged, as long as it stays stylish and tasteful." (We think the woman in the tiny tube top and petticoat may not have received that particular memo.)
Anyone who doesn't own a square folding table between 28 and 32 inches in size will need to purchase one. If it isn't white (the horror!) it must be covered in a white tablecloth to go with the white folding chairs you cart with you. White picnic baskets are about as common as white tigers, but those are also required, as are all-white plates, food receptacles and napkins. The website doesn't specifically mention enforcing a policy on garbage bag color, but frankly, anything but white would just be gauche on the level of wearing off-white shoes.
Food, thankfully, does not need to be white. But you have to bring it yourself or be prepared for a surprise mystery meal that resembles hospital food. On the flip side, it's forbidden to bring your own alcohol; instead, it must be purchased from Dîner at a radical markup.
In summary, you are paying $90-per-couple to have a picnic and to be beholden to spending a lot of money on items that will likely enjoy a one-time use. Why aren't the scores of participants around the world being forcibly institutionalized? Because Le Dîner en Blanc is an institution in itself, albeit with a very different meaning. The first Dîner took place in Paris in 1988—it's since grown to more than 70 cities—as a private dinner party. The primary selling point is picnicking in a public space where it's usually impossible, or at least frowned upon. In France, locations have included the Champs Elysées and le Pyramide du Louvre. On Saturday, in Houston, the area surrounding the stretch of Texas Avenue surrounding the left field entrance of Minute Maid Park was closed off for the event.
After a circuitous bus ride apparently intended to build suspense (it mostly built headaches, with early '90s R&B blasting from the speakers), guests were instructed to disembark—again in single file—then wait to be reunited with their tables, chairs and food from beneath the bus. Those whose belongings were pushed to the back had to crawl in for them. Once at the site, attendees were (eventually) told where they were permitted to set up their tables. Men were to sit on one side of the table, women the other. For some groups, the construction took longer than others. One assemblage near mine had set up a complex mobile of crystals atop their table. Others were awash in feathers, candelabra and fake flowers as if Liberace had just died there.
At length, it was time for the "traditional napkin wave" after which attendees were permitted to eat the food they'd made and brought. The emcee pronounced the name of the event several different ways, none correct. My personal favorite was "Diner (as in the Barry Levinson film) on Blanque," but all were interesting. And so we ate—slowly, because while we were instructed to meet at the Target parking lot at 5:05 p.m., we didn't learn until later that the buses wouldn't be back to pick us up until 10.
What to do until then? Finish dinner, wander around a bit, ignore the amateurish musicians and call an Uber. And that is everything you need to know about Dîner en Blanc.