A soiree is the opposite of a matinee, that is, a gathering held at night, instead of in the daytime.

Usually, this was after the dinner hour, say, from 8:30 onwards.  Depending on the local custom, one might wear black tie or dressy dinner wear, and it is expected that drinks would be served and a Midnight Supper would ensue around midnight.  The overall atmosphere was similar to a salon, in that the evening was supposed to be "pleasant, but educational", but different in that there was usually an informal entertainment (the classics might be Oscar playing Gershwin on the piano, Einstein, Oppenheimer, or a disciple of Freud giving a short talk with Q & A, and/or suitable games) along with the chatter. Unlike a classic Midnight Supper, the activities would be strictly in-house. In terms of Breakfast at Tiffany's, this is the kind of thing George Peppard would be doing with his literary patron, or that Pete characterizes as "wine-cup and word games" in the end of A Clockwork Orange.

As you might think, this was a prime activity for New York's elite in the early to mid 20th century, who found it a great way to entertain at home (during Prohibition, the Depression, and of course, both wars), without the formality and expense of a full-dress dinner party. A soiree is the quintessential "small, select, gathering"(no more than the Muses, yet more than the Graces) and is just a little decadent (fancy, grownups staying up late!). You wouldn't introduce your sweetheart to your parents at a soiree, nor would you expect keg beer (though this is possibly one of the best pot and/or coke venues, should you be so inclined).

Should you decide to try this kind of thing for yourselves, you might underline the Art Decoish or even Mad Men feeling for the event: come in vintage clothing (or at least dressy), provide retro snacks and cocktails, and should your home be without a grand piano, or you can't woo a local graduate student, arrange a viewing of a classic film, opera, or play, or one of the TED talks, for general discussion. (For extra credit, try Botticelli, Charades, or an equally sophisticated word game, or invite people to display their creative works, whether literary, visual, or simply inventive.)

Food, since there aren't that many people who need to be fed, can be as simple as soup and crackers, or as lavish as a Bird & Bottle (Whole cornish game hens with individual splits of sparkling wine -- or water). Other ideas are Hot Sandwiches (make ahead of time, warm up while everyone's finishing their drinks), Fondue,Welsh Rabbit, Creamed Mushrooms, Chicken, or Seafood on Toast (make in chafing dish, offer bread and use of the toaster), or an elegant cold buffet.

With the food eaten, the evening is effectively over. Smile graciously, and see if you don't want to have another one, soon, while you're handing out coats.

And so, to bed!

Soi`ree" (?), n. [F., fr. soir evening, fr. L. serus late, serum late time. Cf. Serenade.]

An evening party; -- distinguished from levee, and matin'ee.

 

© Webster 1913.

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