Welcome to 24 hours offline, where I spend 24 hours (or however long I’m allowed) with very online people who do cool things IRL.
It was in June when I first came across the TikToks of beautiful women dancing in corseted dresses around quaint cobblestone streets and moody green moors. That looks nice, I thought. And then I thought, What kinds of people actually do this?
Syrie Moskowitz, Gwen Grewal, and Eden Tijerina are the kinds of people who do this. They are the founders of Muses Escape, a production and event company devoted to creating retreats for women and people on the femme spectrum who wish to participate in charmingly old-fashioned activities like arranging dried flowers and writing love letters, or listening to lectures on philosophy, all while surrounded by historical architecture and yes, extremely beautiful vintage clothing. The aesthetic is not tied to a single moment in history, but rather pulls inspiration from fairy tales, witchcraft, and classical art; “nostalgia” is a word that comes up frequently, but ultimately, the Muses are curators of a vibe. They host intimate retreats in secret locations around the world — past trips have taken place at a 17th-century villa in Umbria and a 15th-century castle in the Scottish Highlands; next October’s is set for a secret island off the British coast (it’s already sold out) — and occasionally, parties in their local New York City.
One such party took place on October 29 in celebration of the pagan festival of Samhain, at a “secret mansion and garden” in Brooklyn. Though I am sworn to secrecy on its exact location, it’s in an area of the city that only those who have lived in New York would recognize as A Big Deal, and aside from the glimpse into some very gorgeous real estate, the party also offered face time with the sorts of women who actually live the kind of aesthetic most people only get to see on Instagram. While I entered with a fair amount of anxiety over whether the event would be full of influencer types who thought of themselves as too intelligent or artistic to consider themselves as such, or that it would suffer from the sort of mawkishness that plagues so many homages to femininity, I left wondering why more women-centric, vaguely wellness-adjacent events weren’t exactly like this.
The dress code, according to the invite and its Pinterest board of outfit inspiration, was “extravagant and whimsical pagan” fashion, resulting in sequin jumpsuits, velvet capes, and halo-like headpieces on nearly everyone. Inside, the five-course dinner party is still finishing up; tickets were limited to just 12 guests, and cost between $275 and $350, which also included gift bags, portraits, and a VIP room.
Those of us who have come just for the party ($150 to $225, although, disclosure, mine was comped) are, to my surprise, mostly here alone. Shannon, a 23-year-old redhead, has driven up from Virginia specifically for the event, while another woman is here from San Antonio on a week-long birthday trip. They tend to have either fairly regular jobs — social media marketing, customer service, public relations — or extremely cool ones, like “Victorian decorative arts historian” and “makes TikToks for a poetry company,” but they are all here for the same reason: They have seen the videos of the beautiful women in the beautiful places and they want to live inside these worlds. “I’m going through a transitional time in my life,” Shannon tells me, “and I just really wanted to be surrounded by the spirituality of it, having connection with people who have gone through that phase.”
Eden, the tiny 26-year-old model, artist, and part-owner of Muses, emerges from the house in a white gown and veil and invites us inside, where it is a museum of vintage furniture, lamps, and red-orange wallpaper that gives the room a sexy autumnal glow. Up the creaky staircase is even more lush patterned wallpaper and “the caravan,” where I buy a lace choker with a decorative butterfly before hearing that in the room next door, the shadow puppet show is about to begin.
Here is where you are allowed one big, miserly chuckle: Shadow puppets?! Yes, shadow puppets. The show, put on by Rosalind Lily and Gaby Febland, is a creepy but ultimately heartening story called Eudora and the Blackest Crow, and is performed in a tiny room where a dozen or so girls are huddled up together to watch from behind a delicate lace sheet. It is here, squeezed next to all these very beautiful women in their most fantastical outfits, that the overall preciousness becomes most clear to me, but it is not necessarily off-putting.
The Muses are aware that what they do can sometimes appear online as a bunch of rich hot ladies flaunting their beauty and taste, and while all three acknowledge one of the fun parts about their events is an excuse to craft an outfit, they’re also quick to explain that the camera doesn’t tell the whole truth.
“A lot of the videos are like, very pretty friends running around, but the range of the people that actually come to these retreats is super diverse in race and age,” says Syrie. She is right: The guests of the party lean 20- and 30-somethings, but several appear to be in their 40s and 50s, and a surprisingly high number are non-white and/or trans. The aesthetic diversity is also surprising: One woman who works in tech product management has come with a pentagram harness and all-black contacts, another is wearing a red-sequined Art Deco ball gown, and at least five people told me they bought at least part of their outfit on Amazon. One woman I meet on the veranda while we wait for the fire dance performance by Sage Sovereign tells me she handcrafted her enormous self-made horned headdress and that she’s a student living with her parents on Long Island. She saved up the money to be here for weeks.
Then again, it’s quite evident that our hosts are well-connected. Belle Aykroyd, daughter of that Aykroyd, performed a monologue from Romeo and Juliet earlier in the evening, and Chrysta Bell, muse of David Lynch, sang ethereal water chants to close out the night. The founders have connections to the storied celebrity photographer Ellen von Unwerth and other prominent women in art and academia. Gwen, for instance, is a philosophy professor at the New School and teaches classes on Ancient Greek thought and language, and often organizes the educational elements of the retreats. Syrie, meanwhile, an artist, filmmaker, and fashion historian, provides the aesthetic setting for the events, using her knowledge from growing up on the road with her mother, an antique dealer. Eden is the social media maven, curating the dreamy videos we’re all here to emulate.
Muses Escape began as a regular girls trip. On a late night in January of 2016, in the depths of seasonal depression, Syrie was browsing Airbnb and booked a villa in Italy, where she and six other women artist friends stayed that March. “It was freezing, it was raining, it was gray, it was Italy, and it was just totally perfect,” she says. “We looked insane. We were in, like, velvet robes, wandering around, and the locals were like, ‘Who are these people? What?’ We just were so joyous. Then we thought: We should do this more, get more women, bring them together and bring instructors and have people come in so we can all learn.” After Italy, they organized another trip to Spain, using Syrie’s knack for finding historic properties with limited wifi.
The Muses were holed up in a Scottish castle when the world shut down in March of 2020, on an 18-person trip that had sold out within 48 hours. There is an application process to joining every Muses event, one that involves a Zoom meeting with the founders where applicants discuss their interests and the founders explain what they’re about to get themselves into. The trips do not come cheap; they offer a sliding scale depending on whether guests want to share a room, but can range between $800 and $6,000 for a particularly lavish room. It’s first-come, first-served, Eden explains, although certain people might be better suited for specific trips — a visual artist, for example, might not be a fit for a writing-focused retreat. “The biggest misconception is people think they either have to be attractive or wear fancy dresses to come,” says Syrie. “We like to dress up because we’re wackos, but that’s not the point.”
“It’s very much like reverting back to your childhood self for me,” Eden says. “I’m an only child, so to be in an atmosphere with all girls and no stinky gross men, we can just be little kids. Give us a couple glasses of whiskey and we’re completely silly, playing sardines and running around a giant castle. If I were to tell my 9-year-old self that I would get to do this one day, it would be an absolute dream come true.”
In the dimly lit VIP parlor, I get my photograph taken by a cottagecore influencer before talking to a woman named Sara. She’s wearing a fabulous tuxedo and is ecstatic about finally having divorced her husband who, she says, admitted to not having empathy and being incapable of love. “Knowledge, that’s what I’m telling myself: Knowledge is power,” she says. Already I feel my naturally cynical reporter impulses beginning to soften, as the event and its production design seem specifically suited to my tastes. I knew this going in, of course, but I had reservations about attending a party with the kind of women who captioned their Instagram photos with poetry lyrics, women who, it appeared to me, had lived gilded lives that afforded them the time to become professionally fabulous with other people who didn’t exactly need to work.
But it takes a different kind of person to attend such an event, specifically when you arrive alone to a party with strangers and only an idea of what you’re getting into. That kind of person, I found while getting to know the attendees, is refreshingly open and brave. They confess their personal troubles and traumas with women they’ve just met and form inside jokes with each other quickly.
What I found, ultimately, was something like a wellness retreat for maximalists, an East Coast interpretation of California woo-woo. The most common refrain I heard from the guests was that they just wanted to be surrounded by other women who didn’t feel weird about dressing up like the photos we’d all seen online, who wanted to meet other people who took seriously the art of aesthetics.
It has been said that TikTok is a place of vibes, and that is what Muses Escape offers: the chance to live inside a vibe for an evening or a week alongside other people equally committed to creating it. But of course, the spell breaks as soon as we leave the mansion. “We’re going to go to a couple bars in Williamsburg, wanna come?” asks one of the cottagecore influencers, and the reminder that a world outside this one exists leaves me feeling slightly sad. Vibes, after all, are expensive to get right and impossible to sustain forever. But sometimes, they’re immaculate.