A Halloween Historical Look at Masquerades, Costume Balls and Fancy Dress

Masquerade ball 14th-century. Source - National Endowment For The Humanities

Masquerade ball 14th-century. Source – National Endowment For The Humanities

Today is Halloween in the US – consistently voted as our most popular and widely celebrated holiday. It seems a shame that in this country “dressing up” is pretty much limited to one day a year. We haven’t kept the English tradition of fancy dress in general (parties where attendance is in costume only), let alone themed fancy dress soirées. And I think that’s a bit of a shame. You can learn a lot about someone by who (or what) they choose to become – often with slightly disturbing results.

The concept of fancy dress and social costuming goes back quite a ways in Western cultures. (Sadly, I’m not at all informed on the traditions of other cultures so I apologize for overlooking them.)

Italy comes to mind immediately, with Carnevale leading the way.

The Carnival of Venice is an annual festival, held in Venice. The Carnival starts around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday (Fat Tuesday or Marte dì Grasso), the day before Ash Wednesday. Carnevale is now world famous – it always takes place during the ten days leading up to Shrove Tuesday. Carnevale, being a pre-Lent festival, means ‘farewell to meat’ and is celebrated throughout Italy.

It was first held in Venice in the 11th century and consisted of over two months of revelry, until it fell into decline during the 18th century. It was revived in 1979 with great success and nowadays it is a great excuse to don a mask and costume, parade around the city, enjoy the live music in the main squares of the city,  and is a wonderful open-air festival where everyone can join in. Whatever the social status all the people wore costumes and masks, many connected to the Commedie del’Arte, Harlequin, Columbine, the Plague Doctor and of course the courtesans.

The wearing of masks was introduced in the 13th century and they have become a popular element with a rich history and tradition of their own.

In France, the popularity of masquerade balls spread quickly and they became not only a popular feature of the Carnival season, but also held at other times. Some of the most outrageous affairs were held in celebration of Royal Entries, which was the great ceremony of welcoming kings and queens into a city.

Masquerade ball at Château de Hattonchâtel, France_2008 by Aniwa Watts

Masquerade ball at Château de Hattonchâtel, France, 2008. Photo by Aniwa Watts.

But they didn’t always run smoothly.

The “Bal des Ardents” (“Burning Men’s Ball”) was held by Charles VI of France, and intended as a Bal des sauvages (“Wild Men’s Ball”), a form of costumed ball. It took place in celebration of the marriage of a lady-in-waiting of French Queen Isabeau of Bavaria (wife of Charles VI) in Paris on January 28, 1393. The King and five courtiers dressed as wild men of the woods, with costumes of flax and pitch. When they came too close to a torch, however, the dancers caught fire. (The King was spared.)

Masquerade ball burning men. Source - National Endowment For The Humanities

Masquerade ball burning men. Source – National Endowment For The Humanities

In the United States, our tradition of fancy dress comes primarily from the English and other British settlers who became colonists. Masquerade affairs became very popular throughout mainland Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries

Throughout the 17th century, masquerade dances became popular in Colonial America. However, a significant anti-masquerade movement developed. Was this due to the strong Puritan contingent among our forefathers? I willing to hazard a guess they had something to do with it. The anti-masquerade writers declared the events encouraged immorality and “foreign influence”.

In 1743 Governor Marquis de Vaudreuil threw an elegant masked ball for the elite of New Orleans modeled on the Parisian Carnival. (bittersoutherner.com)

In 1743 Governor Marquis de Vaudreuil threw an elegant masked ball for the elite of New Orleans modeled on the Parisian Carnival. (bittersoutherner.com)

Despite pressure from the opposing side, costumed events remained on social calendars on both sides of The Pond. From our friends and self-appointed keepers of all knowledge at Wikipedia:

John James Heidegger, a Swiss count who arrived in Italy in 1708, is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion of a semi-public masquerade ball, to which one might subscribe, to London in the early eighteenth century, with the first being held at Haymarket Opera House. London’s public gardens, like Vauxhall Gardens, refurbished in 1732, and Ranelagh Gardens, provided optimal outdoor settings, where characters masked and in fancy dress mingled with the crowds.

In the 1770s fashionable Londoners went to the masquerades organized by Teresa Cornelys at Carlisle House in Soho Square, and later to the Pantheon.

Masquerade balls were sometimes set as a game among the guests. The masked guests were supposedly dressed so as to be unidentifiable. This would create a type of game to see if a guest could determine each other’s identities. This added a humorous effect to many masques and enabled a more enjoyable version of typical balls.

The Gallery of Fashion August 1795. Ranelagh Evening Dresses.

The Gallery of Fashion August 1795. Ranelagh Evening Dresses.

Masked ball, April 1795, London.

Masked ball, April 1795, London.

And so our culture has inherited a rich tradition of dressing up and masquerading as some one (or some thing) else.

And now for the fun part. Enter the Victorians and Edwardians: British, Irish and American. These were not, shall we say, very flexible societies. There were rules for everything, including fancy dress. Balls were entertainment with a foundation in social purpose: maintaining or, if you were lucky, advancing your place in society.

(archive.org)

(archive.org)

Fancy dress balls grew so popular in the late 19th century that a number of publications presented new and creative costume ideas. The most popular of these was probably “Fancy Dresses Described; or, What to Wear at Fancy Balls” by Adrian Holt. It went through numerous editions throughout the 1880s and 1890s. These costume suggestions are from various editions.

Even so, there appears to have been quite a bit of “coloring outside the lines” with some costumes. I would never have expected this from the Victorian era but, then again, they were interested in the occult and such. Still…

This design was created by Leon Sault. The deep crimson crinoline skirt is decorated with cavorting demons climbing up pitchforks and swinging from ropes, and bats in flight, with an overskirt shaped and patterned to suggest a black lizard skin with gilded scales. An owl in flight forms the wearer's bodice, and her headdress is a devil with horns and a pitchfork sitting in flames. The costume probably represents Hell, although it could also be "Nightmare".

This design was created by Leon Sault. The deep crimson crinoline skirt is decorated with cavorting demons climbing up pitchforks and swinging from ropes, and bats in flight, with an overskirt shaped and patterned to suggest a black lizard skin with gilded scales. An owl in flight forms the wearer’s bodice, and her headdress is a devil with horns and a pitchfork sitting in flames. The costume probably represents Hell, although it could also be “Nightmare”. (collections.vam.ac.uk)

Of course, everyone loves a witch.

The Witch - fancy dress

The Witch – fancy dress costume

As one would imagine, fancy dress was nearly a competitive sport at the upper echelons of society. Here are a few examples of how to dress up when money is no object.

And then there are the more or less regular folk, up for a good time and ready for some fun.

But my All Time 100% Favorite Costume remains:

A side of bacon.

Happy Halloween to all!

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2 thoughts on “A Halloween Historical Look at Masquerades, Costume Balls and Fancy Dress

  1. Oh! I love the horse and the chickens!! So many great costumes.

    A fascinating article! I’d forgotten masquerades started so early. I wish fancy dress was more popular in the US. Thanks for a fun read!

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