Last week I was enjoying my last day in the Magic Kingdom at Disney World and I was tempted to post M is for Mickey! But I refrained because I really wanted to do this post on masquerades.
A masquerade is a social gathering at which participants dress up in costumes and act like someone different from their normal identity. Today we usually associate these types of parties with the celebration of Halloween. However, in the eighteenth century, these social events took place throughout the year and were taken very seriously by the people who attended them.
Masquerades originated in Italy and were especially popular in Venice during the 16th century. The fashion appeared in London in the 17th century and took hold in the 18th century, becoming one of the most fashionable of parties to give or to attend. The idea was to disguise yourself in an elaborate costume and mask until you were unrecognizable by the other guests. During the party you were to speak and act as your costume indicated and other guests would question you to try to find out your identity. At midnight, everyone unmasked, and the party continued into the wee hours.
The costumes were usually extremely elaborate, characters ranging from historical figures to the very popular Greek gods and goddesses, to characters from portraits of the period. If, however, you desired anonymity and simplicity, you might elect to attend in a domino. A domino was a robe-
like costume that covered the wearer’s regular clothes . It included a hood and with a plain mask, would hide a person’s identity completely, which was the aim of all the costumes at a masquerade. It was said that sometimes married couples would not know one another until the unmasking.
Although many masquerades were given in private homes, some of the most famous ones were public affairs, organized by Teresa Cornleys, an Italian opera singer who needed a way to support herself in London. Mrs. Cornleys’ masquerades at Carlisle House became the rage in 18th century. Attendees included members of the royal families of England, Monaco, and Denmark in addition to half the peerage in England. According to Alan Chilvers in The Berties of Grimsthorp Castle, “In February 1770, Parliament adjourned early to enable members to attend one of her masquerades.“
If you have not attended a masquerade before, especially not one in the 18th century, let me direct you to this wonderful interactive site created by the students at the University of Michigan. Called The World Upside Down, it will take you into the world of the 18th century masquerade and give you a real taste of the entertainment that was the rage of Georgian London. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 🙂