Monday 5 October 2009

Masked Balls

Masked balls? I simply love masked balls, both exciting and dangerous! They were certainly a great favourite in the eighteenth century, precisely because of the challenge they offered to the accepted conventions of the day. Their popularity was even the occasion for a minor 'moral panic', with The Spectator announcing in an issue of 1711 that "Fishes are caught with Hooks, Birds are ensnared with Nets, but Virgins with Masquerades." So, there you have it!

They only really began to catch on in England in the early 1700s, in imitation of the Italian fashion. The earliest were in fact advertised as 'in the Venetian manner.' The first large-scale public masquerade was that organised by James Heidegger in London's Haymarket in 1708. From that point forward they became the new fashion. In 1717 Alexander Pope wrote a letter to a female acquaintance, which serves to sum up just how central a part the season they had become, "For news in London, I'll sum up in short; we have masquerades at the theatre in the Haymarket, of Mr Heideeker's institution." These events allowed for otherwise unacceptable degrees of familiarity between the classes, from the highest to the lowest, as we know from the correspondence of Horace Walpole-"On Monday there was a subscription masquerade. The King was well disguised in an old fashioned English habit, and much pleased with somebody who desired him to hold their cup as they were drinking tea." Dear old Georgie was so fond of these events that he even appointed Heidegger Master of Revels in 1728.

As for the element of sexual release, well consider this from an issue of The Town and Country Magazine in 1770, describing an event at Carlisle House. A young woman was in attendance, "Wearing a double mask, one side a decrepit old woman, the other a young girl; the mask curtsied both ways, so that it was for some time difficult to discover which was the real front; on being asked by a Domino whether he should take her before or behind, the mask replied, which way you please sir, for it will come to the same thing in the end." In general, it was a moment of liberation for woman, allowing them not just to shed the conventions of the day, but also some of the accepted forms of clothing, corsets most notably. One maid of honour to the Queen attended an event dressed as Iphigenia, causing Walpole to observe that "Miss Chudleigh was Iphigenia but so naked she could have been taken for Andromeda."

Given all of this, it is hardly surprising that such events were so popular. The real question is surely why did they decline? :-)


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  2. "In general, it was a moment of liberation for woman..." Perhaps this is the answer to your question, "...why did they decline?" In our societies, women and men are free to mingle openly, without fear of gossipy old women and/or physical punishment. We no longer have a need for elaborate excuses (such as masquerades) at which to converse and banter with the opposite sex; we just approach each other after class or on the street and introduce ourselves.

    This being said, forms of the "masquerade" exist today. I have several Middle-Eastern friends who will flock to the local coffee joint after being informed that a beautiful woman whom they admire will be there. For them, there are social repercussions to being seen in public with a member of the opposite sex, even here in the US. An Emirate friend of mine is always being dragged by his father to establishments where a certain girl and her mother will just "happen" to be; poor guy is a victim of an over-zealous desire to be a grandfather.

    However, I am with you on the masked balls - so fun!

    PS: I am thrilled to have just discovered your blog. Great work :)

  3. You're a super poet, Rehan. My particular period of study is Restoration England, so I've been reading a lot of contemporary poetry, including Rochester and Dryden.

    Sarita, that's a great response, thanks. Thank you also for your lovely compliment. :-)