What Is a Masquerade?


The term "masquerade" can have several meanings: It can mean an elaborate deception, or a costumed parade or show. The most common meaning of the word, however, is a masked ball. Masquerades were grand affairs, in which the attendees came in mask and costume.


  • Masquerade balls began in Italy during the Renaissance as celebrations and dances, usually held by the upper class. The practice started to spread in the 17th and 18th centuries, gaining popularity through Europe first, then in England, and spreading through England into the American Colonies. The presence of masks loosened social expectations and perhaps morals, leading some to protest the dances as immoral and degenerative. The parties continued, and even flourished, despite these protests.


  • Masquerades were originally given by members of the socially elite for other members of the socially elite. As the idea progressed throughout Europe and grew in popularity, private masquerades by invitation only continued to be given, but the public masquerade also gained in prominence. A public masquerade could be attended by anyone who had a ticket, meaning that for the duration of the ball, all social class above a certain financial bracket disappeared. Tickets could be purchased in coffeehouses or at the location where the masquerade would be held. There was but one steadfast rule for attendance: No one who was not in costume would be allowed in.


  • A huge part of the theme of a masquerade, a costume was not only an essential element, but also a very important decision. Those wealthy enough often had costumes sewn privately. Costume warehouses, some who catered specifically to the masquerade crowds, became popular, as well as catalogues that were designed to be informative on foreign dress, so costumes could be accurate down to the last detail. Costumes might be simple or extravagant. Some attendees chose specific people to impersonate; others chose abstract concepts and attempted to represent them.


  • In England, several personas became specifically tied to the practice of holding masquerades. Count John Heidegger of Switzerland sponsored London's first masquerade, and continued to be the primary impresario throughout the first half of the 18th century. In the second half of the century, he was surpassed by a Venetian opera singer and actress, Theresa Cornelys. With public masquerades being a paying affair, those giving the balls stood to actually make money, and the masquerade became somewhat commercial.

Effects of the Masquerade

  • The masquerade was more to society than simply a large costume party with food and dance. The opportunity to adopt new (and anonymous) dress was also an opportunity to explore new (potentially forbidden) worlds. The reversal of genders was not uncommon, as was the wearing of more revealing clothing than would be permitted in normal society. Later masquerades, such as those in England, were held in a manner that severely blurred social lines. All these things allowed those attending the masquerade to allow free reign to desires that in everyday life would have been oppressed or repressed due to social conventions.

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  • Photo Credit Masquerade at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, London (drawn by Augustus Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson)
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