As the year ends and the new one marches in, parties and celebrations are filled with masked individuals enjoying friends and spirits. However, a love of pretending to be something or someone else isn’t new. Adults and children have been putting on costumes and masks for centuries.
One of the first uses of costumes was in the Middle Ages. They were used as part of elaborate pageants and courtly shows. These traditions developed into masques which were offerings to a ruling figure such as a prince and would include mythological fables, myths and other classical themes. Costumes were also used as part of a celebration of a royal birth, marriage or other political and social events. Masques continued to be a popular courtly entertainment in the 16th and early 17th century and many royal individuals including Henry the Eighth participated.
A change came with the Venetian Pre-Lent Carnivals which allowed all classes to participate. Like the earlier masques, activities included dancing, feasting, drinking and practical jokes. Also, like the earlier version, these entertainments sometimes had political overtones, but were used for fun, flirtations and intrigue incognito.Revelers donned masks, imaginative costumes and/or dark cloaks called dominoes.
In the 18th century, masquerade entertainment was used in theaters and public pleasure gardens such as Ranbelagh and Vauxhall. Some participants chose to wear a mask and cloak over their evening clothes but others picked costumes based on Commedia Dell’Arte characters, clergy, and comic characters.
Masquerade waned by 1820 due to concern about their lack of moral character. However, European society was not ready to give up their world of pretending. Instead of public events, balls were given within a private home or as civic fund-raising events. Masks were no longer used, and inspiration was found in historical characters such as Mary, Queen of Scots; literacy sources such as Byron’s poems or Shakespear’s plays; and peasant dress. One of the popular methods to create a costume was to wear “a fancy dress” in which the wearer added fanciful trimmings like feathers or stars to an evening dress.
As time moved onward, fancy dress increased in popularity. In addition to private balls, fancy dress was used to celebrate coming-of-age, housewarmings, and holiday parties. Ideas could be found in women’s periodicals and in books. As the demand increased, so did the need for novel and inventive ideas. For example, some allegorical costumes were “Electricity”, “Telegraph” and even “The Forests of Canada”.
As the roar of jazz ushered in 1920’s, costumed events reached a new level of popularity. Masks made a come-back and outfits became more outrageous or bizarre. Themes such as Wild West, circus and Greek became popular. Commedia Dell’ Arte characters were re-introduced with a contemporary twist. Fancy dress balls became very popular with the younger crowd and became annual events at universities and colleges.
In September of 1951, a fancy dress ball hosted by a Mexican millionaire, Carlos de Beistegui, was called the “Party of the Twentieth Century”. However, fancy dress went into decline until the 1980’s when favorite characters such as clergy, clowns, and devils reappeared.
The concept of fancy fashion has a long, rich history. As you put on your wings or masks and prepare to dance the night away, you are following a path filled with tradition.