Eighteenth Century London: Masks and Masquerades

Eighteenth Century London: Masks and Masquerades

Masks and Masquerades in Eighteenth-Century London

  • Introduction

  • Masks and Masquerades

  • Introduction

    The eighteenth-century was the beginning of an era of urban anonymity. This anonymity was a neutral, sometimes even hostile, element enclosing the private spheres, which were the secure places in huge cities such as London. This anonymity brought about new possibilities the Londoners soon started to use. At that time, communication and social interaction took place in new ways and in the context of newly structured networks.

    People discovered masks as a means of coping with their new environment. Freedoms not known before were discovered and widely explored. The wearing of masks started being a useful accessory and developed into an important part of fashion. First of all this change of use of the mask will be explained which then leads to the diverse effects a mask worn in public had on the environment of the wearer and to the functions this had.

    On top of this development there was a further formalization of disguise - the masquerades which will be explored in the second part of this paper. The effects and functions the masks had were used in a more structured way then ever before, as at the masquerades people found a place where they could officially continue their play with anonymity when it was hardly possible in public life any more.

    Masks and Masquerades


    From the Vizard to the Full-Face Mask

    Masks were a medium used to play with the anonymity of that time. They were already introduced at the beginning of the 17th century. At that time the use of masks was still very restricted and only belonged to the dresses of wealthy and respectable women. They were used as a seasonal accessory, worn only in winter as a protection from the cold. This was the starting point from which the mask developed. In the beginning half-masks, so-called vizard masks, covering the upper half of the face, were common. These half-masks already conveyed a feeling of anonymity, even though someone familiar would be recognized. Gradually this cosmetic reason for wearing a mask became a false pretense. Originally, anonymity used to be the price a woman had to pay for wearing a mask, but this changed soon and guarding a woman's complexion became the primary aim.1

    This change in use took place parallel to the replacement of half masks by masks covering the whole face. These full-face masks were worn throughout the whole year, so the mask stopped being a seasonal accessory and covered the identity of the one wearing it more efficiently. Therefore, it permitted to behave far more freely than before with only half the face covered2. While the effectiveness of the mask increased, the range in which it could be worn was drastically restricted. There were informal rules saying that the areas were masks could be worn were restricted to parks and theatres in the capital from that time on. These places became stages of their own. In theatre, the performance did not only take place on stage but in the audience as well, i.e. people did not only go to theatre to see the performance, but to watch other people without being seen themselves. On top of that it was possible to enjoy the atmosphere freed from restraints and necessities among the audience. Even though at that time masks were only worn by women, men were not totally excluded from the play with anonymity, as they found other ways to disguise themselves - more or less effectively. The simplest of which was hiding behind a newspaper. But there were also more effective examples such as a so called polemoscope - a kind of opera glass with mirrors inside which enabled the user to watch others without being noticed. But naturally, these could only be used in theatres.3 So both men and women discovered and used the same advantages such a disguise brought about, even though the mask was the more effective one by far.

    Effects of Wearing a Mask

    The wearing of a mask had several effects - not only on the wearer herself, but also on the environment. At first these were only consequences that had to be accepted, but soon women learned to use these effects for their own good. First of all, the environment of someone wearing a mask was confronted with an alien face. Due to the fixed facial features of the mask, every kind of non-verbal communication was impeded. The features of the one wearing the mask were taken away and replaced by the inhuman, cold, and inscrutable features of the mask. The reason for wanting to hide the face was the widely spread assumption that a face was readable. People believed that not only the momentarily emotions but also real character traits were reflected in the face.4 This led to the conclusion that as soon as someone saw the face of another person he basically knew everything about him. So the mask was a means to prevent other people's gaze into your intimacy. Therefore, the mask gave security by creating a mobile private sphere. Another reason for using a mask was the partial freedom that came with being anonymous. As there were strict rules, i.e. conventions on how to behave in public, especially for women, they had to be careful where to go and what to do.

    Masks as an Involvement Shield

    Especially the interaction between people of different sexes was difficult at that time. Women and men could basically not talk to each other unless they had been introduced by someone they knew before. The mask gave the opportunity to circumvent this prohibition, because the effects of the mask led to its function as an involvement shield, which is

    "a portable bodily accessory that, by obstructing visual contact, promotes an unusual sense of freedom in the person wearing or using it. Anything that partially hides the face [...] may act as a shield, behind which individuals safely do the kind of things that ordinarily result in negative sanctions."5

    This means that masks were a device that made it possible to avoid the prohibition of directly looking at someone in certain exceptional circumstances, i.e. in the areas where they were worn. This special conventions allowed to gaze at someone which could lead to eye-contact which then could lead to a further establishing of contact. Therefore the masks made communication possible while it kept up the distance between strangers that was decent for that time. This was a legitimate transgression, as it was possible to disregard the boundaries while people seemed to obey them especially strict. The contacts achieved were different from the social contacts of that time, as you could choose whom to interact with. Usually it was the family of a woman, i.e. the father or brothers, that decided whom to introduce her to. So wearing her involvement shield gave her new options - an area in her life in which she could decide for herself.

    The Dialectic Function of the Mask

    The function of the mask as an involvement shield made communication and interaction possible. But there always were two meanings behind it. It was determent and invitation at the same time. On the one hand it expressed invisibility and on the other hand it was an invitation to look at the one wearing the mask and conveyed the message that the woman is able to break out of her usual role if she would like to do so. Therefore, the mask both protects and endangers the respectability of the woman wearing it. The mask was a sign of protection of moral integrity and at the same time made it possible to do things usually not possible such as interaction with strangers which endangers a woman's moral integrity. The presence of the mask showed that you did not have to abide by the general rules of social interaction. The secret created by the mask excited others, i.e. men, to try to reveal it. Therefore, women wearing such masks were in the constant danger of being accused of immoral behaviour, as they were hiding something.6

    Due to the fact that not only respectable women used a mask to escape their usual role for a while, but as it was used by prostitutes as well, in order to gather new customers, masks started to develop a negative connotation, as well. Especially during night time people expected to find prostitutes in the parks and the masked women always present at these places added to this impression. So a woman was easily suspected of prostitution for spending time in the parks masked.7


    Due to the negative connotations that accompanied the wearing of masks in public mentioned above, people gradually stopped using masks as an accessory in their everyday lives. At the same time the wearing of masks was further formalized by the establishment of masquerades that took place from the 1720s onwards.8 Former aspects of the masks were continued there, as at masquerades not only the face but the whole body was disguised. They were attended by people of both sexes and from different parts of society. So, masquerades could be attended by basically anyone who wanted to. After a while they became one of the primary forms of entertainment of that time.

    Even though there were no rules of how to hold a masquerade there were specific elements common to all. The most obvious one is the total disguise of both body and face. There were hardly any restrictions concerning the costumes worn at masquerades, but surely preferences. The costume of the domino was among the most popular ones. On the one hand it was easy to dress up as a domino, because the costume only consists of a dark, hooded cloak and a mask.9 On the other hand it was a representation of all the distinct parts of the special atmosphere at masquerades. It resembled intrigue and mystery but also adventure and conspiracy as there was hardly any way to disguise a person more thoroughly. In addition to the dress code there was a specific code for verbal behaviour, as well. This is seen in the use of set phrases such as "I know you!" or "Do you know me?" to begin a conversation.10 The anonymity brought about new freedoms which led to both chances and restrictions for those attending the masquerades. Those will be seen in the points following, which also cover the main aspects of the masquerade and show how the strong atmosphere of the carnevalesque was created there.

    The Intermingling of Social Classes

    The main difference between carnivals which were already common before the establishment of masquerades was the intermingling of social classes at these events. This can be explained by the two primary freedoms. First of all people had the possibility to hide their identities. This led to the chance of acting in ways that were contrary to conventions.11 The people's behaviour was not judged, because no one knew who was under the disguise. This led to the unique opportunity to co-mingle. People from different classes did not only mix but could really interact, which was not possible under normal circumstances. So this was the chance to interact on a personal level. There were, however, restrictions to this freedom, as well. Especially people from the upper class had to fear the disgrace they would bring upon themselves and their families which could even result in punishments for being in the wrong company. Especially women attending masquerades were in the danger of being accused of immoral behaviour, in particular if they went on their own. Also men had to be careful, because of the well known fact that a lot of prostitutes set themselves among the masqueraders. But these fears and dangers were an important - and wanted - part of the masquerades, because they led to the feeling of possible conspiracy lingering in everywhere around these events. As the masks were lifted at the end of the evening, the division of classes was not loosened, but reinforced. That is how it was made sure that in the end everyone was aware of the fact that only on this special occasion such an intermingling was actually possible.

    Gender and Sexuality

    In addition to the feeling of the carnevalesque, the atmosphere was highly erotic. One reason for this is that the activities at masquerades included the touching and fondling of strangers, which resulted in the presence of a high sexual energy. As the face was hidden, the body was emphasized.12 On top of that the detachment from identity created by the costumes led to the detachment of traditional morality. The strict social rules were partly lifted, e.g. masquerades were the only event - except for church - where women were allowed to go unattended. There were a lot of opportunities to violate the common norms and strengthened the erotic atmosphere. One example for this is the reversal of gender roles. This was achieved by cross-dressing as a catalyst for sexual symbolism and questioning of stereotypes.

    This play with gender and sexuality is a point which is often criticized, especially by middle class moralists, as they see the danger of continued immoral behaviour caused by the freedoms given at these events. The satirical picture "The Masquerade Ticket"13 by William Hogarth criticizes just this atmosphere by strong exaggerations concerning the atmosphere and possible actions at masquerades. This is immediately obvious when taking a closer look at the fantastical interior, which is littered with emblems of the erotic and excessive pleasures on offer. One example for this are the so called "Lecherometers" which hang on the wall above the masked crowd and are calibrated "Expectation", "Hope", and "Hot desire". These lecherometers register the companies inclination as the people approach them. The possibility to measure a woman's sexual temperature was a common joke at that time which is used here to strengthen the satirical description of masquerades.14 At the bottom right side of the picture there are the closely interlocked figures of Venus and her attendant Cupid who are warmed by a a raging fire. Cupid is about to fire his arrow into the crowd which stands for the possible immoralities which are said to be a sure result of masquerades. These things are symbols for the excessive pleasures offered due to the freedoms of anonymity. Hogarth's attitude towards the possible misbehavings of the people attending the masquerade becomes absolutely clear when deciphering the symbol on the bottom left side of the picture - huge antlers as a symbol for the cuckolded husbands that necessarily follow the immoralities celebrated here.


    The costumes at masquerades have several functions, as well. First of all, they are used as a means to reach a level of anonymity that leads to the freedoms mentioned in 2.2.1 and 2.2.2. This anonymity consists of two parts - being invisible to the surrounding world and being seen at the same time. Therefore, the masquerades were also used as a chance to show yourself to the public. Besides the domino as the representing figure of masquerades there were numerous other possibilities of costumes.

    The point that summarizes masquerades best is probably the antithesis. People were expected to include an opposition to an essential feature of themselves in their costumes. This resulted in people from the aristocracy dressing up as someone from the lower class and vice versa. Examples of this are duchesses who were dressed up as milkmaids, or footmen who chose the costume of a Persian king.15 In addition to this specialty in the choice of costume, there were other influential factors. As people liked to be seen they often chose costumes that were special in some sense. Therefore, foreign, especially oriental, costumes were among the most popular subspecies of fancy dresses.16 Due to the amount of such costumes present at the masquerades, the atmosphere could be characterized as multicultural. The main influence that led to this development was the increasing of economical branches. This can be seen in the fact that the occurrence of e.g. Persian, Indian, or Chinese dresses as costumes increased alongside colonial and economic advances. Therefore, the intention behind this special choice of costumes was not the creation of a multicultural, exotic feeling at these events, but it was a sign of imperialistic pride.

    The Anti-Masquerade Movement

    The clientele of these events were both the aristocracy and the lower class, but there were hardly any members of the middle class who attended the masquerades. This explains easily, when taking the extreme sense of morality of the middle class into consideration. Those who belonged to the newly established middle class were convinced of their morals and really lived them. They were of the opinion that disguising means hiding what you stand for. And as there is no reason to hide if you abide by the rules or common norms, the masquerades were thought of as a place of immorality.

    The middle class was very active in trying to defend their views of how society should be. Therefore, it is no surprise that the number of opponents increased alongside the number of masquerades hold. Very soon after the first masquerades in the 1720s the first opponents started their campaigns against this development. They demonstrated their displeasure in several ways. Due to the invention of the printing press it was possible for them to spread their opinion easily by publishing poems or articles in the numerous newspapers, but also in other forms of art as seen in the picture by Hogarth in 2.2.2. Soon there was a whole movement against masquerades, mainly consisting of middle class moralists.

    Their main point of criticism is the immoral behaviour they assume to take place there. Especially women were criticized for taking part in masquerades, as the consequences for them in society at that time were much worse than those for men. Another reason for criticizing the female attendants was the fact that the masquerades were considered a step backwards in emancipation. As the eyes - the soul of a person - were hidden under a facial mask, women degraded themselves to mere sexual objects that could be used. So women were blamed for seducing men and bringing about the sexual escapades which the masquerades were known for.

    Henry Fielding is one of these middle class criticists. His poem "The masquerade"17, published in 1728 under the pseudonym Lemuel Gulliver, is one example of the numerous poems dedicated to masquerades in some way. The reference to H-d-g-r, i.e. Count Heidegger, clearly shows his criticism of masquerades. He is called the first minister of masquerades elected by Satan and coming directly from hell. As the main impresario of that time he is chosen as representative for the masquerades. So, this part of the poem shows Fielding's attitude towards the masquerades


    The development of the mask in its different forms until the total disguise that took place at masquerades covered nearly two centuries. Both the insecurities and chances this development brought about reflected the changes in the country that took place in that time. All the main points that have to be considered when talking about eighteenth-century London have had influence and are therefore reflected here, especially in the masquerades. Both the economy that changed the choice of costumes so strongly, and the criticism of important characters in public life show the relevance of the habit of disguise for this century.

    The questions of gender roles and the position of women in society were restructured at these events, conventions and norms reinterpreted. The rise of the middle class becomes especially significant here, as they are the main opponents of the fashion of disguising oneself. Their criticism does not only show that they were prepared to stand up for their views and the morals they wanted to protect, but also the new possibilities given at that time due to the invention of the printing press. People knew how to use the media for their aims, and therefore, the anti-masquerade movement can also be seen as an example of how the spreading of information worked at that time.

    All in all I would say that the masquerades were a part of society that is essential for the understanding of this century, as it demonstrates how people reacted to changes in their lives and how they handled them.


    1 Heyl, Christoph. A Passion for Privacy: Untersuchungen zur Genese der bürgerlichen Privatsphäre in London, 1660-1800. München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag München, 2004, 308.
    2 Heyl, 313.
    3 Heyl, 328.
    4 Heyl, 315f.
    5 Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986, 39.
    6 Heyl, 331.
    7 Pritchard, Will. Outward Appearances. The Female Exterior in Restoration London. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 2008, 129.
    8 Castle, 2.
    9 Castle, 29.
    10 Castle, 35.(London: 1971), 29
    11 Castle, 34.
    12 Castle, 38.
    13 See appendix A.
    14 Castle, Terry. Eros and Liberty at the English Masquerade, 1710-90. Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol. 17, No. 2. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 157.
    15 Castle, 5.
    16 Castle, 60.
    17 See appendix B.
    18 http://www.tate.org.uk
    19 Fielding, Henry. The Masquerade, a Poem, 3,5.


    [1] Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986.

    [2] Castle, Terry. “Eros and Liberty at the English Masquerade, 1710-90.” Eighteenth-Century Studies Vol. 17, No. 2. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

    [3] Fielding, Henry. The Masquerade, a Poem.

    [4] Heyl, Christoph. A Passion for Privacy: Untersuchungen zur Genese der bürgerlichen Privatsphäre in London, 1660-1800. München: R. Oldenbourg Verlag München, 2004.

    [5] Hogarth, William. The Masquerade Ticket.

    [6] Pritchard, Will. Outward Appearances. The Female Exterior in Restoration London. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Press, 2008.


    A. The Masquerade Ticket

    Figure 1: The Masquerade Ticket by William Hogarth.18

    B. Poem: The Masquerade

    "here, in one confusion herl'd,
    seem all the nations of the world,
    Cardinals, quakers, judges dance;
    Grim Turks are coy, and nuns advance,
    Grave churchmen here at hazard play;
    So for his ugliness more fell,
    Was H-d-g-r toss'd out of hell,
    And in return by Satan made
    First Minister of masquerade."

    from "The Masquerade" by Henry Fielding.19