Andrea here, musing about something that’s on all of our minds . . . well, actually, on all our faces! I don’t know about you, but I’m not someone who ever found a great allure in the idea of wearing masks. Unlike many of my friends, Halloween was . . meh—not a big deal. The idea of anonymity—which conjures a certain sense of dangerous freedom to misbehave and get away with it—wasn’t something that tickled my fancy.
And yet, when you look at the history of masks and masked celebrations, it’s clear that face coverings appeal to the naughty side of human nature. (There is a certain irony in today’s masks, which are quite the opposite in intent—we wear them not only to be personally safe, but also to be good citizens and help protect others.) Most every culture has a tradition of masks being used for ceremonial and religious practices—and also just for mischievous fun!
Masks used to ward off illness have of course existed throughout history—the most famous examples are the plague marks of medieval Europe. (That long beak was to hold a small sachet of burning herbs, whose smoke was thought to help protect one from whatever evil was causing sickness) But for the most part, masks have been used for more frivolous things.
Masquerade balls became popular during the during the 15th century, and were held to celebrate various occasions of court life throughout Europe. A famous example was the Burning Man Ball held by Charles VI of France, where he and five courtiers dressed as wild savages and danced among the guests. The costumes were made of flax and pitch—and when one of the dancers came too close to a burning torch, he caught fire!
Things turned a little tamer (though not much) as the fad for masked revelries moved to Italy during the Renaissance. Venice became known for its Carnival Balls, as well as for the amorous adventures created by the freedom of anonymity. Carnival (derived from the Latin carne vale, meaning “farewell to meat”) was a last partying before the austerity of the Christian Lenten season, and gluttony, decadence and lust fueled the frenzy.
Masked celebrations remained popular throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, though there were times when that alluring aura of risky behavior turned mortally dangerous. In1792, Gustav II of Sweden was assassinated at a masked ball by an unhappy nobleman, who opposed the King’s seeking to quash parliamentary reforms. (Two composers of the time turned the event into an opera entitled (appropriately!) Gustav III
A number of Regency novels feature masked balls and entertainments, and we have John James Heidigger, a Swiss count, to thank for introducing the such pageantry to Britain. Heidigger came to London in the early 1700s, and after gaining favor with George I because of his operas, he then introduced the fashion Venetian costume and masks to London Society. The first semi-public masquerade ball was held in the Haymarket Opera House. Another interesting detail is one of the standard costumes came to be a ruffled outfit called a “van Dyke” after the famous painter Anthony van Dyke, who painted many of his court portraits with the aristocracy wearing such finery.
Masked balls are still around—a famous modern example was Truman Capote’s “Black and White” masquerade, thrown in honor of Katherine Graham.
Our current masks are more utilitarian. Like them or not, I have a feeling we’ll be wearing them for some time to come. I’ve a couple of versions, depending on the situation—a standard pleated paper mask, and a high tech neoprene one with a washable filter for more “close-quarter” forays. I’ve also ordered a fabric gaiter in a very pretty design for casual walks.
How about you? Are you one of those people who loves wearing decorative, or “fun” masks? How are you faring with your “plague” masks of today? Have you accumulated a collection?