From the 1720s until the end of the eighteenth century, large masquerades epitomized vice and excess in European cities. In spite of this, people from almost all walks of life frequented masquerades, including nobles, clergy, townsfolk, and prostitutes. There were only two requirements for admission: first, a purchased party ticket, and second, a costume. With the blurring of class boundaries, excess food and alcohol consumption, and libertinage came the necessity to hide one’s identity. Thus, revelers donned fantastical costumes and masks to disguise themselves as they met in assembly rooms and pleasure gardens. At the height of masquerade madness, artists depicted how these partygoers adapted fashionable dress to create costumes that complemented the topsy-turvy atmosphere.
Concealment was the chief aim of masquerade costume. An issue of London’s Universal Spectator in 1729 declared that “Everyone…wears a Habit which speaks him the Reverse of what he is.” As such, costume contrasted with the everyday personality of its wearer. For example, in Henry Morland’s The Fair Nun Unmasked, though the woman’s cross and veil indicate that she is dressed as a nun, the low cut of her dress hardly conveys the piety required for the role. Further, the beauty patches on her mask indicate flirtation, both drawing attention to details on the face (or, in this case, the mask) and communicating secret meanings through patch position. A nun costume blatantly sexualized the wearer in eighteenth-century Protestant England: to be called a ‘nun’ meant one was a whore.
Costumes designs varied widely, as seen in Cochin’s print of the Yew Tree Ball of 1745. The most popular styles included fancy dress (toned-down costume dresses), pastoral (particularly shepherdesses), Oriental (Turkish or Chinese dress), seventeenth century (dress inspired by Rubens’ 1638 portrait of Hélène Fourment), and harlequin. People were hardly confined to these styles, however. Just as the masquerade encouraged bodily excess, so too were revelers encouraged to play with extremes when designing their costumes. Cochin etched one extreme into posterity by depicting the namesake of the Yew Tree Ball: at this masquerade, celebrating the marriage of the Dauphin, King Louis XV and his male courtiers dressed as topiary yew trees. In a world ordinarily controlled by pomp and carefully honed manners, this and other costumes embodied the magical escapism of the Rococo masquerade.
Ribeiro, Aileen. The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730-1790, and its relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.