Unmasking Rococo Masquerade Costume

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.

Henry Moreland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769. Oil on canvas. Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries (LEEAG.1948.0009.0001). Available here: http://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/pages/object.aspx?oid=43215.

Henry Moreland, The Fair Nun Unmasked, c. 1769. Oil on canvas. Temple Newsam House, Leeds Museums and Galleries (LEEAG.1948.0009.0001). Available at this link.

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.

Detail of Charles Nicolas Cochin II (design) and Charles Nicolas Cochin I (engraving), Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, c. 1860 reprint of 1764 plate. Etching with engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930). Available here: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/359942.

Detail of Charles Nicolas Cochin II (design) and Charles Nicolas Cochin I (engraving), Decoration for a Masked Ball at Versailles, on the Occasion of the Marriage of Louis, Dauphin of France, and Maria Theresa, Infanta of Spain, c. 1860 reprint of 1764 plate. Etching with engraving. The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Credit line: Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1930). Available at this link.

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.

Further Reading

Ribeiro, Aileen. The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England, 1730-1790, and its relation to Fancy Dress in Portraiture. New York: Garland Publishing, 1984.

The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Marie Antoinette, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

Lost in Translation, dir. Sofia Coppola, 2003

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

The Virgin Suicides, dir. Sofia Coppola, 1999

Today we have a special post for our blog readers – a PDF of Rebecca Arnold’s essay ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola and Fashions in Contemporary Femininity’ for you to download.  

The New Rococo – In the last twenty years, a visual style has evolved within cinema, in particular within Sophia Coppola’s films, and fashion imagery, including Corinne Day’s photographs and Stella McCartney’s designs, which express a light, feminine ideal reminiscent of eighteenth century rococo style. Coppola and her peers in fashion design and photography explored the potential of fashion, and gender, as masquerade.  In so doing, they created a visual aesthetic that might be called ‘New Rococo.’  This combined contradictory impulses, which looked to both nature and artifice, and formed a pastiche of eighteenth century and contemporary reference points. This essay explores the reasons why rococo style re-emerged during this period, and how it enabled these image-makers to validate contemporary feminine and fashionable ideals, but also to foreground these as constructed surfaces.

We will also be posting images connected to the essay on our Instagram feed @documentingfashion_courtauld today – so take a look!

Rococo Echoes Book Cover

Rebecca Arnold – ‘The New Rococo: Sofia Coppola And Fashions In Contemporary Femininity’

(click above to download PDF)

The essay was published as part of a compilation, edited by Katie Scott and Melissa Hyde, Rococo echo: art, history and historiography from Cochin to Coppola, Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2014

The book explores the influence of rococo style in a wide range of media since the 18th century, and is an exciting view of the subject. Read more here.

With thanks to Katie & Melissa, and all the book’s contributors.  This PDF is made available by permission of the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford (www.voltaire.ox.ac.uk)