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The History of the Masquerade

Quick – what's the first thing you think of when I say “masquerade balls”? Perhaps you think about Romeo meeting Juliet for the first time in Baz Luhrrmann's epic 90s adaptation or Edgar Allan Poe's “The Masque of the Red Death” crosses your mind. Maybe you ponder the lonely Phantom of the Opera chasing after Christine. Whatever comes to mind, you might be surprised to learn that the masquerade wasn't always just about partying and dancing the night away. Throughout history the masquerade has held a host of meanings to our ancestors. Join me on a journey through the years as we cast a spotlight on the masquerade!

Masquerades originated from pagan festivals celebrating the advent of the spring planting season. In the 15th century, this time was known as Carnaval season (yep, you got it – Mardi Gras!) and began after the winter solstice as part of the Feast of Fools. At this point, it was much less high society and more of a cirque du celebration – a time when villagers would gather wearing masks to partake in pageantry. Over time, these parties were taken over more by royalty and increasingly involved Royal Entries (the act of welcoming kings & queens to one's city), processions celebrating marriage, and other such events of medieval court life. In fact, one of the earliest of these types of balls came in 1393 when Charles V1 of France held the first “Bal des Ardents”, or “Burning Men's Ball”. (Perhaps there's some relation to today's Burning Man?...) This ball changed the whole perception of such events from one of royal pageantry to one of intrigue and risk. How so? Well, Charles V1 had the brilliant idea to celebrate the marriage of the queen's lady-in-waiting by having 5 of his courtiers and himself dress in masks and flax costumes to dance the night away as “wildsmen of the woods”. The catch? If they danced too closely to one of the many flaming torches lining the dance floor, they caught on fire. Fun...?

By the time masquerade balls reached Italy, they were generally elaborate dances held for the upper class, where scandal reigned. Tied to the Venetian Carnaval, the balls only lasted for a few years until the fall of the Venetian Republic. Fortunately, along came John James Heidegger, a Swiss count who revitalized the popularity of the masquerade across Europe by bringing Venetian costumes to public dances in gardens in London. Along with this move came a name change, due to the reputation for unseemly behavior and unescorted women at masquerades – Ridotto.

Not all balls were fun and games, however. Gustav III of Sweden was assassinated by a disgruntled nobleman at a masquerade, while in 18th century France, balls and Carnaval was increasingly politicized and used to attack the monarchy. In fact, with the French Revolution, Carnaval and masking were temporarily banned till Napoleon brought Carnaval back in 1800. And the masquerade didn't fare very well in colonial America where there was an actual anti-masquerade movement decrying the immorality and “foreign influence” of such events.

In popular culture, the French and masked balls have been linked so closely that a 1908 American film was titled AT THE FRENCH BALL (a story of adultery at a masquerade). Though with good reason. After Napoleon brought back Carnaval in 1800, the Parisian Carnaval was said to have all but died by 1830. But in 1831 after the July Revolution, it exploded back onto the scene, changing once again into a version akin to Hollywood and the red carpet. A new revolutionary generation was in town and romanticism had arrived. Along with them came the fashion press, satirical dailies, gossip columns, and cheap newspapers, all of whom provided Parisians and readers everywhere a blow-by-blow account of the masked balls during Carnival after 1830. Hundreds of these pamphlets, satires, and fashion magazines supplied running commentary on the pleasures to be found at the Carnaval masked balls at their height in the 1830s and 1840s (including the masked balls that took place in the middle of the Revolution of 1848) and it is this period that became shrouded in myth.

Unfortunately, today the masquerade tends to stay firmly in myth. Night clubs came to replace the daring, scandalous, erstwhile balls and now you'd be hard-pressed to find a true masquerade to attend. If you've been lucky enough to attend a masquerade somewhere, leave a comment and tell us all about it! We can merely dream and live vicariously through you. *sighs*

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