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History Of The Fancy Dress Costume

By Emma Till June 02, 2016 0 comments

We all took part in at least one fancy dress party or a masquerade. But most of us know little about the rich history of a fancy dress costume. Let's take a quick look.

First Masquerades

The first known masquerades took place in Rome during the annual celebrations called Saturnalia. The festivals were held on 17th December of the Julian calendar. Ancient Romans were the ones who first came up with special masques. The reason was simple. Slaves were allowed to participate in festivities and the rich people didn't want to be upset by their not-so-fresh appearances.

Masquerades remained popular even in the Dark ages regardless of the stern and strict church rules. The main attributes of medieval carnivals were masks and costumes, that were supposed to hide the apparent social difference. Their goal was to make everyone equal for the duration of the festival. Medieval times dictated the masquerade psychology. Kings dressed up as beggars, maids became princesses and prudent girls turned into glamorous women.

Masquerade Psychology

Psychologists wrote many articles about the effect of the “inverse world” at the masquerade. There are no boundaries and impossible things become possible. Nothing seems too farfetched at a masquerade. A noble maid can become a soldier's lover without injuring her pride. A person dressed in a costume and wearing a masque goes through a certain personality change. He or she gets a chance to become whoever they always dreamed of being. Many things become allowed.

Carnival of Venice

The most popular masquerade is a carnival that takes place in Venice. The basis for the traditional Venetian costume was a bauta (bautta) that covered the top part of the face. Sometimes that mask had a long nose or a well-defined profile. Another famous part of a classical Venetian costume is a long cape with hood and sleeves, called domino. Usually, such capes were black and did a great job covering up the body.

Venetian carnival masques became so popular that people started wearing them every day. That upset the authorities and the church. However, no fines or a restriction very effective until wearing a mask outside the masquerade was called a criminal offense.

Carnival of Venice became the most important event in the city's life. But with time people became less and less interested in the celebration. In the second part of the 20th century, the carnival got revived when city authorities understood that such bright tradition can attract a lot of international tourists.

Royal Masquerade Balls

Special “private” masquerades were popular during the Renaissance era and in medieval Europe. Only royalty could participate in such events. The second wife of Henry VII Anne Boleyn was well-known for throwing amazing masquerades, the main theme of which was antique mythology. Young girls were dressed as nymphs and Amazons. Young men were satires and the queen herself was the goddess of love Aphrodite.  

Daughter of Anne and Henry Elizabeth I also liked to arrange different masquerade balls. The Virgin Queen liked to wear Artemis costume. She was sporting an iron corset and a lot of bright and expensive jewels. Elizabeth liked being the antique goddess. She was even carrying a bow.

Louis XIV was also famous for throwing theme parties. He liked to appear as Apollo or Jupiter. While looking very antique, his costumes were quite heavy and always featured a crown. His grandson Louis XV didn't like “private parties”. He was a fan of public masquerades that were arranged on Parisian streets or at the town hall. Louis loved dressing as a poor man and court maids dressed as queens. In 1745 one of such beauties decided to go on “hunt” for a king. She dressed as goddess Diana. Her costume was made or pink silk with roses. This lady intrigued Louis so much that he fell in love with her for a long time. The name of that beauty was Madame de Pompadour.

The 18th century was popular for the costumes from French folks Art Theater and Italian Commedia dell'arte. It was an era of numerous Pierrots, Harlequins, and Columbines.

The fancy dress history is very rich. The costumes of the past were complicated and always handmade. While the popularity of such masquerades winded down a little, the psychology stayed the same. There is always something very alluring about becoming someone else, even if it's just for one night.


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