The idea of the masquerade is often associated with a formal type of party scene with people in costumes carrying on sophisticated conversation, but in fact, in most instances, this was not the case. The masquerade was a release from public stigmas and mentalities. Attendees held an overall attitude of rebellion. The masquerade provided an escape from stereotypes and societal functions, and a way to experience life in a completely new reality.
Besides dressing as common figures of the public, people also dressed as abstract ideas and concepts such as curiosity, earth, air, or sea . Other examples of costumes that stretched the social norms included dressing as a vegetable and carrying the food along all through the night, or being an animal such as a goat, and then having the animal along as an accessory . These costumes were a way to drastically set off the balance of the norms even for a masquerade, making it a twisted mockery of itself.
Abstract costumes were highly appreciated and noticed by keen masquerade observers. For example, the "Curiosity" costume was a smashing success. A report from the 1788 London Chronicle stated, "Mrs. Egerton as Curiosity,all eyes and ears, knew everybody, and attacked them with so keen a wit, as to make her company both coveted and dreaded" .
The final result of an amalgamation of abstract costumes was a scene that had no precedence in nature. It was a hilarious event representing a collaboration of impossibilities. The more extravagant and out of nature the dress could be contrived, the higher was the joke. Joy was released when reality was destroyed and replaced with a whirlwind of great and confused images. Ideally the party was the search for perfect freedom . It allowed for expression without bounds or structure, deeply gratifying bodily sensation. The masquerade experience was viewed as an opportunity to be transported to another world where time and space is altered. Not only were rules of society being violated, but the very nature of being human was pressed to its utmost limits. The guests could behave in a hallucinatory state as if they'd gone through a dizzying transformation, sometimes making noises that suited their costumes instead of using dialogue . This movement from composure to surrender of the most primitive kind was seen by some as moving to a perfect utopia, and others as a digression to the most barbaric of human conduct.
Contradiction of any kind could be correlated with the masquerade, and these opposites were capable of coming together to create meaning that extended the common notion of life. The masquerade party was compared to the sublime in its fleeting beauty, and ability to create feeling beyond comprehension. From the meaninglessness emerged happiness celebrating humanity's desire for unreason that was more true to life than the structure embodying day to day life. In this way the event held great significance. Terry Castle, in her book Masquerade and Civilization, equivocates the event with love commenting that it was a "revocation of love itself that love conceived as a profound mingling of opposites, an absorptive, endlessly satisfying embrace of self and other" . But others were fearful in the misunderstanding and unknowing of such incomprehensible chaos. They highlighted the dangers of the event and noted the unhealthy aspects that went on there. Some observed the event as perverse, skittish, and vicious, and in the end these mentalities pushed out the positive standpoint.
Masquerades were like the Woodstock of the eighteenth century, except instead of using hallucinogens, people just wore masks. By hiding one's identity anyone could act out in any way the instincts preferred, and for some this meant trouble. Just as at any crazy party, the masquerades included those who couldn't handle themselves in the bounded dreamscape of uncanny disorienting power. The masquerades were places where sexuality of any combination could occur, and even cases of incest were not beyond the scope of what may have happened. There were a few who abused the distortion in the hermeneutic disequilibria encompassing the intensity of the event, and for this the mindless party scene ruined its reputation and eventually faded out.
1. Ribiero, Aileen. The Dress Worn at Masquerades
in England 1730 to 1790. New York, NY:
Garland Published, 1984, 297.
2. Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: the Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English
Culture and Fiction. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986, 68.
3. London Chronicle, 1788, 420.
4. Castle, 53.
5. Castle, 36.
6. Castle, 109.