What draws grown-ups to fancy dress? The fear, excitement and thrill of the unknown? Stranger danger takes on a whole new meaning at a masked ball where the freedom to look and be looked at lies in a flimsy construction of papier-mâché.
Type fancy dress into a search engine and you will be inundated with sites selling fairy wings, novelty wigs and plastic fangs. Halloween, that ancient Celtic festival, a time when the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest and the spirits closest, has been transmuted into a sweetie fuelled frenzy of consumerism in costume – cute but not quite up to the original task of placating or frightening malevolent spirits.
Halloween is the most popular party occasion after Christmas and New Year so clearly adults are keen to join in the fun – but what draws grown-ups to fancy dress? The briefest glance at the skimpy mermaid, nurse or Snow White outfits reveals that they are definitely not doing it for the kids. Child psychologists advocate dressing up as a way to encourage creativity: “play about kings, clowns, fairies or witches encourages children to express their feelings, interact and engage each other in rich feelings Walt Disney would frown on, she is also trying out roles denied her in everyday life.
Freedom is an intrinsic part of fancy dress but the distance from liberty to libertine is a short one. Carnival has religious roots and the elaborate costumed pagents or masques of European Royalty during the Renaissance reinforced sovereign authority, impressed visiting dignitaries and served the political agenda of the day. At the same time masks, costumes and disguises have always unnerved authorities who understood their links to scandal and unrest. In Venice masks were legislated against as early as 1268 and continued to be subject to sanctions for the next four hundred years. In England puritan preacher George Swinnock (16271673) warned that “sin goes in a disguise” but the idea that fancy dress was tinged with moral danger simply increased its deliciousness.
The influence of the Italian Carnival, which peaked in Venice in the 1700s, resurfaced in London where the craze for masquerades defined what historian Terry Castle called the “age of scandal” and others referred to as "The World Upside-Down". The basic ingredients of an 18th-century masked ball, gambling, drinking and dancing, were enough to attract censure: add to that mix the fact that many of these gatherings were public events to which access was gained by subscription rather than invitation (or as Eliza Haywood calls them in her monthly periodical The Female Spectator “mercenary places of resort, where all, without distinction, are admitted”) and you have, according to the moralists of the day, a recipe for social disaster.
For the anti-masquerade movement, which included literary figures such as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson, the intermingling of classes was frightening enough; the idea that women disguised under dominos might gain the same freedoms as men indicated the decline of society as a whole. In truth few ladies could attend a masquerade. Individuals such as Elizabeth Chudleigh, future Duchess of Kingston could cope with the notoriety gained for wearing revealing costumes – her semi-nude appearance as Iphigeneia at a Grand Jubilee Ball in Bristol was infamous – but as Art Historian Griselda Pollock points out “to enter such spaces as the masked ball... constituted a serious threat to a bourgeois woman's reputation.” Making a spectacle of yourself or even viewing the spectacle was to abandon yourself to lewdness. Eliza Haywood advises "women of honour" to shun any man “so depraved as to offer them tickets". By the 1760s masquerade were a byword for licentious behavior and shunned by polite society.
The festivities died down for decades, only to be rehabilitated in sanitised form by Queen Victoria whose fondness for fancy dress was noted. The Victorians discarded their masks and prim parties replaced the darker masquerades. Admiration was reserved for historical accuracy – ladies with a taste for something risqué had to be content with picturesque peasant costume...