Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who Was That Masked Lady?

Sunday, February 21, 2010
Susan reports:

Lately there's been much discussion in the media of the singer Lady Gaga's fascination with masks, most recently on a London red carpet. But while using a mask to go fashionably incognito might seem like news to the gossip columnists, we NHG know otherwise. There were plenty of ladies hitting the London social scene wearing masks 350 years ago.

Made from black velvet or satin, masks, or vizards, were popular in the 1660s both to protect the complexion from the sun or the cold, and to hide one's identity in public. They were especially popular while attending the playhouse, where, in theory, a lady could enjoy a risque play or even engage in an amorous assignation, but still preserve her reputation. Soon, however, the masks themselves became the mark of prostitutes prowling the pit for customers, and the word "vizard" became a derogatory slang word used to describe such women. By 1704, the masks had so many illicit connotations that Queen Anne banned them.

There were two kinds of ladies's masks: one that covered only half the face, and another that hid all of it. One described by writer Randle Holme in 1688 "covers the whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the Nose, and a slit for the Mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time, being only held in the teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside against the mouth." How exactly a lady was supposed to talk, let alone be charmingly witty, while clenching a bead between her teeth is just one more art lost to time.

I suspect that the half-masks were more popular for ladies who wished to speak as well as be mysterious. I also suspect that, for the sake of gallantry, gentlemen were willing to suspend disbelief where a masked lady was concerned; how secret can you be with only half your face covered? Still, masks must have made for fine flirtatious fun, as this excerpt from Samuel Pepys's diary from 1668 records. Attending a play, Mr. Pepys had the good fortune to sit near Sir Charles Sedley, a gentleman poet famous for his wit. (We last saw Sir Charles here as a man behaving badly, and he is also a prominent character in my next novel, The Countess & the King, wherein he will continue to behave rather badly.) As was usual for Sir Charles, he soon found a way to amuse himself despite the indifferent play:

One of the ladies [sitting near Sir Charles] would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him, but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant 'rencontre' I never heard.

Above: Detail from Winter, by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)
Many thanks to fellow-author Catherine Delors for suggesting this blog!


Svea Love said...

What a great post! I had no idea masks were worn so often, I thought it was only to be found at events like a masquerade or such.

Margaret Porter said...

Thanks for the unmasking of 17th century masks! Ever a fascinating subject, and a convenient plot device!

Catherine Delors said...

You are most welcome, Susan! I will link to this wonderful post from ye olde blog, if you don't mind.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Muse, by the 18th c., masks are mostly for masquerade. Except in Venice; the masks in Venice will require a whole 'nother post!

Margaret, you're welcome. I'm looking forward to seeing exactly how you've used them as a plot device, heh-heh.

Catherine, thank you for the link, and the idea!

Personally, I like to think of these masks kind of like the 17th c. version of oversized sunglasses -- an elegant and mysterious way to hide in plain sight.

Lady Burgley said...

Fascinating! I too thought that masks were only worn for masquerades. I hope you will write about the masks of Venice soon.

Ingrid said...

What an interesting post!
Those masks must also have been skin protection when one was outside in winter.
And then of course there were the black or green voiles or veils, which were 17th-century sunglasses and sunscreens combined. They too might hide your identity if heavy enough. Though it's more of a late nineteenth-century motif, the heavily-veiled woman of mystery.
Which reminds me of Edith Evans elegantly folding back her (totally unconcealing) veil in The Importance of being Earnest. It was on television again last week. I do so love that film!

ChristyEnglish said...

Thank you for posting this...I am fascinated...

Vanessa Kelly said...

Fascinating! I'd love to see pictures of the full face mask, which sound a bit creepy rather than mysterious.

Joyce Moore said...

Hi Susan: Met you at HNS conf., but found your blog from Catherine's blog. Yeah! Especially loved the quote from Winter. Ah, so romantic and ... restrained in 17th c. Am linking to your post from my site.

nightsmusic said...

I too would think the half masks would conceal little of the wearer's identity unless of course, the onlooker had never met the wearer before. But I think you're right, this does remind me of the sunglasses with the saucer sized lenses :o)


Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Glad everyone is enjoying this -- do I sense an unspoken desire for masks on Monday mornings? *g*

Joyce, I do remember you from Chicago --welcome!

Ingrid, "Earnest" is one of my favs, too. I've had several characters who've spoken exactly like Joan Greenwood (in my head, I mean.) I love her voice!

Vanessa, I could only find one picture of a full-face mask in the book "Fashion & Fiction: Dress in Art & Literature in Stuart England" by Aileen Ribeiro, and though the print belongs to the City of London Museum, it's not on line. Alas, since I'm resolved not to scan or post copyrighted pictures, I can't share it here. But I will say it's indeed pretty creepy: a full oval face mask, all black, with little slits for the eyes and mouth, and a sculpted nose.

If anyone's interested, here's the Amazon link to the Ribeiro book (the rest of the book is pretty dandy, too, a lavish Yale art book with lots of pictures):

Also, Catherine Delors has just posted a bit about 18th c. French masks on her site, including a wonderful porcelain snuff box of a masked lady:

DanielleThorne said...

What a lovely, super-informative piece. Thank you!

Keith said...

Very interesting, do you know if it was common for men to wear masks other than to masquerade balls/party?
Le Loup.

Miss Moppet said...

Glad you decided to post on this! I thought of doing an MA in the history of fashion at one time, had to give up the idea but if I had, I would definitely have chosen C17 masks as my dissertation subject. I did do some research into them at one point and gathered quite a bit of material, which is now goodness knows where - but I would like to share two of my favourite mask quotes.

The first one, from historical fiction, will be familiar!
When most women went masked in public places a man had to learn to judge beauty by very little detail-the colour and sheen of a curl escaping from a hood, the sparkle of a pair of eyes seen between narrow slits, the curve of a pretty mouth.
From Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

The second one is from a genuine C17 source, Sebastiano Locatelli's Viaggio di Francia, an account by a Bolognese priest of his journey to Paris and back in 1664-5. The quote refers to three fellow passengers on a boat, women who worked in the wine trade and were travelling on business:
For the first two days they never took off their little black velvet masks, waxed on the inside so as not to heat the face too much; but they carefully observed everything that went on. At last, seeing that there was nobody on board who would harm them, they unmasked themselves; and the beauty of one of them, who looked like a chaste Judith, astonished us all. Before that, we had all been dying to see them; and how right we were, because it's not every day that one can look at faces at once so pretty and so modest.'
Wilfred Blunt, Sebastiano, London 1956, pp182-3

Sandra Gulland. said...

Susan, hello! Wonderful post. I enjoyed the detail of a mask being waxed on the inside to keep it from being too heated. The logistics of that are hard to imagine.

Did men ever wear masks? I don't think so, unless at a masquerade.




Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Ah, many visiting friends today! :)

M. le Loup -- I don't believe I've ever seen a reference to a 17th c. man in a mask. These seem to have been a lady's accessory. Which is not to say that no man ever wore one -- just that I can't quote a reference one way or another.

Miss Moppet--Thank you so much for these two quotes! Amber is, well, AMBER: what else can be said? The other quote was new to me, and the detail about the waxed interior was quite extraordinary. Studying historic dress is this kind of treasure hunt, finding small comments and clues in unexpected places. Thank you for sharing your research!

Sandra -- I'm glad to see you here, and glad, too, to have someone else trying to remember a 17th c. masked man, English or French.

Unless, of course, we include the ever-mysterious Man in the Iron Mask....

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

Carrie Callaghan said...

It doesn't seem quite fair that only women had to preserve their reputations with anonymity and mystery, does it?

Another example of half-covered faces: Women in 19th century Lima, Peru wore a cloth draped diagonally across their faces, leaving one eye and (I guess) a bit of a cheekbone open. It's not a mask, but not exactly a veil either.

See the second section here for an example:

Thanks for a great post! That was very interesting to learn about.

Keith said...

But have you visited here:
and here:
and seen this hansome fellow!
Yours Truely of course,
Le Loup.

Bearded Lady said...

Great post! Keep the fashion stuff coming...

Here is a picture of a full mask:

Very creepy looking! You have to think that these would not be too comfortable. At least with the half mask, you could breath. I am not sure what material 16th century masks were made of? Anyone know? It had to be something breathable?

Keith said...

I think that some were paper mache, others were made of leather.
Le Loup.

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