A Regency Masquerade
Updated: Feb 28
What do The Sylph (1778) by the Duchess of Devonshire, Cecilia (1782) by Fanny Burney, and Belinda (1801) by Maria Edgeworth have in common? Among other things, all of the heroines attend a masquerade ball, just like Elizabeth does in A Hopeful Holiday.
We tend to think of masquerades as Venetian parties linked to Carnival, or a part of the London eighteenth-century urban elite culture, but masquerades were still popular during the Regency era and not only in London.
The basic concept is obvious: a masquerade is an event where you attend wearing a mask and typically in costume. A Swiss count named John Heidegger, who spent time in Italy, is credited with introducing public masquerade balls to London in 1708, and they flourished throughout the century, often having connections to Twelfth Night and the holiday season.
This mention in John Feltham’s The picture of London, for 1809 says that masquerades took place throughout the season and that costumes could be rented:
In the course of (January) and the ensuing five months, masquerades are occasionally held at the Opera house and the Pantheon, always previously advertised in the newspapers admission, 10s. 6d. 11.1s and 2l. 2s and dresses may be hired at the masquerade warehouses from 5s to 2l.2s each.
Masquerades could also private affairs like any other ball, starting late in the evening with dancing, card tables, supper, and continuing until dawn. Tradition held that no one would reveal who they were until midnight.
A simple costume was a domino, a large cloak and hood worn with a mask that covered half of the face. Both men and women wore dominos, and they were usually black but other colors became popular as the century went on.
Others wore a costume with a half mask that only covered the eyes—what we now call a domino mask (think Robin from Batman)—or a full mask with rounded edges that covered the whole face. They could be completely black or sometimes they were painted with a face.
What costumes were worn at a Regency masquerade? A hint comes from Cecilia:
Dominos of no character, and fancy dresses of no meaning, made, as is usual at such meetings, the general herd of the company: for the rest, the men were Spaniards, chimney-sweepers, Turks, watchmen, conjurers, and old women; and the ladies, shepherdesses, orange girls, Circassians, gipseys, haymakers, and sultanas.
Classical heroes and gods from antiquity, representations of dress from other nations, animals, dress from ages past, religious costumes, kings and queens, servants, and characters from an opera might all be found at a masquerade.
A masquerade gave participants the chance to assume identities that allowed them to upend the Georgian era behavioral expectations of the public sphere. All of those “regency rules” we expect were not just subverted at a masquerade, but they were expected to be. There was a significant behavioral license, from approaching and dancing with people you don’t know, or men dressing as women or acting entirely in character the entire evening, even if that means acting badly. When you aren’t recognized, it allowed for participants to assume an identity for the evening and subvert expectations like chastity, sobriety, or even rationality.
This picture has a woman in a domino dancing with a man in costume, and another woman dressed as a man with a painted mask.
Here’s an excerpt from A Hopeful Holiday where Elizabeth has been invited to attend Lady Catherine’s New Year’s Eve masquerade ball.
Elizabeth had disparate feelings about the matter. The only benefit to herself was a chance to spend time with Darcy and, of course, it helped spare Charlotte from a swift return to long evenings at Rosings. But she would have to suffer Lady Catherine’s officious meddling in every action she undertook.
“You shall enjoy the masquerade tonight,” Charlotte said after breakfast. “You always did love a ball and dancing until dawn.” She handed Elizabeth yesterday’s newspaper. “Here is what is mentioned under the county’s Christmas festivities.”
The Dowager Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s Masquerade Ball
Takes place tomorrow at Rosings. This is expected to be a most brilliant concern. All the neighbouring nobility and gentry are invited, as well as the whole of their connexions in high life, who may be disposed to attend from any distance. None shall be admitted who are not masked. The mansion is a noble residence and all of the apartments will be decorated with coloured lamps and emblems of the season. The dancing is expected to commence at nine o’clock, the supper and unmasking at twelve, and dancing will be renewed and continue until a very late hour.
“It will be a larger affair than I originally supposed,” Elizabeth said.
“I understand that Lady Catherine has masquerade dress to select from for those who do not have their own. Miss de Bourgh will have many to choose from since her mother hosts a ball every New Year’s Eve. What character would you like to assume?”
She was more interested in what Darcy would wear, and if she could learn who he was before much of the night had passed. “Perhaps I shall dress as a man? It might be diverting to dance all night in trousers.”
“Not if you have to dance the gentleman’s part,” said Charlotte, “and dance with only ladies.”
“I am not certain how far Lady Catherine’s love of a masquerade goes. She may draw the line at men turned to women, and vice versa.”
“I think even she would not host such a ball if she then insisted on stringent rules for the masquerade dress.”
“Whatever her opinion is, I am certain to hear it,” Elizabeth said.
Masquerade balls were whimsical and lively events, and well-suited to Christmas season frivolities. Be sure to read A Hopeful Holiday to see what Darcy and Elizabeth wear to Lady Catherine’s masquerade, and to find out how these two have any reason to hope the other might love them.