The mask is an element inspired by the primordial atmosphere that began in ancient cultures. It was perfected during the Renaissance era from where it moved on to modern times as a mystery element. As such it was was once borrowed by capricious fashion and transferred to a costume, creating a striking accessory that would be used in all major periods of fashion history. It is also not forgotten nowadays and it has remained in the consciousness of the mankind as a feature of the mystery and intrigue.
Masks were worn not only in highly developed cultures where refined camouflage skills existed, but also in many primitive societies, where masquerading tended to express the presence of supernatural forces. A person who is wearing a mask feels also internally transformed and at that moment inherits the characteristics of the image he or she represents. This means that masks were not always seen as a way to hide the face ... They were often absolutized and valued as independent cult and art objects. Maybe the aggressively painted face of the warrior of ancient civilizations inspired the emergence of the first mask? Historically, in many parts of Africa and in the islands of Melanesia, such masks have played a significant role in militant rituals. Indeed, the history of mask is full of unexpected surprises.
In the ancient world of the Mediterranean, masks were also identified as the embodiment of supernatural powers. And yet, the peculiar phenomenon created by the ancient Greek theater - the actor's mask - is of particular interest. In the great theaters of ancient Greece, it was difficult for viewers to see the facial features of the actor from a long distance. Therefore, the actor's face had to be made striking. His height was extended with the help of footwear (they had thick soles), the clothes were padded and the face was covered with a brightly colored mask with enlarged facial features. The traditions of wearing the ancient Greek masks have moved to Ancient Rome. Already in the 1st century, masks were consistently used in Roman theater, secular celebrations and religious rituals.
The Mystery of Mask & Its Modernity
During the Middle Ages in the 13th and 14th centuries, among the most popular forms of public entertainment were masks, parades and mystery games. The participants of these events always wore masks and hooded capes. Their masks were depicting bearded men, angels, various animals ...The wearing of masks was a form of entertainment typical of medieval folklore and folk festivities that did not rule out pagan-inspired orgy. The masking was condemned as the antithesis of Christianity, but it did not disappear, retaining the testimonies about early carnivals for the future generations.
In the 16th century masks became fashion accessories. They were made laconic from black velvet and initially covered only the top of the face. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603) of England, all the fashionable people wore these small black velvet accessories. [2.] In those days, no high-ranking or virtuous woman dared to go out on the streets without a mask, and it seems that the mask function was equivalent to a veil - hence it was used for incognito protection. The role of the mask was also to protect the layer of makeup from the effects of sunlight, wind and dust in the streets of the cities and during travel. Often, eye gaps for such masks were filled with glass. As in many fashion-related areas, there were also rules for using masks. One such rule stated that it was forbidden to wear a mask in the presence of the king.
In 16th century England, the popularity of masks was also seen as a reference to many of Shakespeare's plays, such as "Romeo and Juliet", "Cymbeline" and others, where this fashion accessory is mentioned. And indeed, since the 1650's, the popularity of masks has been incredibly high. They were apparently promoted for two reasons: to protect the skin from external environmental conditions, and to hide some of the undesirable signs of skin disease. In this case, the French word "cache-laid" means 'masked ugliness'. [2.]
Dressing in dramatic masks has been popular entertainment in the 16th and 17th century courts. During the reign of Louis XIV (1643 - 1715), one of the favorite pleasures of the courtiers was masquerades and dressing-up. These were masquerades in which men wore a special outfit called "domino". It was like a hooded cloak with wide sleeves. In such a disguised way, they could easily disappear into the crowd and not be afraid that they would be recognized. In addition, it was a time when the ladies started engaging in intrigue. Wearing masks on the streets or political meetings, they were able to protect themselves, to be invisible and to get information. At a time when conspiracies were conceived in boudoirs and later broke into the streets, the mask was an indispensable accessory.
The habit of wearing a half mask domino as a mask ball accessory dates back to Venice, which is a European metropolis of carnival culture. In the modern world, masks are also designed as "false faces". They allow the mask party to represent itself even in the most unimaginative ways. A domino mask is a small, often rounded mask that is covering only the area around the eyes and the space between them. The name "domino" derives from the Latin for 'dominus' ("lord", "master") combined with the word "mask" (deriving from medieval Latin masca meaning "specter" or "nightmare". [ 7.]
This type of mask is, in a sense, a classic testimony of older times in modern day carnivals. Earlier masks of this type became known as domini because they resembled French priest's winter hoods, which were white on the inside and black on the outside. [ 6.]
Associatively, this mask is related to the Venice Carnival and, indeed, there it was the part of the more extensive black domino costume (sometimes white and blue) worn by both male and female participants. Carnival dress code is an unwritten law that all its guests and participants must wear masks to achieve an atmosphere of adventure, conspiracy, intrigue, and mystery. [7.] However, it was this mask that also became a fashion accessory, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Carnivals & Masquerades
Masks have always been an important feature of the Carnival of Venice. The first documented sources mentioning the use of masks in Venice can be found as far back as the 13th century. In later ages, especially in the 18th century, this carnival began to be associated with certain types of masks.
The Venetian Carnival masks reflect a certain tradition and are testimonies of their era. So, let's take look at the most famous masks of this carnival!
Bauta is a heavily gilded mask which originally was simply stark white cover for the entire face. The traditional mask is characterized by "the inclusion of an over-prominent nose, a thick supra-orbital ridge, a projecting "chin line", and no mouth. The mask's beak-like chin is designed to enable the wearer to talk, eat, and drink without having to remove it; thereby, preserving the wearer's anonymity. The bauta was often accompanied by a red or black cape and a tricorn." [4.] This mask is particularly characteristic for the 18th century, when it was worn with a black cape - tabarro. "The bauta had become a standardized society mask and disguise regulated by the Venetian government. " [4.] Only citizens had the right to use the bauta. [4.] It was usually worn by men, but many paintings by Pietro Longhi from the 18th century also depict women wearing this mask and tricorn hat.
Colombina is a half-mask, only covering the wearer's eyes, nose, and upper cheeks. It is often highly decorated with gold, silver, crystals, and feathers. It is held up to the face by a baton or is tied with ribbon as with most other Venetian masks. Because of its decorativeness, this mask became a popular fashion accessory during 17th and 18th centuries. [4.]The name of this mask comes from a stock character in the Commedia dell'arte where Colombina was a maidservant.
Medico Della Peste /The Plague Doctor is a mask with a long beak. Therefore it became as one of the most recognizable of all Venetian masks. And yet it did not start out as carnival mask but as a method of preventing the spread of disease. "The striking design originates from 17th-century French physician Charles de Lorme who adopted the mask together with other sanitary precautions while treating plague victims." [4.]
Moretta (dark one) / servetta muta (mute servant woman) was a small strapless black velvet oval mask with wide eye-holes and no lips or mouth worn by patrician women. [wiki] It was derived from the visard mask invented in France in the 16th century, but differed in not having a hole to speak through. [4.] " The mask was only just large enough to conceal a woman's identity (as seen in the image below) and was held in place by the wearer biting on a button or bit (the women wearing this mask were unable to speak, hence muta) and was often finished off with a veil."
Volto (Italian for face)/ larva (meaning ghost in Latin) is the iconic modern Venetian mask: it is often made of stark white porcelain or thick plastic, though also frequently gilded and decorated, and is commonly worn with a tricorn hat and cloak. [4.]
Pantalone (from the Italian "pianta il leone") is possibly referencing the conquests of Venice. The origins of this character, is usually represented as a sad old man with an oversized nose like the beak of a crow with high brows and slanted eyes. Pantalone is a half mask and it is almost exclusively worn by men. [4.]
Arlecchino is also a black half-mask with an ape-like nose and a "bump" to signify a devil's horn. He is meant to be a kind of "noble savage", devoid of reason and full of emotion, a peasant, a servant, even a slave. As Commedie dell'arte theatrical counterpart and often a servant of Pantalone, and the two characters often appeared together on the stage. [4.]
How was it then, in the 18th century? And what are the masking traditions of today's carnivals?
The Carnival of Venice is a peculiar parade of camouflage where everyone walks in masks. Masked everyone is doing business, taking part in court proceedings, shopping and visiting. Hidden, you can express everything, encourage yourself to everything. In the mask you are not what you really are.
References & Further Reading:
1. Lester K., Oerke B.V. Accessories of Dress: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. - Dover Publications, 2004.
2. Parute E. Maskēšanās un masku balles...//Māksla Plus 1/'99
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My name is Edīte Parute and I am a fashion historian and researcher from Latvia, association member at "The Association of Dress Historians" (UK) and author of the book "Stila un modes enciklopēdija"/"Encyclopedia of Style and Fashion" (2010) as well as author of many publications.
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