Masquerade Balls in Popular Culture

28 Mar 2018

Masks in Pop Culture

Masquerade Balls throughout history                               

Ever since the French king Charles VI first threw the infamous Bal des Ardents in 1393, masquerade balls have captured the public imagination: Dominating the party scene in 16th century Venice, cropping up in the romance plays of the English reformation, and forming the backdrop for dramatic scenes in a great many modern movies.

And their preeminent position as a marker of luxurious excess has only solidified with age: Where once they were solely the domain of the rich and privileged, they’re now something that everyone, no matter their background, will recognise immediately. So much so that a filigree mask, carefully positioned on the front-cover of a novel, can instantly telegraph connotations of romance and intrigue. 

In America, masquerade balls are often thrown on prom nights, or to celebrate sweet 16 parties. Here in the UK, they’re a regular feature of the charity ball circuit, and a semi-permanent fixture on prime-time TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing or Made in Chelsea.

Working out why they’re so captivating is no easy feat; psychologists, historians and sociologists like Terry Castle have authored entire books on the subject, and trying to unpick our cultural fascination with the phenomenon is well beyond the reach of this blog post.

But the fact that their influence is particularly, inescapably pervasive is beyond dispute. Some 400 years after they were first introduced to the public eye, they’re still cropping up in our art, our entertainment, and our imaginations.

Here, we've tried to provide a rough timeline to profile the growth of the masquerade phenomenon in popular culture, so that you can see just how quickly they begun to influence our cultural sensibilities, and just how broad their reach really is:


1393 - A First introduction

Reeling from a bout of temporary insanity, French king Charles VI demanded that his nobles host a lavish party. Desperate to entertain the young king, his retainers decided to put on a decadent display featuring masked dancers decked out to represent wild men, demons and other fantastical beasts.

The resultant affair caused so much scandal that Charles and his brother were forced to do penance, and the masquerade ball was catapulted straight to the forefront of the public imagination; serving as a marker for the decadence and depravity associated with the monarchy.

Admittedly, at this time, awareness of the masquerade as a discreet cultural phenomenon was limited to the nobility, and wasn’t something that the common people of France (or Europe) would really have known about.


The 15th Century - A More Public Introduction

By the dawn of the 15th century, the masquerade was a mainstay of Venetian carnivals, and masked balls were often thrown to celebrate the culmination of the Carnivale season. Again, at this point in time, the masquerade was still very much associate with the nobility, but awareness was starting to filter down into the public conscience: Street plays mocking the debauched masked balls of the elite were increasingly common, and the mask ‘personalities’ started cropping up in public parades.


The 17th Century - The Masquerade comes to Britain

Is widely credited with bringing the tradition of the masquerade to Great Britain. Once here, the pageantry, pomp and decadence quickly took root, and masked balls became a mainstay of popular culture. To begin with, they were once again the vice of choice for nobles and members of the landed gentry, but their popularity quickly spread to dance halls and other locales more frequently associated with regular members of society.

In fact, the masquerade phenomenon spread so quickly that it gave rise to an anti-masquerade movement, comprised of moralising members of the public who saw the spread of masked balls as a sinful and worrying thing, with the potential to compromise working class morals.

It was around this time that Masquerade balls began to appear in restoration comedies like Aphra Behn’s The Rover, cementing their place in the rich tapestry of British culture.


1817 - Jane Austen attends a Masquerade Ball

If we’re looking for a good indicator of the widespread popularity that masquerade balls were coming to enjoy in the early 18th century, the fact that Jane Austen is reported to have attended one with her family must surely qualify.

Jane Austen occupied a strange place in Victorian society; belonging to a new class of emergent middle class merchants, vicars and writers who had prominent positions in society, but no lands or titles.

The fact that these middle class groups were starting to enjoy the pageantry and intrigue of the masquerade ball is a clear sign that the phenomenon was becoming an increasingly integral part of popular culture, and it seems that from then on, its relationship to debauchery, intrigue and decadence remains largely unchanged.


1964 - The Masque of the Red Death is released

Jumping ahead some 150 years, our next major milestone is the release of Roger Corman’s film The Masque of the Red Death. Based on the Poe novel of the same name, this film showcased all of the intriguing and mysterious connotations that we’ve come to associate with the masquerade ball; sucking audiences into its decadent and surreal otherworld in order to beguile them with strange and magical occurrences

Better than any other film, TV series or  play, the Masque of the Red Death showcases the darker, wilder side of the masquerade, and signals that public perception of the phenomenon was still tied up in some of the negative connotations first cemented in 15th Century France.


1986 - Labyrinth is released

Starring David Bowie, Labyrinth is a strange and dreamlike film that uses a masquerade ball to evoke a real sense of mystical, otherworldly dread in the films climax. Here, again, themes of identity are placed front and centre, making it abundantly clear that the masquerade is still very much associated with the idea of hiding in plain sight, masking your identity, and toying with anonymity.

The fact that it can be used to evoke such an emotional response is also proof of the degree to which masquerade balls have become ingrained in the public consciousness by this stage.


1986 Revisited - The Phantom of the Opera Debuts

It feels almost reductive to mark the release of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s infamous phantom of the opera here, but no discussion of the masquerade’s saturation of popular culture would be complete without at least a mention. Here, again, we see the masquerade ball used as a device to facilitate identity-related intrigue, and, more importantly a way to denote the station, wealth and social standing of everyone involved.

In short, The Phantom of the Opera marks another instance of the masquerade phenomenon being used as shorthand to denote a certain kind of atmosphere, which is still very much in evidence at modern day balls.


1996 Romeo + Juliet Debuts

Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo and Juliet marks a softening in the public perception of masquerade balls - here the trope is used in a more light-hearted way, allowing for all manner of identity related hijinks, and teenage drama. Gone are the sinister overtones, replaced by a more familiar focus on pageantry, fun and enjoyment.

It is undoubtedly this portrayal of the masquerade ball, inspired by Romeo and Juliet’s original connection to Venice that led to the popularity of sweet 16 masquerades, and other wholly American interpretations of the trope.


2004 - Strictly Come Dancing Hosts Masquerade Week

Marking a distinct break from cult films and the circles of the aristocratic, the masquerade phenomenon invades weeknight TV when Strictly Come Dancing aires a masquerade themed episode.

Admittedly, the masquerade balls staged on shows like Strictly come Dancing are a far cry from the mysterious and decadent affairs of 16th Century Venice - we know who all of the contestants are, and there’s little to no fun to be had trying to guess who’s who, but the pageantry is still eye-catching, and the events themselves are always a spectacle to behold.

It’s this sort of affair that you can expect to find by attending a modern day masquerade ball, particularly if you hunt for accessible, beginner friendly events like charity balls and the like.

If you’re interested in attending a masquerade ball, or feel inspired by this post, you might want to check out our blog for news of upcoming events near you!

Tracy Chandler Blog profile picture

By: Tracy Chandler

Tracy has been in the masquerade industry for over 15 years.

As an expert crafter, she spends her time sourcing, and buying, Posh Masks designs from the Venetian artisans in Venice, along with researching, and compiling, news, views, ideas, and advice on Venetian mask history and design, Commedia dell’arte characters and masks, the modern day masquerade party and the fancy dress world of Cosplay

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