Masked women on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Laeken (now part of the city of Brussels) in an anonymous oil painting from 1601.

In 1500s Europe, masks were fashionable—and scandalous

Fingers started wagging when 16th-century European women began wearing masks to protect their skin and hide their identities.

Masked women on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of Laeken (now part of the city of Brussels) in an anonymous oil painting from 1601.
Oronoz/Album

Masks have been used by many of the world’s cultures, from Asia to Africa, for many purposes, from the holy to the medical to the mundane. At times, mask wearing has been embraced as fashionable, much like in 16th-century Europe when wealthy women covered their faces and shielded their complexions from prying eyes and the hot sun.

(These modern artists are reimagining the face mask. Here’s how.)

At this time in history, pale skin was a sign of high status; sun-kissed skin suggested not health and vitality as it does now, but rather the necessity and drudgery of working outside. In order to achieve the lightest complexion, untouched by freckles and sunburn, upper-class women started wearing facial coverings to shield their faces from sun, wind, and dust. The appearance of smooth, pale skin was often further exaggerated with heavy white makeup.

Stylish women began wearing masks in the high-society capitals of London, Paris, and Venice. The first masks consisted of forms of black velvet that covered the top half of the face (in France this type of mask was called a loup, or wolf, because it frightened children). A vizard, covered the entire face. Rather than fastened around the back of the head, some vizards were held in place by having the wearer clench in her teeth a bead attached to the inside of the mask. Other vizards could be carried like fans and held in front of the face to hide the wearer’s visage.

(Why plague doctors wore those strange beaked masks)

Because the vizard covered the whole face, moralists took issue with it. In 1583 Puritan social reformer Philip Stubbes had this to say about the full-face mask in The Anatomie of Abuses: “[I]f a man that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, hee would thinke hee met a monster or a deuil, for face hee can see none.” Vizard wearers “prophane the name of God,” he concluded, and “liue in al kinde of voluptuousnes and pleasure.”

The play’s the thing

Part of that pleasure was found in the theater, which became fashionable in European capitals during the 17th and 18th centuries. In his diary Samuel Pepys describes a trip to the Theatre Royal in June 1663:

Here I saw my Lord Falconbridge, and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have known her, and well clad: but when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face.

Wearing a mask to the theater was a way “to protect a woman’s modesty,” notes Will Pritchard, associate professor of English at Lewis & Clark College. Because plays at the time could be full of off-color language and double entendres, it was considered that a “proper” lady required a mask to shield her from a spectator’s gaze.

Outside the theater, the mask provided a degree of freedom in daily life that did not exist before, making it possible for a woman to go to market or church unescorted by a man. An unmasked woman risked causing a scandal by venturing out in public without a chaperone.

Along with bringing women a measure of independence—which greatly contributed to its popularity—the mask offered a dimension of mystery and illusion by hiding a person’s face. In The Careless Lovers, a 1673 comedy by the English writer Edward Ravenscroft, a character says, “Under the Vizard the Wife goes to the Play, Ball, or Masquerade undiscover’d to her Husband . . . the Daughter or Neece unperceiv’d by her Relations.”

(Gloves have a long history, from fashionable accessory to medical necessity.)

Going incognito

Scholar of French culture Joan DeJean observes that in many late 17th-century depictions of French noblewomen, they “toy with their masks.” Unlike in other major European capitals, “only in Paris . . . did an otherwise quotidian practice evolve into an elaborate and often flirtatious ritual” in which women would playfully hide and reveal themselves. In Paris the term incognito, borrowed from an Italian word, was first used in the early 17th century to describe the more stylish aspects of wearing masks: “It was there that the phenomenon of masking began to spread beyond personages of the highest rank,” writes DeJean.

In the 1700s Venice had become Europe’s “city of masks” thanks to the popularity of its Carnival; and the fashion of wearing masks in public started to take hold at other social events too. Gentlewomen wore a moretta, the Venetian version of the vizard, which was usually complemented with a wide-brimmed hat and a veil.

Half masks, worn also by men, were typical as well, though often in white. Called a maschera, it was tucked up into a tricorn black hat to keep it on. Much like in Paris and London, the use of masks in Venice’s daily life allowed for more social exchange in a highly stratified society, whether in the theaters, cafés, markets, or parks.

(This 19th-century dandy rewrote the rules for men's fashion.)

About face

As mask wearing evolved, however, the gentlewomen who saw it as a way to protect their virtue in theaters were joined by sex workers who wore them to hide their identities—as well as pique curiosity and intrigue by dressing as aristocrats, not only in theaters but in gambling houses. It turned an evening of entertainment into a guessing game of who belonged to proper society and who did not. As the English writer John Dryden put it in the second part of his 1670 play The Conquest of Granada, “those Vizard Masques maintain that Fashion, / To soothe and tickle sweet Imagination.”

By the end of the 17th century, the term “vizard” had become slang for prostitute. Queen Anne decreed that vizards promoted vice, and in 1704 she banned them in theaters. The social stigma associated with masks gradually ended their popularity as high fashion in London. In Venice masks, propriety, and social rank were no less a concern. In 1608 masked sex workers could face punishment for posing as “honest” women. If a “woman of ill-repute or public prostitute” was found wearing a mask, she would be chained for two hours between the two columns at the entrance to Piazza San Marco.

(Marie Antoinette started a style revolution in France.)

A century later, the Venetian government reversed its position, requiring sex workers in theaters or gambling rooms to wear masks. In a final twist, the city’s Council of Ten issued yet another decree in 1776 that required all nobles to wear a mask to counter “a dangerous immodesty of the supposedly decent classes.” Venetian culture had become synonymous with masks, thanks to its annual Carnival celebrations before Lent. Elaborate facial coverings laid the groundwork for a tradition strongly associated with Venice to this day, despite a long interruption begun in 1797 after the Napoleonic invasion and lasting (off and on) until the 1970s.

In Paris, meanwhile, by the mid-18th century changes in fashion made public mask wearing less appealing to women, who were beginning to gain greater freedom in other ways. What DeJean writes about Paris applies to the fashion of masking in general: “The modern city had created the desire for more casual, more modern ways of visiting it.”

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