Masquerade and Masked Balls

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Masquerades and masked balls are linked to the celebration of Carnival and mardi gras. Originally part of a cycle of pagan festivities celebrating the advent of the spring planting season, in the Middle Ages, Carnival began after the winter solstice as part of the Feast of Fools, for which the congregation elected abbots and bishops from among the junior clergy who masked and dressed in women's clothes and performed a mock Mass that ended with dancing in the church and streets, and the coronation of an Abbot of Misrule. With the Reformation, Protestant countries banned Carnival, while the Feast of Fools moved into the street. The result was that in Catholic countries, Carnival revelry and masking took over the streets of towns and cities between Twelfth Night and Ash Wednesday, in anticipation of giving up all carne—meat and sex—for Lent. Carnival thrived in Paris, Venice, and Rome, among other cities. The last six days of Carnival were called les jours gras (fat days) lasting from feudi gras, the Thursday before Ash Wednesday through the night of mardi gras. Les jours gras were celebrated with masked balls, obscene dancing, and eating, drinking, and sex. On the morning of Ash Wednesday, this orgiastic explosion ended in a parade of exhausted, masked revelers.

Masquerades also existed in eighteenth-century London, but it is Parisian Carnival and its masked balls in the nineteenth century that have produced the most commentary, gossip, and visual images. Many European and American observers published memoirs describing their experiences at the masked balls in Paris, while lithographs of the masked balls at the opera and at other Parisian theaters and dance halls proliferated during the nineteenth century, producing countless imitations. Indeed, in popular culture masked balls and the French were so closely linked that an early American silent movie (1908) is titled At the French Ball—the story, of course, of adultery at a masked ball.

Court theatricals with masks and a ballet were initially introduced at the French and English courts in the seventeenth century. By the early eighteenth century, masquerades and bals masqués (the French term for masked balls) were attracting large crowds at the newly opened public dance halls in London and Paris, at the aristocratic balls at the Paris opera (as of 1715), and in private Parisian mansions that welcomed the masked public during Carnival. During the eighteenth century, the masked balls in public dance halls were the height of English fashion, while the French celebration of Carnival was increasingly politicized and used to attack the monarchy. In this world turned upside down, women dressed as men, frequently as soldiers, sailors, or stevedores; men as women; the poor disguised themselves as bishops, lawyers, and aristocrats; and the rich disguised themselves as beggars, peasants, fishmongers, in Oriental masquerade, and in domino, the classic Venetian costume of a hooded black cape and mask. Regardless of a persons gender and class, sexual license was tolerated at masked balls so that men and women were free to indulge their sexual proclivities with persons of whatever sex and class they chose. With the French Revolution, Carnival and masking were temporarily banned, while in England such permissiveness died. In 1800 Napoleon reintroduced Carnival, although by 1830 Parisian Carnival was said to be a thing of the past.

Nonetheless, from a mere three authorized public masked balls during Carnival in 1830, by 1831 Parisian Carnival exploded in the aftermath of the July Revolution (1830). The combination of a new revolutionary generation disaffected with the conservative government of the July Monarchy and the spread of romanticism infused new life into Parisian Carnival. The fashion press and the new satirical dailies, benefiting from the introduction of cheap lithographs illustrating the masked balls at the opera and at other theaters. The introduction of gossip columns and cheap newspapers, paid for by advertising instead of subscription, provided Parisians and readers everywhere a blow-by-blow account of the masked balls during Carnival after 1830. The satirical daily Le Charivari coined the catchwords of Carnival, "Down with the Carnival of our ancestors! Hooray for the carnival of romanticism and politics," and published lithographs by Honore Daumier and Paul Gavarni depicting the Carnival masked balls in all their glory. Hundreds of pamphlets, satires, illustrations, and fashion magazines supplied a running commentary on the pleasures to be found at the Carnival masked balls at their height in the 1830s and 1840s, including the masked balls that took place in the middle of the Revolution of 1848. It is not surprising, then, that although these balls continued until the end of the century, it was this period in the 1830s and 1840s that was mythic and that was depicted in Edouard Manet's famous painting Le Bal masqué de l'Opéra (1873).

What made this Carnival and its masked balls so remarkable was the confluence of political discontent and the emergence of a consumer society that fanned the flames of pleasure and desire. Many of the costumes reflected a rejection of traditional roles and a yearning for the exotic, suggesting a widespread ambivalence about the values of emerging capitalist society and its imposition of middle-class culture and domesticity. The most chic costumes of the moment worn to masked balls in eighteenth-century London were Oriental masquerades, while in nineteenth-century Paris, Spanish dancers, or couples dressed as stevedores were the most fashionable. None of these fashions lasted beyond their moment, although designers in the early twenty-first century have looked at illustrations from the masked balls of nineteenth-century Paris as an inspiration for clothes.

However, what is significant about Parisian masked balls in the nineteenth century are the technological inventions that made the balls fashionable and accessible to an expanding literate public. The introduction of the lithographic process and the rotary press made it possible for newspapers and magazines to print more newspapers with cheap illustrations, while advertising, a new capitalist invention, reduced their cost. The preeminence of Paris fashion, made more accessible through beautifully illustrated fashion magazines and the introduction of department stores and costume warehouses, offered this new consuming public fashionable disguises and cheaper clothes. Serialized novels in newspapers and gossip columns fed the aspirations and desires of increasing populations and an expanding middle class, especially the women, who now had more money to spend and places to spend it, including the masked balls during Carnival. Most of these elements already existed in England in the eighteenth century, when masquerades were the height of fashion. Missing was the French genius for publicity and seduction, which made the special pleasures and intensity of Parisian masked balls legendary and guaranteed their immortality in print and visual culture, both high and low.

See alsoCarnival Dress; Ceremonial and Festival Costumes; Masks .


Alter, Ann Ilan. "Pursuing Pleasure at the Masked Balls at the Opera during the July Monarchy." Laurels: The Magazine of the American Society of the French Legion of Honor 60, no. 2 (1989): 101–118.

——. "Parisian Women at the Opera Balls." In Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality. Edited by Efrat Tseëlon. London: Routledge, 2001.

Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York: New York University Press, 1978.

Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction, Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Cohen, Sarah R. "Masquerade as Mode in the French Fashion Print." In The Clothes That Wear Us: Essays on Dressing and Transgressing in Eighteenth-Century Culture. Edited by Jessica Munns and Penny Richards. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999.

Flaubert, Gustave. L'Éducation Sentimentale. Paris: Éditions Garnier, 1984.

Ann Ilan Alter