The Regency Wardrobe collection - research & making - Eyes of the Dragon

The masked ball

Venice is of course renowned as the capital of the mask wearing world and certainly masquerade balls became a feature of the Carnival season as early as the 15th century, involving "...increasingly elaborate allegorical Royal Entries, pageants, and triumphal processions celebrating marriages and other dynastic events of late medieval court life..."

"Masquerade balls were extended into costumed public festivities in Italy during the 16th century Renaissance (Italian, maschera). They were generally elaborate dances held for members of the upper classes..." But: "With the fall of the Venetian Republic at the end of the 18th century, the use and tradition of masks gradually began to decline..."

That said, shops selling masks remain dotted throughout the narrow lanes of the city of Venice even today.

"Masquerades were introduced to London by the Swiss count Johann Jacob Heidegger, who first came across them in Italy and originally staged them in London theatres. After Vauxhall Gardens opened to the paying public in 1729...later, Ranelagh Gardens in 1741...they became obvious venues for such lavish and fashionable entertainments."

In Britain as in Italy most of these events tended to be the preserve of those who were sufficiently wealthy as to be able to afford the expensive ticket prices "...often as much as one guinea, or a week’s earnings for a skilled labourer..." Many were held to celebrate significant public events, such as the end of a war or a royal birthday.

In 1795 The Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent, attended a masked ball in Brighton:

Ths was before the era of his own Royal Pavilion as we know it today, so one might assume that George was a visitor and not the host of this party.

"In 1787, after much pleading and many promises by the Prince of Wales, the House of Commons agreed to clear his debts and increase his income.George hired architect Henry Holland to transform his Brighton lodging house into a modest villa which became known as the Marine Pavilion. With his love of visual arts and fascination with the mythical orient, George set about lavishly furnishing and decorating his seaside home. He especially chose Chinese export furniture and objects, and hand-painted Chinese wallpapers.In 1811 George was sworn in as Prince Regent because his father, George III, had been deemed incapable of acting as monarch...At that time the Marine Pavilion was a modest building in size, not suitable for the large social events and entertaining that George loved to host...In 1815, George commissioned John Nash to begin the transformation from modest villa into the magnificent oriental palace that we see today...George’s presence had an enormous impact on the prosperity and social development of Brighton from the 1780s. Brighton’s population grew significantly, from around 3,620 inhabitants in 1786 to 40,634 in 1831. The rebuilding of the prince’s home provided work for local tradesmen, labourers and craftsmen. The presence in the town of the court, George’s guests, members of society and the Royal Household provided invaluable business for local builders and the service industries.".

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Bayswater Masquerade Pre Admission Ticket January 1818. Image © British Museum

Summer tended to encourage open-air balls and ridottos but in the winter, at Christmas and New Year, the masquerade season would begin.

According to the Picture of London 1810 by John Feltham public masquerades took place at the Argyle Rooms, the Opera House and the Pantheon. In the diary of the exhibitions and amusements of London for the month of January it states:

"...In the course of this 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, 1l 1s and 2l 2s and dresses may be hired at the masquerade warehouses, from 5s to 2l 2s each."

Masquerade at the Pantheon (cropped) from The Microcosm of London Vol 2(1808-10)

But quickly enough such events had gained quite the reputation. Perhaps by its very nature the mask is believed by many to give licence to, or to encourage, duplicitous behaviour. Certainly it was believed and has been often written that such deeds as would have been considered too risqué to take part in whilst uncovered were given licence on those occasions when participants came disguised. And it is generally believed that the decline of the masquerade’s popularity coincided with increased public moralism during the 19th century. Although ‘fancy dress balls’ would remain a form of fashionable entertainment, they would become respectable and harmless affairs, comparatively.

It's certain that by the end of the 18th century and into the formal Regency masquerades became beloved of those who loved to party and George IV, whilst he was yet the Prince of Wales and then the Prince Regent, was chief amongst their number.