Masquerade costume, 1770-90
A black silk domino cloak with gold mask, worn over a french silk and linen dress c.1765. ID no. 70.59/1
What really sent critics into a panic was the idea of disguise, and the implications of being disguised. Within the walls of the masquerade, the formal conventions of polite eighteenth-century society were suspended. With the right costume, and a mask to hide your true identity, it was possible to step into another world for a few hours, where aristocrats played at being chimneysweeps and shepherds; men dressed as women and vice versa; prostitutes disguised themselves as nuns, and Englishmen became Ottoman Turks in robes and turbans.
Moralists and conservative thinkers worried that the norms which kept society functioning – social hierarchy, gender roles and so on – would be corrupted and compromised. What if, for example, a wealthy man became besotted with a prostitute in disguise? If a respectable woman showed off her body in men’s clothing? Or if impressionable young people regarded foreign cultures as glamorous, rather than inferior to the English? If status and respect could obtained – or lost – by simply pulling on some different clothes, wasn’t the entire social structure at risk?
In the end, the decline of masquerade’s popularity coincided with the increased public moralism of the early 19th century. Although ‘fancy dress balls’ remained a form of fashionable entertainment throughout the nineteenth century, they were respectable and harmless affairs compared with the risqué, dramatic masquerades of a hundred years before.