The History of Fancy Dress Part I

I know this is a bit of a departure from my usual style, but let’s talk about fancy dress. This is mostly because it interests me as a topic and no one has written a great deal about it. So here is the first part in a (three? four? – we’ll see how strong I feel) part guide to the history of fancy dress. Do grab a cup of tea and settle in, because these are going to be a long read.

Let’s start with some definitions to avoid confusion:

Cambridge Dictionary
The special clothes that you wear for a party where everyone dresses as a particular type of character or thing.
‘a fancy-dress party’
‘I thought he was in fancy dress’
A costume for a ball, masquerade, etc., chosen to please the fancy, usually a costume characteristic of a particular period or place, class of persons, or historical or fictitious character.

Wikipedia – American
(colloq.) formal wear – usually tuxedos for men and ball gowns for women.

Okay, so you’ve probably noticed that I’m not American, so let’s discount that last one. I do, however, vividly remember several Americans turning up to a fancy dress party in St Andrews in black tie and being deeply confused when faced with a sea of facepaint, ingenious cardboard constructions and morph suits.

But, as usual, I digress, so where did the term come from?

The word ‘fancy’ first emerged in the mid-fifteenth century as fantsy, a contraction of fantasy relating to a whim, notion or desire. By the late sixteenth century it had specifically come to relate to matters of taste and by the 1750s it was in use as an adjective to mean fine, elegant, ornamental or unusual (as opposed to plain). The phrase fancy dress first seems to have come into its own around 1760.

The first sustained examples of fancy dress come from the Venetian Carnival. This event allegedly had its origins in the celebrations of victory against the city of Aquileia in 1162 but was first officially recognised and recorded during the Renaissance. It was a public, open-air event in which all classes could participate in dancing, feasting, and practical jokes. The carnival became very famous during the eighteenth century and started a fashion for similar events in other cities in Italy and across Western Europe.

One of the best-known traditions from the carnival is the use of masks and costumes and although these were in evidence from the thirteenth century, they became increasingly prevalent in the eighteenth century. Although it is not clear why masks first became popular at the event it has been suggested that it was a response to the very rigid class hierarchy that existed in Venice in that they allowed class boundaries to be transgressed during the carnival.

Masks were often worn with long cloaks or robes (called dominoes) or costumes which further served to disguise the wearer. Many of these outfits were inspired by characters from Commedia dell’ Arte. This was a type of improvisational theatre with a range of stock characters that was popular from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. Each stock character evolved a distinct set of attributes – characteristic speech, gestures, props, costume and masks that became standard to the portrayal of the part. These masks and costumes were adapted for wear during the carnival.

Examples include:

Arlecchino (Harlequin)
Half-mask with a short, wide nose, arching eyebrows and a bump or a boil on a forehead. Brightly coloured checked costume

Capitan Scaramouche
Half-mask that only covers the eyes with a very long nose, patterned suit

Half-mask decorated with feathers, silver, and gold which covers the eyes and cheeks, apron

Full mask, white trousers and tunic

Other costumes and mask combos also evolved and these were derived from a range of sources and in some cases the origins are unknown, these include:

This mask covers the whole face and has no mouth but it has beak-like chin that allows wearer to talk, eat and drink without taking it off. It was usually worn with a red or black cloak and a tricorn hat.

A half-mask in a shape of cat’s head. Cats were rare in Venice and this is probably one of the reasons for choosing that shape for a mask.

Dottore Peste/Medico della Peste
This was a copy of the historical costume worn by plague doctors and features a mask with a very long beak-like nose, usually worn with a black cloak or domino and flat brimmed hat.

If you want some examples of what people actually looked like in these outfits, check out the paintings of Pietro Longhi (1701-1785) – the header image is one of his, The Ridotto, c.1750. There are also some excellent (and extremely saucy) descriptions of the carnival and some of the costumes in Cassanova’s (1725-1798) diaries, here’s one of my favourites:

I was at the place of meeting one hour before the time appointed, and although the night was cold I did not feel it.  Just as the hour struck I saw a two-oared gondola reach the shore and a masked figure get out. My heart was beating quickly, but seeing that it was a man I avoided him, and regretted not having brought my pistols. The masked figure, however, came up to me with outstretched hands; I then recognized my angel, who laughed at my surprise and took my arm. Without speaking we went towards St. Mark’s Square, and arrived at my casino.

We went upstairs and I threw off my mask and my disguise; but M—— M——took great delight in walking about the rooms and in examining every nook. She was surprised by the spectacle of her image, lit by numerous candles and multiplied by the mirrors, which reflected her charming person in a thousand different ways: a coat of pink velvet, embroidered with gold spangles, a matching waistcoat; black satin breeches, diamond buckles, a valuable solitaire on her little finger. So that I could see her better she came and stood before me. I looked in her pockets, and found a gold snuff-box, a splendid opera-glass, handkerchiefs of the finest cambric, soaked with the most precious essences. Eventually I found a pistol: an English weapon of fine steel, and of the most beautiful finish.

Annnnnd I think that’s probably a good place to sign off for now, part II to follow.


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