The History of Fancy Dress Part II

This week in fancy dress with Kate we’re going to talk about pleasure gardens, which is nearly as sordid as it sounds, but first the original burning man (or in this instance, men).

So. Where did we leave off? That’s right, the Venetian Carnival (you can read about it in Part I, if you haven’t already – why haven’t you?)

From the late fourteenth century a number of one-off Court events were held in England and France which resembled the masked balls held in Venice during carnival season (but without the public access) and these grew in popularity during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, Shakespeare included masked balls in a number of his works including Romeo and Juliet (c.1591) and Much Ado About Nothing (c.1612)

My favourite early example of these is the Bal des Sauvages (also called Bal des Ardents) which was held in 1393 in Paris. This was a masked ball at which Charles VI of France performed in a dance, with five members of the French nobility, all dressed as wild men in costumes made from flax and pitch. In an exciting plot twist, however, four of the dancers were killed in a fire caused by a torch brought in by a spectator. This tragedy undermined the confidence of the general public in Charles and the Parisians threatened a rebellion over it.

In England, there were also Masques, which were similar to masked balls but also had a theatrical element, involving music, dancing, singing and acting, often within an elaborate set and sometimes an element of pageantry. These were particularly popular in the Tudor and Stuart courts (1485-1714) and were used to celebrate royal occasions such as a wedding or a birth. Nobles and royalty would take part, often playing gods or heroes while the other roles were played by professional actors. Those attending the event sometimes dressed for the occasion as well.

This brings us onto the Pleasure Gardens, John James Heidegger, a Swiss count who arrived in Italy in 1708, is credited with having introduced the Venetian fashion for the semi-public masquerade ball to London. The first was held at the Haymarket Opera House in 1710 and from the 1730s they began to be held in public gardens, particularly Vauxhall and Ranelagh. The header image shows A Masquerade at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket by Giuseppe Grisoni, c. 1724

Vauxhall Gardens was opened in the mid-seventeenth century (the first recorded mention is in Pepys diary of 1662) in Kennington and was accessed by boat until the erection of Vauxhall Bridge in the 1810s. The garden drew all manner of people and supported enormous crowds, with its paths being noted for romantic assignations. Initially entrance was free but later attractions and events were charged for, these included fireworks, concerts, hot air balloon ascents and permanent features such as the rococo ‘’Turkish tent’ and the Rotunda. Many of the best known musicians and singers of the day performed in the gardens and masquerades and fancy dress balls were frequent and very popular. In 1732, the fashionable status of Vauxhall was confirmed when a fancy dress ball was attended by Frederick, Prince of Wales.

Ranelagh on the other hand was located in Chelsea and when it opened in 1742 it quickly became a more fashionable rival to Vauxhall. Horace Walpole wrote soon after the gardens opened, “It has totally beat Vauxhall… You can’t set your foot without treading on a Prince, or Duke of Cumberland”. The centrepiece of Ranelagh was a rococo rotunda designed by William Jones, a surveyor to the East India Company and there was also a Chinese pavilion (added in 1750), and an ornamental lake.

So what were people wearing to these balls I hear you cry?

Costumes (particularly for women) often combined elements of fashionable dress with fancy dress. Whilst the upper classes might have outfits especially made for them many costumes were hired and advertisements show the existence of several London habit-warehouses who engaged in this trade.

In line with Venetian traditions, the dress of the Commedia dell’ Arte characters Harlequin, Columbine, Punchinello, and Pantaloon was popular. Other favourites included:

Nuns’ and monks’ habits (worn with subversive intent – there’s a great example of this in the portrait The Fair Nun Unmasked by Henry Moreland, c. 1769)

Comic Scotsmen

Uniforms, particularly sailors

Mythical characters

Oriental dress (usually Turkish, Indian or Chinese). This was bolstered in the second half of the eighteenth century by British colonial and economic advances in those regions

Pastoral clothing (particularly shepherdesses and dairy maids)

The Connoiseur (May 1, 1755), however, records some more extravagant outfits

A common person may be content with appearing as a Chinese, a Turk, or a Friar; but the true genius will ransack earth, air and seas, reconcile contradictions, and call in things inanimate, as well as animate, to his assistance; and the more extravagant and out of nature his dress can be contrived, the higher is the joke. I remember one gentleman above six foot high, who came to the masquerade drest like a child in a white frock and leading strings, attended by another gentleman of very low statue, who officiated as his nurse…Another gentleman of no less humour very much surprised the company by carrying a thatched house about him; which was so contrived, that no part of him could be seen, except his face, which was looking out of the casement…In a word, dogs, monkeys, ostriches, and all kinds of monsters, are as frequently to be met with at the masquerade, as in the Covent Garden pantomimes…

I have said before that, that the masquerade is of foreign extraction, and imported to us from abroad. But as the English, though slow at invention, are remarkable for improving on what has already been invented, it is no wonder that we should attempt to heighten the gusto of this entertainment, and even carry it beyond the licence of a foreign carnival.

In line with changing views on morality and the social norms of polite society, the masquerade and the pleasure gardens became unfashionable in the early nineteenth century, with Ranelagh closing in 1803 and Vauxhall in 1859. European society’s love of fancy dress, however, continued…


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