18th Century Masquerade Balls

Some things never change … today the newspapers and magazines are full of Royal  & celebrity gossip with images of our royals, aristocrats  and celebs. in their finery etc. Was it any different in the Georgian era? The simple answer is ‘no’, the media were just as fascinated with the nobility and aristocrats and one in particular  – the Prince of Wales, later George IV who loved to party, as did our very own Grace Dalrymple Elliott along with the other demi-reps, any excuse to don the finery or the fancy dress costume!  So with that in mind we thought we’d take a quick peek at how the media covered events such as Royal and masquerade balls.

Masqurade 1795
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The masquerade ball season took place indoors during the winter months, with most being around Christmas and New Year, whereas open air balls and ridotto’s were held during the summer months.  In order to attend a ball you did of course have to purchase a ticket, these varied dramatically in price according to the event.

AN00694250_001
Bayswater Masquerade Pre Admission Ticket January 1818. Image courtesy of British Museum.

So, having purchased you ticket you would naturally require a costume.  As you peruse the newspapers you find an amazing number of shops and warehouses offering masquerade costumes at ‘very reasonable prices’ from fancy dresses to Venetian masks to domino’s, hoods and cloaks in assorted colours and fabrics. These balls would have been an amazing sight to behold. The domino being a large cloak designed to cover the whole body, sometimes it had a hood too, but mostly these were purchased separately.  They were usually black, but other colours were available.  Wardens Warehouse of No.1 Great Pultney Street, Golden Square, London were , in 1785, selling domino’s for as little as five shillings  which is about £15 in today’s money.  This image is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and shows a typical beautiful silk domino that would have been worn.

18th c silk Domino

Metropolitan Museum of Art, c.1765-1770.

Oracle and Public Advertiser  28th April, 1795

Some very ugly old ladies are labouring to revive the horrible absurdity of long waists; and they ascribe the unnatural innovation to our illustrious Princess.  Her Royal Highness has more taste about her than to renovate deformity.

The Princess of Wales wore at the Royal Ball and Supper, a spangled crape dress, exactly like the robe worn by Miss Wallis in Windsor Castle and among the fair styled ‘the Wallis robe’. 

beauty unmasked
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser  5th March 1783 provides us with an article entitled ‘Masquerade Intelligence’ which gives us a detailed account of the events of the evening. The event took place at one o’clock in the morning at the King’s Theatre, ticket prices were extremely high, but it did attract between six and seven hundred people.

The company was composed of mainly young men of fashion plus the usual distinguished demi-reps of the age. These ladies were mainly in fancy dress ‘admirably calculated to display their charms and to fascinate desiring youth’.   Food and drink was plentiful, but apparently not to the usual quantity and it was noted that shell-fish was missing – clearly quite a faux pas!

Perdita and Colonel Tarleton were present, the Colonel sporting the costume he wore in the painting by Reynolds. The press missed nothing and noticed that the couple had some sort of argument and Perdita stormed off to her box, just as Florizell (The Prince of Wales) was passing, apparently ‘linked and tantalised by  Mrs C_____ll_’ (Mrs Cornely).   Whatever the dispute, it was soon resolved.  The press had nicknames for many of the demi-reps – Mrs Mahon being The Bird of Paradise, Mary Robinson – Perdita and Grace Dalrymple Elliott was frequently known as ‘Dally the Tall’ among other sobriquets.

Another newspaper Parker’s General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer described the demi-reps as

The rest of the Cyprian corps as vestals, virgins, nuns, flower girls, wenches, queens, sultanas, milk-maids, and all that sort of thing, were numerously dispersed through the rooms, and drank, and sang, and danced, and laughed, and seemed to be quite happy.

Betty Bustle

Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

The Morning Herald  24th May 1786

Opera House Masquerade, King’s Theatre

In point of numbers, Monday night’s masquerade at this place was inferior to any former ones, but equal in insignificant dullness to what we have seen before. Harlequins without wit, clowns known only by the stupidity that is their natural characteristic; nosegay girls, men turned into women and vice versa, equally distinguishable by their impudence, together with a world of characters badly supported throughout, until the fumes of port and other such palatable wines, though we must own the best in their kind, had inspired the representatives with a fictitious glee, composed the whole group of above 600 masks assembled on the occasion.  However, the supper was good, the wines answerable and the purveyor, justly commended.

The least exceptionable of the masks in the room was a little brunette, who sung several songs in French and English, with tolerable good humour.  His Royal Highness, who came in late, was for a long while pestered, with a little blue eye nun of St Catharine, who was, and remained, masked so very close, that we could not guess at her sex, much less ascertain her real identity.

The dances introduced during the entertainment were highly relished by those who can feel the merit of some of the very best dancers in Europe. He whole, we understand, was under the direction of Mr Degville, the ballet master. We cannot congratulate him on the manner of which the entertainment was conducted, but give him joy of a well-earned and not inconsiderable gain on the occasion.

Rotunda 12 May 1789
Rotunda Masquerade Ball 12th May 1789 Click to enlarge Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

This image from the National Portrait Gallery depicts a masquerade ball at the Pantheon.

NPG D14263; 'Pantheon masquerade' by Thomas Rowlandson, and by Augustus Charles Pugin, aquatinted by J. Bluck, published by Rudolph Ackermann

© The Trustees of the British Museum
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2 thoughts on “18th Century Masquerade Balls

  1. […] Masquerades are one of the stereotypical cultural elements of the eighteenth-century; these were notorious social gatherings, lavish expressions of parody, debauchery, excess and ‘perverse foreign fashion’. It is hardly a surprise, therefore, to see medicine mocked in such a situation. To call someone a ‘High German Doctor’ in the eighteenth century was to accuse him of quackery. Earlier in the century a satirical broadside entitled ‘The High German Doctor and the English Fool’ extolled the skills of a physician who could cure Kings of tyrannical fever, Cardinals of pride, laziness and hypocrisy and Popes of ‘anti-Christian evil’ with his infallible pills, umbilical sticking plasters and pots of mollifying ointments. […]

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