The masquerade, or masked ball, is often imagined as an eroticised subculture of polite eighteenth-century elite society. Home to sexual frivolity, debauchery, and gender subversion, the masquerade gained fashionable status in the second half of the eighteenth century when aristocrats imported the phenomenon from their time away on the Grand Tour. Soon, the masquerade symbolised extravagant entertainment for London’s new urban elite. The French ambassador, the Duc d’Aumont, held private masked gatherings at Somerset House in 1713; later, John James Heidegger popularised the masquerades as a weekly gathering held at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket. As a result of their expensive and exclusive nature, masquerade balls remained imagined places of both pleasure and dangerous excess.
As such, contemporaries satirised the masquerade as an erotically charged cultural phenomenon filled with a newfound sexual deviancy and intimacy. It was assumed that, as one was unrestricted by the traditional confines of patriarchy, sexual freedom reigned supreme and gender norms were subverted. However, this does not accurately represent the erotic culture of the masquerade but rather a mythicised reality. Although markers of human divide were disrupted to some degree, to be tolerated they had to conform in some ways to the dominant patriarchal structures and gender boundaries which continued to exist outside of the walls of the masquerade. In this light, it is often an exaggeration to state that the masquerade acted as a powerful space of liberation for women to express their sexual identity and subvert gender norms.
Contemporaries turned towards displaying the specifically un-British values which were present at masked balls. It was assumed that the anonymity and sexual mixing of the masquerade – caused by disguise – obscured certain gender restraints which were otherwise pervasive in much of elite domestic life. In satirical prints of the period, women at masquerade balls are often depicted as scantily clad and leaning towards male characters with immodest intention: gender roles are reversed, and women become the bearers of sexual power. Henry Fielding’s The Masquerade, A Poem, published in 1724, encapsulates the attitudes towards women who participated in masked balls, and highlights the subversive power attributed to masks:
According to Fielding, the power of masked disguise allowed women, supposedly, to taint their innocence and bear a new sexualised nature. Thus, the masquerade was portrayed as an inversion of the outside world; a separate carnivalesque realm wherein social and gender relations were blurred and became almost non-existent. Precisely because of this detachment from traditional gender norms, it was feared that women were able to experience sexual freedom and move towards female emancipation at large.
Terry Castle, whose views are shared by several other historians, interprets these cultural sources as illustrating the masquerade as a unique space of ‘sexual utopianism’ within eighteenth-century society. She argues that the masquerade enabled a reversal of sexual hierarchies, producing a kind of ‘institutionalised disorder’. Castle interprets this subversion of sexual identity by women as a new kind of liberty which was normally only granted to men. She applauds the masquerade for breaking with dominant cultural rulings and taboos, thereby creating a safe space for women to partake in erotic behaviour and explore their sexuality – activities which were suppressed outside the walls of the masquerade. For Castle, the masquerade represented an escape for women; however, she fails to consider the extent of subversive power attributed to masquerades on multiple levels.
Masquerade balls are not recorded by those who attended them as much as other elite social events due to their exclusivity, and what little is recorded often discusses their dull and quiet nature. This leads us to consider who was distributing these satirised images of masquerade balls and why. Castle fails to grasp this in her work, instead relying on (and agreeing with) contemporary critics who exaggerated the freedom of sexuality within masquerade spaces. We should view these satirical prints not as absolute ‘truths’ about the subversive power of masquerades, but rather, acknowledge their identity as examples of an emergent and developing sexual aesthetic within eighteenth century society which conformed to patriarchal standards of ownership, masculinity, and femininity. Critics based their understanding of masquerades on scandalous reports of tainted love and illegitimate children, but these newspaper reports were not as numerous as Castle claims. To better understand the extent to which women were truly liberated by the masquerade, there needs to be a further critical examination of the use of sources and the purpose of their cultural reproduction. Applying a feminist lens allows us to better understand the dominant cultural norms which were at play within the masquerade, and Castle fails to recognise the limits of patriarchal power to which women had to subscribe, even at masked gatherings. The historical significance of the body will be the focus from here on.
The spectacle of the outfit, especially those worn by women, was the focus of attention at masquerades. Contemporary prints illustrate the extensive process women underwent to dress and prepare, satirising the vanity and superficiality of the masquerade. Precisely because of the anonymous nature of masked balls, women had instead to rely on presenting their identity through their bodies. These were of utmost importance for self-presentation, and therefore often the site of ridicule and attention by male commentators. In this regard, the anonymity of masking did not allow new freedoms of sexual expression. Undoubtedly, disguises were in fact used purposely as sexually charged phenomenon, but there is no evidence that these masks benefitted women or allowed them to escape from the oppression of patriarchal standards. Their bodies were rather gazed upon even more closely, and women again became objects to be consumed: women became the spectacles, and their bodies became places for male pleasure.
The detachment from their bodies within the space of the masquerade allowed women to become the subjects of wider intellectual and comedic investigation, as evidenced in contemporary print culture. This provides further insight into the continual objectification and ownership of women’s bodies. The increasing focus on female bodies also resulted in a heightened culture of aggressive and forceful ownership. For example, the fashionable Miss Chudleigh, who regularly attended masquerades in famously revealing clothing, is depicted in several prints being followed and attacked by masked men. As such, women’s bodies were continually sexually and aesthetically deemed to be male property. The masquerade can be imagined as producing a new strain of patriarchy which was adapted to its separate cultural and social conditions, rather than as a space of anti-patriarchal subversion. The masquerade thus submitted to rather than subverted the dominance of male eighteenth-century society.
In women’s personal writings, both fictional and not, attendance at the masquerade is recorded as nothing more than sophisticated submission to oppression. Frances Burney’s Cecilia, published in 1882, illuminates the general feelings women had within the confines of the masked ball: “Cecilia now became seriously uneasy; for she was made an object of general attention, yet could neither speak nor be spoken to.” Cecilia is objectified, acting as a spectacle to be gawked at. Cecilia is rendered powerless and submits to aesthetic consumption precisely because of the anonymous aspect of the masquerade. In The Sylph by Lady Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, published in 1779, she recalls how a man she thought was her husband approached her:
The anonymous nature of the mask and disguise served to benefit men in creating a space in which deception and power dictated social relations. The work of these female authors evidences the general uneasiness with which women imagined and viewed the reality of the masquerade.
Although the masquerade in the eighteenth century was indeed a space of heightened sexuality and frivolity, when framed around the issue of who was able to benefit from this new sexual awakening, women were often excluded from the conversation. The contention that the masquerade ball was a space of sexual liberation for women simply because it was a space of heightened eroticism is a misunderstanding of how cultural norms operated within and seeped through every space. By focusing on the psychological power of the body, the objectification of women becomes apparent, and the masked ball becomes part of the wider current of a male dominated eighteenth century society.
Written by Boryana Ivanova
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