From the Notebooks of Susan Holloway Scott

Who Was That Masked Lady?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Lately there's been much discussion in the media of the singer Lady Gaga's fascination with masks, most recently on a London red carpet. But while using a mask to go fashionably incognito might seem like news to the gossip columnists, we know otherwise. There were plenty of ladies hitting the London social scene wearing masks 350 years ago.

Made from black velvet or satin, masks, or vizards, were popular in the 1660s both to protect the complexion from the sun or the cold, and to hide one's identity in public. They were especially popular while attending the playhouse, where, in theory, a lady could enjoy a risque play or even engage in an amorous assignation, but still preserve her reputation. Soon, however, the masks themselves became the mark of prostitutes prowling the pit for customers, and the word "vizard" became a derogatory slang word used to describe such women. By 1704, the masks had so many illicit connotations that Queen Anne banned them.

There were two kinds of ladies's masks: one that covered only half the face, and another that hid all of it. One described by writer Randle Holme in 1688 "covers the whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the Nose, and a slit for the Mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put on in a moment of time, being only held in the teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside against the mouth." How exactly a lady was supposed to talk, let alone be charmingly witty, while clenching a bead between her teeth is just one more art lost to time.

I suspect that the half-masks were more popular for ladies who wished to speak as well as be mysterious. I also suspect that, for the sake of gallantry, gentlemen were willing to suspend disbelief where a masked lady was concerned; how secret can you be with only half your face covered? Still, masks must have made for fine flirtatious fun, as this excerpt from Samuel Pepys's diary from 1668 records. Attending a play, Mr. Pepys had the good fortune to sit nearSir Charles Sedley, a gentleman poet famous for his wit. (We last saw Sir Charles here as aman behaving badly, and he is also a prominent character in my next novel, The Countess & the King, wherein he will continue to behave rather badly.) As was usual for Sir Charles, he soon found a way to amuse himself despite the indifferent play:

One of the ladies [sitting near Sir Charles] would, and did sit with her mask on, all the play, and, being exceeding witty as ever I heard woman, did talk most pleasantly with him, but was, I believe, a virtuous woman, and of quality. He would fain know who she was, but she would not tell; yet did give him many pleasant hints of her knowledge of him, by that means setting his brains at work to find out who she was, and did give him leave to use all means to find out who she was, but pulling off her mask. He was mighty witty, and she also making sport with him very inoffensively, that a more pleasant 'rencontre' I never heard.

Above: Detail from Winter, by Wenceslas Hollar (1607-1677)
Many thanks to fellow-author Catherine Delors for suggesting this blog!

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home