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The History of Masquerade Balls

The History of Masquerade Balls

Everyone loves the idea of a good party, no matter the occasion. Halloween, birthdays, Valentine's Day - attending an event that is reeking of music, dance, drink, and elaborate costumes as you let your hair down and cut loose is admired by all. This is what happens at a masquerade ball. 

Masquerade: What is it?

If you have ever been invited to a masquerade ball; the first thing you will notice is the key objective to such a festive occasion is to hide one's identity behind an elaborate costume and a mask.

In the 15th century, a masquerade was known as a carnival, and this kind of event or celebration took place at weddings and social affairs within medieval societies. The costumed extravaganza consisted of parades and pageants for the social elite, including those of the medieval court.

Masquerades include lots of music and dancing. They are used for entertainment purposes, as well as for celebrating rituals, rites of passage, and speaking to the dead, as in the African tradition and cultural heritage. These big, lavish parties always took place in the evening and the environment was that of gaiety. Some events also featured gambling, party games, and other attractions for guests to enjoy.

The First Masquerade

Although celebrating traditions with masquerade balls has been around since the 14th century and all throughout the era of the Renaissance; masked balls did not come to Europe until the 17th century. However, it is noted that John Heidegger, a Swiss count had the very first masquerade in London, England in the 18th century. This particular masquerade was for the wealthy and posh. They had an exclusive invitation to participate. When attending the masked balls, there was a strict code of conduct and behavior which had to be followed. The most important requirement was that everyone had to come in full costume.

Behind the Masks of Masquerades

Mystery and intrigue is the theme of the masquerade. No one would dare reveal who they are until well after midnight. This tradition goes back to Venice, Italy; where privacy and anonymity were hard to come by, and being judged by others came too easily. However, the lower class citizens of Venice who didn't want to be judged or ridiculed by the upper class found that "the mask" gave them privacy and a chance to hide their true character and personality, even if by chance they were a menace to society. The mask set individuals free to do and say whatever they liked without worrying about backlash and retribution from others. It allowed the lower class people to mingle with the higher class with no shame. Another aspect of the mask for entertainment, it let the party turn into a guessing game of who's who of the elite, adding mystery and intrigue for potential romantic suitors of the opposite sex.

Popular Masquerades of the Past

Being anonymous, flamboyant, and wearing richly decorated costumes can add flair to a formal affair or an evening of merriment. Masquerade galas run the gambit from traditional trends of yesterday to more popular or modern trends of the 21st century that involved themed events, events like that of a Valentine's Day masquerade. However, some of the most popular masquerade balls of the past are still celebrated today, especially when and if you take a trip to Venice, Italy during the event of the Venice Carnival, which originated in the 14th century. With this kind of extravagant gala, you couldn't tell the wealthy folks from the poor folks because of the costumes and masks. This celebration is associated with the Roman Catholic traditions and their pre-Lentin festival, that of the Mardi Gras.

Though it is noted historically that the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, LA, started in 1741, it wasn't a party for everyone. By the time 1781 came around, it was put into law that African Americans were not permitted to participate. They could not attend the Mardi Gras balls. Up until 1857, only the social elite, the upper crust of white society could attend the wild parties and celebrations of costume fantasy.

Another popular ball of the past is the Truman Capote's Black and White Ball. This ball was given by the notorious Truman Capote. Only a chosen few were invited to his affair. You had to come with a mask and the chosen ladies of the event had to also carry a fan with their costume. Capote hosted his lavish ball on November 28, 1966. It was held at New York's Plaza Hotel in the Grand Ball Room. It didn't matter how rich or famous you were, because Capote was in charge of his guest list. If he didn't want you there, you didn't get an invitation.

On March 26, 1883, another extravagant party took place called the Vanderbilt Masquerade. This event was hosted by the multi-millionaire Alva Vanderbilt. The purpose of sponsoring this gala is because she was opening her Fifth Avenue Chateau in Manhattan, New York.

Last but not least is the Masquerade of 1293. This affair was hosted by Queen Isabeau de Baviere and it was called the BAL des Ardents Ball. This is also known as the "ball of burning men," because during the festivities of crazy costumes of wax and hair that the male figures wore; a fire broke out and several male attendees were set on fire by accident. Those caught up in the flames included the lords and the king himself.

To this day, masquerade balls continue to be a common occurrence for occasions, such as Valentine's Day or New Year's. No longer just for the elite and powerful, many masquerade balls can be attended by just about anyone - so long as they wear the mask. Going to show that anonymity never really goes out of style.

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