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June 17, 2019 6:17 PM   Subscribe

In plays set in Restoration England, I sometimes read of people, particularly women, going about masked. But not at masquerade balls — just out on the town. Was this a common thing?

I most recently saw this in Congreve (The Old Batchelor specifically) but I feel it was elsewhere as well. Female characters are walking through the gardens — masked, and remain masked if they wish to avoid contact with someone they know, or unmask if they want to say hello or confront someone.

If this really happened at all, was it actually difficult to tell who was behind the mask, or was there an elaborate social conceit among the upper classes that one could not identify someone if they were masked? Surely one's voice would be a giveaway, and so on.

Important for a Restoration-era comedy that, uh, a friend is working on.
posted by BlackLeotardFront to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like a vizard, a mask worn by upper-class women to protect their faces from tanning. The Wikipedia entry only describes it as a 16th century thing for some reason, but it was definitely a 17th century fashion as well (one of the citations from the article is a mask dated c. 1690-1700).

Since the purpose of the masks was not to maintain anonymity, and, as you point out, there are lots of different ways to recognize people, I doubt there was any kind of seriously-taken popular conceit that you couldn't tell who was behind it, that sounds like a trope created for dramatic purposes....but I'm not an expert on the topic, so who knows.
posted by phoenixy at 6:33 PM on June 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

I doubt there was any kind of seriously-taken popular conceit that you couldn't tell who was behind it

I don't. This is not functionality different than paying social calls on a lady who would or would not be "at home" to particular visitors when everyone involved knew perfectly well she was at home but just didn't wish to entertain visitors. Or not some visitors, anyway.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:57 AM on June 18, 2019

Best answer: Where better to start than with Restoration Man par excellence? 1 June 1668 was a typical day for Samuel Pepys: a busy day at the office, then dinner, a little light sexual harassment, and a stroll in the evening to 'Fox Hall' (Vauxhall Gardens) where he sees two masked ladies flirting with a group of young men:
thence I to Westminster and to Mrs. Martin’s, and did hazer what je would con her, and did once toker la thigh de su landlady, and thence all alone to Fox Hall, and walked and saw young Newport, and two more rogues of the town, seize on two ladies, who walked with them an hour with their masks on; perhaps civil ladies; and there I left them, and so home ..
Which is very similar to a scene in George Etherege's comedy She Would If She Could, first performed the same year, 1668, where two girls go out in their masks and soon attract some male attention:
Enter ARIANA and GATTY with vizards, and pass nimbly over the stage.

Freeman. Ha, ha! -- how wantonly they trip it! There is temptation enough in their very gait to stir up the courage of an old alderman. Prithee, let us follow 'em.

Courtal. I have been so often baulked with these vizard-masks that I have at least a dozen times forsworn 'em; they are the most certain sign of an ill face, or, what is worse, an old acquaintance.
For more information, see J.L. Styan, Restoration Comedy in Performance. For what it might mean to wear a mask, see James H. Johnson's brilliant discussion of masks in Venice:
The Venetian mask—an unadorned piece of white waxed cardboard that extended to just below the nose—was an accepted article of clothing for over a century. Most of the time, it wasn’t meant to be secretive, mysterious, or provocative. Instead it was a way for this vastly unequal population living in close quarters to go about their daily business without the complicating protocols of rank and deference. Masks preserved a psychological space where physical distance was lacking. Of course they could hide identities, but their usefulness didn’t depend on anonymity. Much of the time these neighbors recognized one another. They preserved and protected social roles by temporarily suspending them. For these reasons, they were conservative.
Hollar's print, 'The Winter Habit of an English Gentlewoman', shows a fashionably dressed lady in a black half-mask.
posted by verstegan at 3:23 AM on June 18, 2019 [30 favorites]

Response by poster: How wonderful, thanks very much for the answer. I'll have to check out your references!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 6:01 PM on June 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

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