A Short History of Masked Balls

Chances are, you already have a pretty good idea of what a masked ball looks like. You may have seen them represented in TV or film, or maybe even on stage at the theatre or during a musical. Perhaps you have read about them in a novel or seen photos of a themed celebrity fundraiser online.

It’s safe to say that masked balls, sometimes called masquerades, are a recognisable motif in modern society, even if their heritage goes back hundreds of years. The masked ball is seen as a fun way to add a touch of glamour and excitement to an event and is generally used as the perfect excuse to get dressed up. But where does our modern idea of the masked ball come from? And how are we still honouring those age-old traditions today?

Masked balls
Masked balls

The Origin of the Masquerade

Masquerade balls have their roots in the 14th and 15th centuries, often taking place during celebrations and other pageants at European courts. Rather than simply being an excuse to hide your identity behind an elaborate mask, the original masquerades involved a complex programme of different activities, including dancing, music making and processions. Themes were often allegorical in nature and early examples centred around occasions like religious festivals or important marriages; such was the case with the Bal des Ardents held by Charles VI of France as early as 1393.

As time went on, the masquerade ball morphed into something more recognisable to the people of today and began to focus on simply throwing a good party for the upper classes. The city of Venice had a big part to play in the development of the masked ball, and it is still world famous for its superior mask making skills. The Venetian tradition of Carnevale before the season of Lent became the most famous place to attend a masked ball and, during the 17th century, the trend spread throughout Europe. Wealthy people enjoyed the anonymity that mask-wearing gave them, allowing them to relax and enjoy themselves without worrying about any possible repercussions the next day. Specific masks played different roles in the Venetian Carnevale, though aristocrats from other countries – like England and France – simply saw an opportunity to have fun, rather than sticking to a strict rulebook.

Modern Day Masked Balls

This idea of enhanced freedom and lack of constraint has spilled over into the modern day equivalent of the masquerade ball. Masked balls are still used as a way to make celebrations feel special, adding an extra thrill or buzz to a party through the use of masks to hide partygoers’ identities. In a world where we can now look up somebody’s public identity on their Facebook page or read their career history through LinkedIn, the idea of socialising anonymously is more appealing than ever. Masked balls are held for birthdays, weddings, fundraisers and other events, with themes ranging from Venetian Carnevale, to a 1920s casino night (à la The Great Gatsby), to a black tie party worthy of a Bond movie. Although many of our favourite activities have now moved into the online sphere, for example, casino games can be found on PokerStars website, and music libraries can be reached at Audio Network, there is sometimes no replacement for the thrill of a face-to-face encounter. So, getting dressed up and enjoying a celebration in close proximity with other (masked) human beings has gained a brand new sense of adventure. Whereas in the past attendees might have wanted to remain masked in order to hide their nefarious activities, modern-day guests may simply want a break from the constant over-sharing that can happen on social media. And to snap an Instagram selfie, of course!

Golden mask

How to Plan and/or Attend a Masked Ball

So, the only question left is – how to make it happen? If you’re interested in hosting your own masked ball for a special occasion, then there is plenty of information right here on the blog about how to organise a masquerade, along with loads of inspiration for your mask making. The great thing about a masked ball is that this format is practically begging for an extravagant and over-the-top theme to be applied. Just think of those earliest examples, when men dressed in costumes of flax and pitch would dance around open flames and try not to get burnt. It wasn’t named a ‘Wild Men’s Ball’ for nothing! Now, we’re certainly not suggesting that you put any of your guests in mortal peril for the purposes of entertainment, but it just shows that masked balls have traditionally pushed the envelope as far as dress code is concerned. 

Perhaps you could ask everyone to dress up as a different wild animal? Or have each guest appear as an intricately detailed flower? You could set the theme around the four seasons, famous rulers from history, different emotions, or characters from fiction – the possibilities are endless!