Masquerade rituals and entertainments popular in North America were initially derived from European tradition and fashionable practices. Mummering and Mardi Gras, both forms of masked celebration that had roots in the Middle Ages in Europe, took on their own unique character in the specific regions of Canada and the United States where they persisted. When the European vogue for public masquerade declined at the beginning of the nineteenth century in favor of private, fancy dress balls and parties without masks, North American preferences followed suit. Fancy dress parties and balls were similar in many ways to those held in England and France that inspired them, but they were underpinned by preoccupations, such as national identity and issues of social class, that were unique to the United States and Canada. These forms of masquerade were closely tied to popular nineteenth-century constructs of public performance and spectacle. In the twentieth century, as structured fancy dress entertainments went into rapid decline, North Americans gradually channeled their propensity for playful dressing up into Halloween, a uniquely North American custom. Much activity that involves disguise and masking is informal in nature, and as a result, it is typically not well documented historically. The more structured and ritualized masquerade activities of the past two centuries are thus those that are the best understood and most well known.
The ludic, or playful, function of costumed performance has been recognized as a constant in many cultures across time. Disguise or dress-up provides imaginative freedom, allowing a participant to embody qualities of an imaginary persona. Wearing a costume can provide an extraordinary and exciting tactile and visual experience. The nature of social interaction changes radically in a masquerade context. Individuals are cast in new roles of either performers or audience, or they participate simultaneously as both. Because activities that involve masking, disguise, or fancy dress without masks give license for departure from social norms of behavior, and perhaps role inversion and reversal, they are almost always contested terrain. Tension and controversy rarely center on matters of dress itself but rather on aspects of the behavior and social pressures that ensue.
In Europe, Carnival masking has ancient and complex roots. Carnival was (and is) the period of festivities extending from Twelfth Night to the beginning of Lent, during which a temporary reprieve from the normal social order was condoned. Amusements during this period typically involved disguise that promoted reversal of gender and class; men dressed as women, and people made fun of their social superiors. Animal heads were also worn as masks. Masked or disguised entertainments were particularly characteristic of the last six days prior to Ash Wednesday, ending on Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.
Eventually Protestant countries abolished Carnival, focusing their winter celebrations around Christmas but retaining some of the masking traditions associated with Carnival festivities. Mummering, or visiting houses in disguise to perform a play or generally display disorderly behavior, followed by a request for payment to leave, persisted at Christmas time in England and Ireland and was transported to Newfoundland. Catholic countries retained Carnival, which grew to its most elaborate in Italy, particularly in Venice in the eighteenth century; the custom of celebrating Mardi Gras with masked revelry was brought with the French to Louisiana.
Carnival was not only a familiar custom to those who brought it to Louisiana, but it also served as a means of asserting French national identity in a continent dominated by Anglo-American influence. Mardi Gras, the final day of European Carnival, has come to denote several days of festivities in the Gulf Coast area of the United States. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras has grown to become an important tourist and commercial event, one that defines the city and sets it apart from the rest of the United States. Mobile, Alabama, is also renowned for Mardi Gras festivities; in rural Louisiana, masked activities mark the holiday as well.
Mardi Gras in New Orleans has long been a multicultural festival, reflecting Louisiana’s French and American backgrounds and African and Caribbean connections, and it has been shaped and continually redefined by various conflicts over inclusion, exclusion, and assertion. Since the late twentieth century, the celebrations have been touted as a symbol of the city’s racial, ethnic, and class harmony, although a historical perspective reveals an event in which rituals have underscored race and class tensions.
Masked balls were long typical of the Carnival period; an early one is documented in 1828 along with an advertisement for a costumer who dressed ballgoers. At balls, company was mixed, although at the first Mardi Gras costumed parades in New Orleans in the 1830s, Anglo-Americans were typically spectators. These early parades were thought to be informal and impromptu processions of young Creole (Louisiana-born and French-speaking) men. The black population of the city also took part in processions at this time in a temporary subversion of the city’s racial order.
The year 1857 marks a major transformation of the way Mardi Gras was celebrated in New Orleans. The Mistick Krewe of Comus was formed by a group of Anglo-American men who presented both a themed nighttime procession for public viewing and a private ball. Character representations for Comus’s first parade were primarily devils, inspired from The Demon Actors in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In its next year, it took inspiration from Greek gods and goddesses. Within the next fifteen years, other krewes, or groups of paraders, formed, the most well known of which is Rex, the self-appointed king of the festivities. The krewe of Rex established a daytime parade, presenting tableaux on decorated floats. As additional krewes shaped the festivities of parades, tableaux, and balls, the resulting separation between maskers and audience added structure, which helped to control the threat of disorderly behavior and made the festivities more respectable. The krewe structure also established Mardi Gras as a U.S. festival, albeit one based on Creole tradition. As further krewes emerged, many mocked what had come to be viewed as traditional Mardi Gras at the same time as they appropriated it.
Mardi Gras Indians began a black masking tradition sometime in the second half of the century and paraded through black neighborhoods of New Orleans. The krewe of Zulu, whose black members parodied African stereotypes, was formed in the early twentieth century from a more loosely organized group, but by the 1980s, it had integrated white paraders.
Women in male attire, often presumed to be prostitutes, were always on the fringes of the more structured festivities in the nineteenth century. By the 1920s, the participation of female maskers was being advertised as an element of the appeal of Mardi Gras. Men are also documented as dressing as women, frequently in provocative and immodest dress. Cross-dressing eventually became an important component of gay Mardi Gras celebrations, which became widely known only in the 1970s in spite of having existed for much longer. Gay balls are very much part of the contemporary celebration.
By the turn of the twentieth century, Mardi Gras and, specifically, the Rex parade had been recognized as a lucrative commercial opportunity for the city, and krewes developed the parades and events with a heightened consciousness of tourism. Festivities were suspended at the time of World War I and resumed in the 1920s. New krewes have been formed as recently as in the 1990s. Renowned for its traditions of public costumed parades and parties, which serve to transform the city into a public setting for festive and unrestrained behavior, Mardi Gras in New Orleans continues to be an important commercial and tourism event for the city.
Mummering in Newfoundland and Philadelphia
Mummering (also known as mumming) refers to costumed parading or house visits and is known to have been practiced in Newfoundland since the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time, it appeared to arrive with recent immigrants, but it was not generally endorsed by the inhabitants already established there. By 1861, public mummering or dressing up had been banned in Newfoundland because of the offensive behaviors to which it gave rise, including drunkenness and rioting. Mummering that involved visits to people’s homes persisted in spite of this law until the mid-twentieth century and has enjoyed a revival in recent decades.
Two varieties of Newfoundland mummering have been distinguished: urban and outport, or village mummering. Urban mummering in St. Johns and some other large towns took the form of both parades and private performances. Parade costume was based on role reversal of both gender and class: men dressing as women or as upper-class ladies. Costumed performances were put on in the houses of the upper class by working-class mummers, who were given money to leave. The play performed by Newfoundland mummers followed a plot typical of those found throughout England, Wales, and Scotland, probably from the fifteenth century onward. Characters usually included a hero such as St. George, an antagonist who challenged him to a battle in which one of the two was killed, a doctor who revived the victim, and a man dressed as a woman whose role varied. This form of mummering disappeared when outlawed.
Outport mummering took place in the small Newfoundland coastal fishing villages, a tradition that dated back to the early 1800s in some areas and was present in all communities by the early twentieth century. Outport mummering was more egalitarian in nature because it was practiced among social equals and did not involve the class reversals found in the urban tradition. It began on Christmas Eve and continued every evening for the twelve days of Christmas. Women were costumed participants, unlike in the city where mummering was a solely male activity. Costumes worn by outport mummers masked their faces and concealed their hands to disguise their identity entirely, and it was often based on a gender-role reversal or grotesque assemblage to alter body size, posture, and gait, rather than an attempt to create a particular character. Mummers demanded entry to a house in a disguised speech generally described as ingressive, caused apprehension to its residents with boisterous behavior, but then unmasked themselves, altering to their regular selves before they left, usually after being offered a drink or money. This sort of mummering declined rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s as the family-based labor structure was replaced with wage labor and industrialization penetrated to these areas.
An annual 1 January parade in Philadelphia is also known as a mummers’ parade. A form of New Year’s Day parade had existed through the nineteenth century, but was not known to involve masquerading of any sort. An act outlawing public masquerade was repealed by 1859, reflecting a change in public opinion. By this time, a mummers’ club known as the Chain Gang was known to exist and to parade on either New Year’s Day or Mardi Gras. Following the Civil War, the New Year’s parade became one where fancy dress figured prominently, as did loud noisemaking. By the early 1880s, but probably not before, these costumed paraders had come to be known as mummers. A city-sponsored mummers’ parade began in 1901.
Various mummers’ clubs were formed through the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Each participates with costumed paraders and floats on various themes. Costumes are frequently spectacular and occupy a great deal of physical space beyond the wearer’s body. Comic Clubs, each with many brigades, start off the parade with comic floats and individuals dressed as clowns who strut with parasols. Fancy clubs provide further scope for fantastical costume themes. The String Band division presents large groups of musicians, all costumed according to a theme. Fancy brigades with elaborately dressed captains perform indoors.
Fancy Dress Practices in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
In the very early nineteenth century, British and North American society found the licentiousness of masquerade and masked entertainments to be anathema to its values. Masquerade was even being outlawed in various locations. Masquerade dress came to be generally supplanted by fancy dress, or dress-up costume that does not obscure one’s identity or constitute a disguise. Fancy dress entertainments began to grow substantially in popularity in North America as well as in Europe. From the 1850s onward, opportunities for fancy dress multiplied and included parlor theatricals, such as tableaux vivants (living pictures); skating carnivals; private and public balls; public parades; and historical pageants. A large amount of print and iconographic evidence exists to document fancy dress practices in the nineteenth and very early twentieth century. Unlike earlier and later costumed activities, many of these events were highly structured and commemorated.
The North American predilection for fancy dress has been viewed as underpinned by the theatricality of the social conduct of middle-class society. North American social life of this period has been equated with a performance of gentility. Dressing up offered a socially acceptable outlet for escapist fantasy, as an embodied participation in an activity predicated on fantasy, albeit one circumscribed by its own set of conventions and tacit rules of social behavior that still fit within the larger framework of Victorian social preoccupations. The sort of heightened and emotional aesthetic involvement in such activities has been described as “saturated.”
Tableaux vivants were at the height of their popularity in the 1850s and 1860s. While they were typically a domestic amusement having pride of place in the repertoire of parlor theatricals so popular at this time, they could also be performed publicly. Tableaux consisted of the representation of a work of art or scene, typically a climactic moment of literary, dramatic, or historical inspiration, where participants dressed as the figures and held the pose for the audience to guess at, often behind a gauze drapery. Typical subjects were paintings and sculptures, historical events, and scenes and events taken from poetry and literature. Allegorical scenes were also very popular. Regardless of the setting, tableaux had to be designed and rehearsed, and choosing appropriate costume for the participants was an important aspect of the activity. Frequently tableaux were gendered with primarily female performers and male spectators. Public tableaux and drills continued to be popular forms of entertainment, and ideas for themes were provided in books, newspapers, and magazines. A broom drill was inspired by a military parade, with female marchers carrying brooms and mops.
By the 1860s, fancy dress was an important component of fund-raising events staged by women in the United States, particularly those to support the Sanitary Commission. A group of women wore fancy dress on a similar theme, and later in the century, thematic representations expanded to comprise a decorated booth. As international exhibitions grew in number at the end of the nineteenth century, these also shaped fancy dress preferences in more modest fund-raising exhibitions and events such as bazaars, where international themes became fashionable.
Skating carnivals were a favorite Canadian entertainment. Newspapers indicate that most Canadian towns and cities held one large fancy dress carnival a month in the 1860s through the 1880s, but by the 1890s in Montreal alone there were two a week. The effect of large numbers of skaters in costume created a shared feeling of otherworldliness. Carnivals in Montreal, Ottawa, and other Canadian cities were occasionally documented in large composite photographs, copies of which were then sold to participants. The most well known of these images was William Notman’s “Skating Carnival at the Victoria Rink of 1870.”
Fancy dress balls ranged from small to very large affairs. Some private parties still allowed some form of masking. Large balls often had one or more themes and might include a series of quadrilles, or theme-based dances, on which all members of a set based their costumes. The fancy dress events that received the most media attention in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the large balls held by the most socially prominent individuals in the United States and Canada. These balls were widely reported on with extensive and detailed descriptions of costumes, decorations, security, music, and dancing. Illustrations, both engravings and photographs, and even commemorative souvenir albums were frequently published.
By the first decade of the twentieth century, community pageants featuring hundreds or even thousands of costumed participants had supplanted other forms as the most popular and elaborate fancy dress activity. These events used the appeal of fancy dress to provide a memorable experience to both performers and audience, who enacted a carefully defined version of their community’s past and often presented a progressive vision of its future.
Beyond the individual and social concerns, the attribution of altruistic purposes to fancy dress events added legitimacy to the individual pleasures of choosing and acquiring a costume and assuming a fantasy character. Fund-raising was one such purpose; educational goals lay behind historically themed balls, and a desire for collective betterment drove participation in costumed community pageants. Likewise, the wearing of costume could also be employed to make otherwise serious events seem playful and amusing.
Fancy Dress Costume
In North America, a variety of publications offered advice on fancy dress costume. Godey’s Lady’s Book and other North American magazines sometimes featured fashion plates illustrating fancy dress costumes with their descriptions. Frequently variations on these suggested costumes were adapted and published in other magazines. The Canadian Illustrated News from 1869 to 1883 did likewise. Widely available in the United States and Canada were two British books by Ardern Holt, Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls (published in six editions between 1879) and Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress: How to Choose It (also in six editions from 1882 to 1905). In the United States, Butterick published its own guide to fancy dress, Masquerade and Carnival: Their Customs and Costumes, in 1892. Weldon’s, an English company, sold costumes and paper patterns through catalogs distributed in North America well into the 1920s and 1930s. The Dennison Crepe Paper Company of Framingham, Massachusetts, sold publications describing how to make paper fancy dress and Halloween costumes in the early twentieth century.
Fancy dress costumes were acquired in a variety of ways. Costumes for domestic amusements were usually made at home, in contrast to those worn to fancy dress balls. For a ball, women might adapt a regular evening dress for fancy dress wear or combine elements of several different cast-off garments. Rental was a popular option, and New York costume rental firms Lanouette and Koehler were known to rent garments not only in that city but also much further afield, including in Canadian cities. London’s Nathan and Company is also known to have supplied costumes to North Americans. Major department stores often advertised that they would make fancy dress. Extant garments worn in North America bear labels of tailors and dressmakers, including that of Worth, a prominent Parisian couturier.
By allowing its wearers to step away from the constraints of fashionable dress and to draw on a much wider range of potential styles, a costumed performative identity was felt to offer possibilities that were more reflective of an individual’s true self if one knew how to choose properly. The ideal choice was based on knowledge of both personality and self on the one hand and body type and flattering clothing styles on the other. It was recognized that the choice of an appropriate character and costume was a minefield where temptation might lead one to portray oneself as one wished rather than in accordance with one’s socially constructed self. The dilemmas surrounding the choice of fancy dress amplified the discourse of middle-class fashion and consumption, which required simultaneously that one look one’s very best and appropriate or slightly superior to one’s station in life while avoiding excessive preoccupation and expense.
The nature of the appeal of fancy dress was highly gendered. Women could expect to enhance their sexual attractiveness by displaying good physical features more prominently and appropriating the mystique of a fantasy persona. For men, the experience of wearing a costume was far more divergent from regular dress than it was for women. Choosing and wearing a fancy dress was tantamount to a male foray into the feminine sphere, which led to a spectrum of reactions from exceptional pleasure to utter revulsion. Evidence shows some men being more or less coerced into wearing costumes with minimal effort, placing themselves on the margins by wearing regular evening dress to a fancy ball, or simply avoiding an event altogether.
A strong moral code pervaded fancy dress entertainments held prior to World War I. Fancy dress could transform the self but only in accordance with accepted moral principles of modesty in dress. While fancy dress allowed wearers to flout some of the conventions of dress, many others could still not be transgressed. Men might reveal their legs in short breeches and tights; never would they display arms above the elbow or bare chests, however. Women might reveal ankles and calves and wear their hair long and loose, but beyond the legs they would almost never reveal more of their bodies than they would in regular evening dress. Nonetheless, a heightened sense of sexual excitement is almost always discernible in reports of fancy dress balls and costumed activities. In New York in 1840 at a ball at the home of Henry Brevoort, two young people eloped and found a preacher at 4:00 a.m. while they were still in costume. This reported occurrence encapsulated the fear and distrust of disguise that existed widely in the nineteenth century and helped to shape the moral conventions of fancy dress activities. Minus the moral baggage of the previous century, in the late 1910s throughout the 1920s and 1930s, fancy dress events were still popular, but they were understood to be much more lighthearted forms of entertainment.
Fancy Dress Characters
The characters chosen for fancy dress balls prior to World War I fall into categories that reflect various facets of nineteenth-century life and experience. Historical impersonations enjoyed the widest popularity. Such costumes usually tended to resemble fashions of the period in which they were created more than those of the period they were trying to emulate. Ardern Holt, author of Fancy Dresses Described and Gentlemen’s Fancy Dress, stated that her period’s devotion to matters of taste and culture required that educated people research their costumes. Nonetheless, authenticity in historical dress was a construct conflated with beauty far more than with accuracy and fidelity to the past. The compliment “historically correct,” seen frequently in press descriptions, implied that the wearer was simultaneously cultured, tasteful, and attractive. In the United States, historical impersonations were in great majority inspired by the colonial past.
The wearing of elements of extant historical costume for fancy dress enjoyed popularity where it was available. The flurry of centennial and colonial revival fancy dress activities in the United States often involved elements of ancestral garb. In Canada, ancestral costume was not as widely worn, probably because it was owned by fewer people, but it was almost always used to draw attention to an illustrious ancestor or to a family’s longevity in the country. Such elements were often transformed; many eighteenth-century women’s garments have bodices altered to fit a nineteenth-century corseted torso. Incongruous elements of costume were often juxtaposed; in an 1898 fancy dress portrayal of a heroic military ancestor, a headdress from 1759 was worn with military accessories from the war of 1812 and a reproduction military coat created for the event.
A poudré (powdered) costume implied one worn with hair done in imitation of eighteenth-century hairstyles and powdered white; while a wig might suffice, advice manuals strongly recommended doing one’s own hair. Poudré was worn with both eighteenth-century-style historical fancy dress, or for a poudré ball, it could imply powdered hair with regular evening dress.
Literature was another common source of fancy dress inspiration, and many of the characters it yielded also wore historical costume, though usually as described by the novelist or as a portrayed by a stage actor. Sir Walter Scott’s characters Rowena; Ivanhoe; and Mary, Queen of Scots, were seen at many fancy dress events. Shakespearian characters such as Romeo, Hamlet, and Portia were also frequently represented. Mythology-inspired portrayals such as Diana the Huntress were also popular; Mary Mary Quite Contrary was a common nursery-rhyme-inspired costume.
Exotic characters drew on stereotypes of those seen as “other” because of ethnocultural or geographical origin. It was widely recognized at the time that such portrayals were grounded in fantasy. They often comprised elements of non-Western dress or other exotic elements combined incongruously. An Ottawa man attired as a Chinese Mandarin in 1876 wore a woman’s Cantonese theater costume. A man attired in aboriginal costume in 1896 is seen wearing the extant shirt backward in his portrait photograph. Skin was occasionally darkened in such guise, usually by men more than by women. Frequently such characters performed stereotypical behavior at the ball or party. It has been argued that exotic dress in the United States was viewed as feminine, and, by implication, neither aggressive nor exploitive; nonetheless, at the most prominent Canadian and British balls there are many documented examples of men undertaking such portrayals. While it has also been argued that an element behind the appeal of exotic dress was embodying the other entering into a community rather than expressing aggression or a power relationship, it is undeniable that such representations played into ethnocentric stereotypes of those perceived as others. In many cases, blackface fancy dress was considered in poorer taste than other sorts of exotic portrayals. Some such characters appeared at Canadian skating carnivals but were almost never photographed or illustrated in images for public consumption. Sometimes specific entertainments, such as plantation or minstrel parties, advocated the wearing of blackface.
Pastoral or peasant dress was favored very much by women only, often colored by historical, literary, or exotic inspiration. Such representations were highly romanticized interpretations of imagery such as the Dresden china shepherdess, Italian peasant girl, or Longfellow’s Acadian peasant heroine Evangeline.
Emblematic costumes were inspired by an object or concept, such as “Rose Trellis,” “The Press,” “Night,” or “Chess.” In contrast to the historical characters, these provided far more scope for creativity. They also allowed as little or as great a departure from standards of fashion as the wearer wished. They usually comprised a dress trimmed with odd objects and images to render the concept. In the 1860s, “Photography” was usually depicted in a fashionable but short dress trimmed with photographs and wearing a camera on her head. She wore bracelets on her wrists and ankles and carried a fan trimmed with photographs.
Costumes that highlighted new technology also fell into this genre. Although few and far between, they remained vivid in the public imagination for long afterward. At the New York ball Fanny Ronalds hosted at her home in 1864, she appeared dressed as the Spirit of Music. On her head she wore a miniature harp surrounded by musical notes illuminated with gas jets (fed by a small tube running through her hair). Her Parisian dress of heavy white silk was embroidered with bars from Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, and her bright red boots were adorned with tiny tinkling bells. Later at the Vanderbilt ball in 1883, Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt came as “The Electric Light,” with tiny lightbulbs in her hair powered by batteries and a white satin gown trimmed with diamonds. Although unusual for men to adopt such a category of dress, in Toronto in 1897 a group of men dressed as telephones, wearing the devices on their chests.
At most large events, invitations indicated that certain categories of fancy dress were banned. These included costume of religious orders, as well as men impersonating women. While women were not warned against impersonating men, there is no photographic evidence of a women appearing in visible trousers for any fancy dress ball held in the nineteenth century in Canada. There is occasional evidence of men dressing as women, though usually these costumes were intended to provoke laughter and poke fun at a particular stereotype, either a bashful young girl, a buxom matron, or an emancipated woman. Women also portrayed and parodied such stereotypes of female emancipation.
Calico balls encouraged guests to make costumes out of printed cottons and other lower-cost fabrics. Domino balls required the hooded cape that had become the trademark of the Venetian carnival in the eighteenth century. Children also enjoyed fancy dress activities, and their costumes were based on similar sources of inspiration, as illustrated by fashion plates, advice literature, and extant photographs.
High-Profile Fancy Dress Balls
While many fancy dress activities were held within parlors or small town halls, large fancy dress balls, both public and private, were widely reported on in the press. In the first half of the nineteenth century, newspapers reported only briefly, but as the century progressed, more and more papers devoted ever more columns of type to chronicling preparations and listing guests, their costumes, and the evening’s proceedings. With their widespread publicity, these high-profile events became benchmarks for lavish entertainment. Many guests commemorated their participation in portrait photographs.
By the late 1820s, fancy dress balls and their preparations were being announced in the newspapers of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. A ball held by Mrs. Charles Brugiere in 1829 is remembered as the earliest large fancy dress ball held in that city. A ball reported on in Toronto in 1838 is thought to be the earliest-known Canadian recorded event.
Queen Victoria’s three major fancy dress balls, in 1842, 1845, and 1851, doubtless had an influence on the genre in North America because they lent it the legitimacy of aristocratic approval. Each of these balls had a historical theme, also setting the tone for the preference for historical fancy dress throughout the rest of the century. Historical accuracy was encouraged, and historian J.R. Planché was brought in to suggest designs for costumes. Organized quadrilles on historical themes, each composed of a different group of guests, also set a precedent for the way large aristocratic fancy dress balls were structured.
In the case of Queen Victoria’s balls, controversy around the economic impact of these events was hotly debated in the press, a tradition that was to continue for the major North American fancy dress balls. Queen Victoria positioned her first ball as a means of providing opportunities for tradespeople in a time of economic difficulty. The need for large numbers of supposedly authentic costumes justified the weaving of special fabrics and the design and manufacture of accessories and jewelry, all of which was an impetus to trade. In Britain such intentions went largely unquestioned, however, controversy in the press became an expectation on the other side of the Atlantic, and the large and costly events held by aristocrats on North American soil were hotly debated. The criticisms usually had to do with an elite host imposing the need to spend on large numbers of guests for their own glorification. The hosts almost always offset the criticism by invoking the financial benefits to their city’s economy because of the impetus to spend.
By the 1890s, almost every noteworthy hostess invoked her social responsibility by touting a higher educational and moral purpose to her fancy dress ball. In Canada, this uplifting purpose materialized in the creation of public historical imagery, foreshadowing that which would be put forth in pageants in the following decade.
In North America, a ball held in 1864 stood out as a benchmark for a decade. Fanny Ronalds (Mrs. Pierre Lorillard Ronalds) sent invitations out to her 300 guests three months ahead of time to allow them to have costumes made, which may even have included ordering them from Paris. Nonetheless, stories of the Ronalds ball were not published or circulated in the press, so it does not really foreshadow the status-enhancing events held by Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt and Mrs. Bradley-Martin.
In 1876 in Ottawa, Canada’s governor general, the Earl of Dufferin, held a ball for eight hundred guests. The viceregal retinue wore costume of the period of James V of Scotland. Guests were given complete freedom of costume choice, and several ballgoers came in costume inspired by Canadian experience, including an allegory of The Dominion of Canada accompanied by a personification of Jacques Cartier. As it was the U.S. centennial year, many guests with U.S. ties also came dressed in patriotic fancy dress, including George and Martha Washington costumes and a portrayal of The Stars and Stripes. Controversy surrounded the political choice made by the British aristocrat to import this lavish form of entertainment into a colonial setting that could ill afford to adopt British class attitudes and the obligation to spend on entertainment. Some of the contradictions were encapsulated in the reporting on Dufferin’s own costume. He was praised for setting an example with the simplicity of his dress, despite knowledge that he had purchased and rejected two other garments from London and New York prior to settling on an Ottawa tailor to provide him a costume with forty-eight hours notice.
Alva Vanderbilt’s housewarming ball of 1883 had an estimated cost of US$250,000 and was held as an attempt to bring her parvenu family into New York society. Alva herself dressed as a Venetian princess in a costume taken from a painting by Cabanel, while her husband, Willie K. Vanderbilt, dressed in yellow with a black cape, a copy of a portrait of the Duc de Guise that hung in his own collection. Twelve hundred guests were invited, including society doyenne Mrs. Astor, whose acceptance was the key to the success of this ball. The most salient feature of the evening was the Hobby Horse Quadrille, where costumes were constructed to make it appear that guests in riding habits were sitting on hobby horses. It was followed by a Mother Goose Quadrille, a Dresden China Quadrille, and a Star Quadrille, each with guests dressed according to the theme. Dancing lasted until 6:00 a.m.
In 1897, Mrs. Bradley-Martin set out to unseat the Vanderbilt ball as the benchmark and host the fancy dress ball that would become the new standard of magnificence in New York. The Bradley-Martins had come into their money some fifteen years earlier on the death of her father, also making them new wealth. The hostess’s arrangements were estimated at US$370,000, a figure that was decried in newspapers across the country as a lead news item. Various editors argued over whether the expenditure should not be made at all at a time of economic difficulty in many U.S. cities, or whether the effect of the amount being put into circulation among laborers in the city would be beneficial. The Bradley-Martins attempted to save the reputation of the event by suggesting it was spreading upper-class wealth to various categories of tradespeople, but many guests backed out because of the controversy. Although twelve to eighteen hundred guests had been invited, only about half attended, and many made a point of leaving after the first half-hour of dancing. The hostess’s theme was historical costume of the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries. She herself chose the character of Mary, Queen of Scots. Mr. O.H.P. Belmont appeared in a suit of solid-steel armor said to have cost US$8,000, with a Henry VIII costume beneath it.
Again in New York in 1905, James Hazen Hyde held a fancy dress ball on the Louis XV theme; while the outlay was nowhere near that of the Bradley-Martins’s ball, this event had the distinction of being extensively photographed on site. The rumored extravagance of the event was later fatal to Hyde’s career as chairman of an insurance company.
Fancy Dress and National and Community Identity
People in the United States dressed in costumes inspired by their colonial past for a variety of activities, which allowed them to embody symbols of U.S. identity and simultaneously contrast the ancestral past with the modern present, evincing a strong sense of progress. At Sanitary Fairs, it was the early American farmhouse and kitchen that inspired fancy dress. Women’s colonial costume typically portrayed the domestic past, while men’s, less popular, took inspiration from military heroes. A dual function of patriotic veneration combined with amusement was characteristic of almost all colonial costumed representations.
Centennial tea parties and Martha Washington teas and receptions were very popular in the mid-1870s, as were more high-profile centennial balls. Extant historic garments were often incorporated in the fancy dress costume worn to such events and highlighted a family’s pedigree and long presence in the United States. The Colonial Dames and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) in the United States were sponsors of many Americanizing activities using historical guise, again in a very gendered context.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the use of fancy dress balls to foster national identity became very prominent in Canada. In 1896, the Countess of Aberdeen, wife of the governor general, held the Historical Fancy Dress Ball in Ottawa. Guests were marshaled into nine organized sets, each of which represented a period in Canadian history. A Viking set led off the proceedings and was followed by a Jacques Cartier set, an Acadian set, and a United Empire Loyalist set. Guests were expected to research their historical characters and costumes, extensive descriptions of which were published in all the newspapers.
In 1897, Lady Aberdeen organized a ball in Toronto to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee. This event comprised twenty-four organized sets; individuals in each set dressed and performed dances on themes related to the benefits of the British Empire to Canada. A North American set featured women dressed as allegories of natural resources and men, as their controllers, for instance, “Forests of Canada” was accompanied by “A Lumberjack.” British literature and sports provided themes for two other sets, and science and inventions for still others.
In 1898, Lady Aberdeen was guest of honor at the widely publicized Historical Fancy Dress Ball organized by the Ladies Antiquarian and Numismatic Society in Montreal, which was structured similarly to her Ottawa event. Guests dressed in seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and some early-nineteenth-century-style costumes to impersonate French viceroys and explorers and British governors of early Canada.
Because of their structure and intent, these three Canadian events share aspects of historical pageantry, which was also becoming very prominent around this time. Fancy dress representations of history were gradually being assimilated into a larger body of public historical imagery.
By the early twentieth century, thousands of North Americans were acting out dramatic episodes from the history of their area. Historical pageantry, in which fancy dress played a significant role, had become a central part of civic celebrations. Pageants offered officials a means of boosting civic pride; performers, a form of costumed recreation; and audiences, a spectacle and educational entertainment. Such pageantry was based on an assumption that history could be made into a dramatic public ritual through which the residents of a community, by acting out the right version of their past, could bring about some kind of future social and political transformation. Performers might number in hundreds or thousands. The American Pageant Association was founded in 1913, a reflection of the strong pageant fervor existing by that time and that persisted through the 1920s.
While civic pageants were initially best suited to the organizational capacities of small North American towns, large urban pageants had appeared by the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. In Quebec City in 1908, a tercentenary pageant celebrated the founding of that city. The ten-day event involved 4,500 costumed participants who reenacted a different period of the French regime each day on the Plains of Abraham. The Pageant and Masque of Saint-Louis in 1914 was the ultimate expression of the pageant medium in the United States with a cast of 7,000. It surveyed three centuries of local development, from aboriginal dwellers through French and Spanish explorers and settlers, to the nineteenth-century American city.
Changes in Twentieth-Century Practices
Costume balls continued to be popular in the 1920s and 1930s, with many of the same types of impersonations that had been popular in the nineteenth century. While the number of historical representations declined somewhat, poudré remained popular, and clowns and pierrot costumes for both men and women added to the repertoire. Products and their advertisements also provided a new source of inspiration. (These had occasionally been seen in the 1860s but only worn by men.) Life Savers candy and brands of toothpaste were portrayed in costume. While costly ensembles were still occasionally turned out by costumers and couturiers, the trend was turning toward more amateur and ephemeral fancy dress garments and accessories. Instruction books for making paper costumes were widely available. Women revealed more of their bodies in fancy dress in the 1920s and 1930s, just as they did in mainstream fashion. In monied circles in the 1920s, fancy dress balls marked the coming out of socially prominent debutantes.
Fancy dress pageantry persisted as well but as more of a feminine pastime. Fiesta San Antonio began as a series of annual public parades and historical pageants in the early twentieth century and evolved into an ongoing event featuring pageants of young women dressed in allegorical costume. In spite of the decline of the pageantry movement in the 1940s, this particular event has flourished, and young women continue to make their debut in its elaborate pageants today.
Occasionally the masked ball genre has been revived, and the most highly publicized example was the Black and White Ball held by Truman Capote at the Plaza Hotel on 28 November 1966. The elite guests wore black or white evening dress with a mask.
Dressing Up on Halloween
The most popular contemporary venue for costuming and disguise in the masquerade and fancy dress traditions is Halloween. This ritual but informal festival has become a representation of North Americanness, both for new immigrants and in places where North American culture is transplanted and marketed. Halloween has transcended its ethnic roots, appropriating and transforming some of its aspects but reinventing and creating new referents for a great many others. While the date of 31 October is a fixture in the calendar, the way in which Halloween has been marked has had a very fluid nature without official origin or sanction, though by the twenty-first century, it has definitely been appropriated by commercial interests.
In mid-nineteenth-century North America, the observation of Halloween was thought to be the prerogative of first-generation Irish or Scottish immigrants. Middle-class families may have practiced contemporary versions of ancient divinatory rituals at home in their parlors, but for lower-class men, the event was marked by pranks outside the home and in the streets. Some form of disguise, perhaps as simple as smearing soot or burnt cork on the face, may have been part of the ritual as it had been with entertainments such as Mardi Gras, but it did not bear similarities to the fancy dress vogue that coexisted alongside it. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, college and university students used the evening for pranks, which had some impact in adding the holiday to the North American cultural calendar as well as its associations with youthful exuberance and rowdiness. By the turn of the century, most places in North America had rid themselves of festivals that inspired raucous behavior by outlawing them, institutionalizing them with parades, or domesticating them entirely. It followed that Halloween, as a final holdout of transgression on the margins of mainstream commemorative practices, would invigorate older traditions of masking as they became more circumscribed elsewhere.
Through the very early twentieth century and by the 1920s, at the height of the civic pageantry craze, fancy dress parties or more structured street parades had become an optional way for both children and adults to mark the evening of 31 October. The icons of bats, black cats, witches, and goblins, as well as the traditional colors of orange and black, were well in place and commercialized by this time, and they were featured in the Dennison Crepe Paper Company’s Bogie Book, first published in 1909. The commercial importance of Halloween thus became established. Through the interwar years, while civic organizations were behind an increasing number of structured Halloween celebrations, which often included fancy dress competitions, these did not serve to eliminate or reduce the pranks and public mischief as was hoped. The tension between the fancy dress carnivals being promoted as family entertainment and the anarchic aspect of the entertainment appropriated by adolescents led to a popular misconception that a children’s holiday was being overtaken by adults and adolescents.
The children’s trick-or-treating ritual as it is known today was introduced in the late 1930s, but it really did not gain momentum and wide acceptance until the 1950s, transforming Halloween into a rite of consumption and giving it strong retail potential. Children’s Halloween costumes were produced in increasing number and variety by manufacturers over the course of the century. As the entertainment industry grew, characters inspired by television, movies, and particularly the frightening Halloween Hollywood movie genre became part of the repertoire.
By the 1970s, Halloween as a children’s celebration, characterized by costumed trick-or-treating, had become entrenched in North American mass culture. Simultaneously, Halloween has gradually been appropriated by adults, whose participation is driven by retail and leisure industries. Halloween dressing up by adults is usually used as an unstructured means of parody. Because of the outlet for transgression Halloween provides, in many urban areas, gay cultures have used Halloween costumed parades and parties as reaffirmation. Halloween at the end of the millennium has become an event for adults, with an estimated 65 percent of North American adults participating beyond just giving out candy to children.
New Directions in Masquerade
In the twenty-first century, the ludic function of dressing up has been recognized as an important facet of children’s play. No longer do children have to improvise costumes for play; toy stores and departments carry a range of dress-up clothing. Adult dressing up is focused primarily around Halloween. Recent attention to the mummering traditions in Newfoundland ensures that this tradition will continue, as does the tourism impact of the Philadelphia Mummers’ Parade and New Orleans Mardi Gras. For adults, beyond Halloween, outlets for dressing up in the masquerade tradition for themed social events are perhaps most frequently found in science fiction group events, as well as historical reenactments.
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