The Masquerade "More than one woman since Lot's wife has betrayed herself by looking back, but I can't help shedding a nostalgic tear for the decline of my favourite entertainment - the costume party" Elsa Maxwell Of all parties, the masquerade is without doubt the most thrilling. The masquerade is one of the oldest forms of exclusive social entertainment, and one with an especially exciting, and subversive, undercurrent. For where other types of parties require that you come as a more exaggerated version of yourself - more beautiful at a ball, more comely at a cocktail party, more romantic at a garden party and more refined at a wedding party - the masquerade allows you to experiment with a completely different identity. Hidden behind a mask, the wearer has the freedom to forget everyday norms and niceties, and the power to take on a new persona. It is as if the rules that govern normal life and conduct are dispensed with for one night only. No wonder that the masquerade has become such an evocative, and sometimes potent, event. For many historians and cultural commentators, the idea of the costume ball, or masquerade, is equated with sexual freedom and certain union. In disguising oneself with a different identity, or at least appearing to take on a new persona, the partygoer takes a step into the unknown. The act of concealment creates a sense of fascination, sometimes bordering on fetishistic. When a person surrenders their own identity there is a danger also that their sense of moral responsibility is also forfeited. In earlier centuries the very act of attending a masquerade complicitly signaled a readiness to sexual intimacy with a stranger, or if not a stranger at least a person whose identity might be concealed, even if easily guessed. The word masquerade is built on the stem, masque, meaning mask. According to Terry Castle, in Masquerades and Civilization, the word masquerade came into the English language to describe particular festivals and fetes held in continental Europe. Castle writes that `the early forms mascardo and mascurado appear in English in the late 16th and 17th century, but only in the context of foreign custom. In his Introduction to Practicall Musicke of 1597, Thomas Morley speaks of the Italian `mascaradoes' and in 1660 a translation of Vincent Le Blanc's Travels, Francis Brooke mentions the Spaniards' `Mascuradoes,' at which they disguised themselves as devils.' The modern idea of the masquerade ball is thought to have evolved from the `masque', a type of entertainment in the courts of Italy in which the courtiers, even kings and queens themselves, became performers, donning masques, or painted their faces, to take on a dramatic or dancing role. To best tell the story of the masquerade we need to return to fourteenth century France, where under the reign of King Charles VI, the passion for costume balls reached fever pitch. Here was the scene of one of the first court balls ever recorded. It was also one of the most decadent, and destructive. The notorious `bal des sauvage', or wild men's ball, was held on January 28, 1393, by King Charles VI of France and his wife Isabeau of Bavaria, Queen of France. Under the court of the Valois, late-fourteenth century Paris was a cosmopolitan city, and high society enjoyed all kinds of parties and pleasures. However, the bal des sauvages was to be so excessive that not even the most seasoned Parisian party-goer could fail to be impressed, or shocked. The occasion was the wedding of one of the queen's ladies-in-waiting. It is not clear whether the masquerade ball was dreamed up by the King, who suffered from bouts of mental illness, or the Queen, who was known throughout Europe for her fashionable ways and frivolous habits. In any case, the ball was set for the Tuesday before Candlemas, 1393, and all who were invited expected it to be an uproarious occasion. The bride-to-be was a widower and it was customary at court for guests and hosts alike to celebrate with complete abandon at the nuptial celebrations of a widow. The setting was the King's own lavish residence, the Hotel de Saint-Pol, a vast complex of buildings connected by galleries, in the east of Paris. There were also magnificent grounds comprising courtyards, a number of formal gardens, a cherry orchard, a menagerie housing wild animals, avaries and an aquarium. Guests had been dancing for the best part of the day after the wedding ceremony, before the masquerade ball really got underway in the evening hours. Revelers paused to sit down for an enormous supper of some thirty courses, featuring every kind of meat and game imaginable accompanied with matching sauces, pickles and truffle creams, and then the party moved on to the ballroom. Reading costume historian Harold Acton's descriptions of the costumes it is hard in modern times to imagine a royal household quite so fantastically and daringly attired: `The ladies wore stupendous head-dresses shaped like the horns of buffalo and unicorn, so that they had to bend double to pass through doorways, and they dragged long trains after them in which it was easy to trip up. Their bosoms were almost bare, but their sleeves floated to the ground. Most of them dwarfed the men, whose doublets were embroidered with everything under the sun: astronomy, botany, natural history had inspired the most original designs, and some wore zigzag musical notes in front and behind, or Gothic riddles of questionable morality. As the ladies wore horns on their heads, the men wore horns on their toes for their shoes curved upwards. Those who tired of dancing played trinquet, quarters or chess, or went out to tease the tigers in the menagerie and listen to the twitterings of tropical birds.'