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Fancy Dress Parties

A glance at the popularity of fancy dress parties in the Georgian era

Who doesn’t love a fancy dress party or a masquerade (is there a difference!? Stay tuned!)?


Fancy dress parties have been enjoyed throughout England’s history, the earliest festivals involving dressing up in costumes to match the festival theme. It was during the Tudor and Stuart courts that masquerades—called “court masques” with elaborate dressing-up, dancing, and playacting—were introduced and popularised. Even Henry VIII participated in playacting and disguised himself in costume.

But where does the Georgian era fit? Well, the fancy dress traditions as we know them today come directly from the Georgian era! Enamored by the Venetian carnival, British tourists brought back a far more whimsical form fancy dress. The Pleasure Gardens of Vauxhall and Ranelagh hosted the first masquerade balls, encouraging fairytale themes of dress. Costumes we might have seen from the guests at the gardens: harlequins, Robin Hood, scaramouches, shepherdesses, huntsmen with horns or bows and arrows, and more! The costumes and masks were supposed to completely disguise identity, creating anonymity to heighten the fun.

I think we can all imagine how well such anonymity would have been accepted with chaperones, parents, and guardians! So scandalous was some of the behaviour, by the Regency, anyone of quality would have restricted their fancy dress attendance to private parties rather than public gardens.

The Prince Regent loved a good party, as we all know, and held a fancy dress ball in 1819 that was so splendid, it was covered by La Belle Assemblée, one of the top fashion presses.

There IS a difference between a fancy dress party and a masquerade. The two are used interchangeably since they both involve costumes, but the type of costumes differs slightly. For it to be a masquerade, one must wear a mask. The costume can be anything, of course, but a mask must be worn to disguise one’s identity—thus increasing the fun and involving a “reveal” at some point during the ball. With a fancy dress party, a mask isn’t worn unless it’s part of the costume. There’s no need to disguise oneself for a fancy dress party.

In our modern era, it’s common to have thematic fancy dress parties, but we wouldn’t have likely seen that in the Georgian era, although by the Victorian era, there were some interesting themes, including a ball hosted by Queen Victoria with a Georgian era theme!


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