Welcome to the first FRIDAY FASHION FACT!

A few weeks ago, around Halloween, I received several costume related questions. The timing on this topic is probably a bit delayed, but better late than never, right? A lot of these questions mentioned the extreme sexualization of costumes these days. While this may seem like a 21st Century phenomenon (and let’s be honest, it does seem to have been taken to a whole new level lately), sexualized costumes are almost as old as costumes themselves.

Now, let’s be clear, we’re talking about fancy dress costumes, not theatrical costumes. (Fancy dress, to those Americans who might be unfamiliar with the term, is simply the British term for what Americans call costumes.) Theatre costumes are a very different topic, unrelated to what we’re talking about today.

Fancy dress costumes as we know them today can be traced back to Masquerade Balls. The first masqued balls were held by royalty in the 15th century during the Carnivale season. Soon, the celebrations became public, most famously, the Carnivale Masquerades in Venice (which are still held today). In the late 17th- early 18th Centuries, Englishmen who experienced these celebrations brought the idea back to London, and thus year-round masquerade parties got their start.

Masquerades quickly gained a reputation as being breeding grounds for scandal and promiscuity. This was likely due to the fact that the full spectrum of social classes might be present and interacting at the same event, hidden behind the protection of a mask and/or costume. This was also a time of sexual revolution- as part of the Enlightenment, and aided by the growing availability of printed literature, the boundaries of sexuality were being pushed. Masquerades were the perfect places to test these boundaries. Many attendees would wear increasingly daring costumes, including cross dressing, disreputable priests or nuns, and classic characters for mythology. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston, who attended the 1749 Grand Jubilee Ball dressed as Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon. In her portrayal, Chudleigh wore only a wrap of sheer fabric (see top image.) Naturally, this was considered highly scandalous, resulting in the scene being recounted in countless magazines and newspapers. While this is a very extreme example, it goes to show that using fancy dress as an opportunity to express one’s sexuality is not the modern trend that most people think it is!

Want to learn more about the history of masquerades, fancy dress, and sexuality? Check out these books:

The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, by Faramerz Dabhoiwala

Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century
English Culture and Fiction, by Terry Castle

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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The Clash in fancy dress for the cover story of June 1978 Sounds Magazine, photographed by Chalkie Davis: Joe Strummer in bankrobber style, Mick Jones in a Hussar uniform, Topper Headon in a Bruce Lee jumpsuit and Paul Simonon as a surreal Wehrmacht officer with swastikas covered by button bagdes of MPLA, the Marxist-Leninist Angolan political party.

(…not so sure about Paul`s costume though, his image in Nazi uniform makes me feel kind of awkward…)

(photos via & via, info via & via)