Face-masks had already arrived in England from France via Italy, where in 1570 William Harrison stated masks were first devised and used by ‘curtizans’ (courtesans). That may have been so but eventually masks permeated into all levels of society, with ladies of all ranks adopting them, primarily as protection. Apart from covering pox marks and other blemishes, women were concerned about their complexions when riding or out in a carriage and did not relish garnering a glow from the sun. It seems strange to us today but in the 16th and 17th centuries it was desirable to appear pale and plump, a sign that your husband could afford for you to stay indoors and not engage in manual labour. Whereas during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries a tan has been suggestive of leisure time outdoors, previously it meant you were too poor not to work and so toiled in the fields.
Masks became an acceptable barrier to dust and grime and gave women a way of moving about the city incognito when they were usually confined to the home, their every move judged on a moral level. Philip Stubbes in his The Anatomie of Abuses, written in 1583, tells us that:
‘When they use to ride a brod they have invisories, or visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holse made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, hee woould think hee met a monster or a devil, for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them.’
There were several styles of mask, ranging from fluid fabrics such as velvet to stiff offerings consisting of an outside cover, a foundation and a lining. A reference in the Histoire des Jouets et Jeux D’enfants by Fournier mentions that from around 1540 a mixture of clay, paper and plaster called carton-pierre may have been worked together and pressed into moulds backed by coarse paper and steam dried. Literally translated carton-pierre means, ‘stone pasteboard ‘and had a papier mâché appearance, though was perhaps much heavier. Another possibility was buckram, a stiff fabric used in millinery, or pressed paper which resembled cardboard, both then being faced with fine fabric or silk and backed with ‘sweet skynnes’ or perfumed leather which would have been soft against the skin.
Some masks were held to the face by means of a wand or stick but this meant both hands were not free. The other way was for the women to keep the mask in place by means of a small bead threaded on a length of twisted hemp attached to the lower part of the mask which she clenched in her teeth. An ingenious way of attachment one might say, though just how a lady was supposed to talk, let alone be charmingly witty, is possibly an art lost to time. It may have rendered an otherwise chatter-filled carriage ride in the company of a bevy of ladies amusingly silent for a thankful father or husband. But it was not only gentlewomen who adhered to this quirk of fashion, it was equally indulged by royalty. When walking in her garden Elizabeth I was recorded as having ‘put down her mask’ to speak to a visiting merchant from Holland.
Masks may have been introduced to England in the days of Gloriana and continued to protect the complexion in the decades preceding the Restoration, but it was only when Charles II retook the English throne and reinstated the theatre that a lady’s mask or ‘vizard’ (from the word visor) became an altogether different affair. Samuel Pepys is possibly our best source of evidence for this shift in the status of the lady’s mask, its ability to evoke an air of mystery, conceal and effectively render every woman, common and highborn, equal in their anonymity. Pepys himself found masks mildly frustrating, as recorded in his diary of 1661 when he allowed his clerk and his wife a ride into town with him in his carriage. He first thought the man’s wife to ‘be an old woman’ only to find out later, after she had removed her mask, that she was in fact ‘indeed pretty’. In 1663 he recounted that ‘ladies wear masks to the theatre which hides their whole face’, convenient for a lady if she wished to attend incognito. Such is illustrated by an entry in which Pepys tells us how his friend Lord Falconbridge was at the ‘Royall Theatre’ with Lady Mary Cromwell (third daughter of Oliver Cromwell), who ‘when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play’.
Unfortunately, by now the vizard was becoming a standard who would look for custom both within the theatre and without, thus ladies in a full vizard ran the risk of appearing other than they were. Despite care being given to promote respect for the mask, Antoine de Courtin’s The Rules of Civility (1671) advises readers to ‘pay more civility’ to those wearing vizards ‘because many times under those disguises are persons of the highest dignity and honour’, it was too little too late. Pepys recounts an incident where he and some friends were in need of a carriage after an evening out and his wife being a little ahead of him was almost ‘taken up’ by a gentleman who did not recognise her as she was ‘wearing her vizard’.
Eventually, the word itself sank into depravity, vizard simply denoting a woman of easy virtue with theatres the places to meet them. Respectable women no longer frequented playhouses, which prompted individual premises to take action. When in 1703 the Daily Courant published a playbill for a performance of The Country House and ‘a consort of musick in Drury Lane’ it included a line which declared ‘and no persons to be admitted in masks’. This was wholly ineffective, compelling the government to intervene with an edict issued by Queen Anne that, among other things, ‘no woman be allowed or presume to wear a vizard mask in theatres’.
Masks did not however disappear altogether as the half-mask naturally took its place. Easier for a woman to hold a conversation as she no longer needed to hold it to her face by clenching her teeth around a bead, it was also easier for her to be recognised, though it was an unwritten rule that such revelations would not be disclosed. A half-measure of facial protection and anonymity was preferable to the full mask given the effect the latter had had upon women’s reputations. Did Sarah Fell of Swarthmoore Hall realise when she entered in her account book ‘1674 – October 17th – paid for a vizard maske for myself at 1s and 4d’ that twenty years later such a devilish object would be considered to have done more to ‘ruine more women’s virtues than all the bawds in towne’?