Masks: Anonymity and Excess

072115 Chris Banner

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 6.47.13 PMMasks were originally part of the regalia for religious rituals and early theater in Europe. The fashion of wearing masks as an accessory did not make its way to the Continent until the early 1570’s when Italian courtesans began wearing stylish face coverings in order to hide their identity while in public. Although masks are worn for many purposes in the modern era, the celebration of Halloween is currently the main reason for choosing to cover one’s face. The purpose of “masking” ones identity remains the same as in the Sixteenth Century: The scope, however, has grown through the years until it is now an industry that draws in over 5 billion dollars annually for a single day of celebration.

After it was established in Italy, this unusual fashion trend traveled through France and England, where mask-wearing to protect one’s identity became the discreet custom of ladies of distinction when out walking, riding, or attending the theater. In Elizabethan England, clothing possessed the ability to define a person’s identity and locate his or her position within multiple, overlapping cultural categories. The apparel a person wore established one’s sex, rank, occupation, nationality, and even religion.

From Wikipedia Commons

From Wikipedia Commons

The frequent royal proclamations passed during Queen Elizabeth’s reign (1559, 1562, 1566, 1571, 1574, 1580, 1588, and 1597) sought to ensure that one’s clothes accurately depicted one’s social station: “consydering to what extremityes a great nombre of her subjects are growne by excesse in apparel, both contrary to the lawes of the realm and to the disorder and confusion of the degrees of all states” (Hinds, 1909). Queen Elizabeth did not want anyone dressing above his/her station even if they could afford to do so, but the masks worn at social and outdoor functions made it difficult to regulate. The anonymity of the masks let wealthy members of the merchant class mingle with nobility in defiance of the laws that sought to segregate them.

Gentlemen of the period also took up the fashion of wearing a mask in order to disguise themselves when gambling or when taking part in a criminal activity. In 1583, Phillip Stubbes gave a detailed description of just this sort of mask:

When they used to ride abroade, they had visors made of velvet . . . so that if a man knew not their guise before, and should chance to meet one of them, he would thinke he met a Monster or a Devil; for face he can see none, but two broade holes against her eyes, with glasses in them (as qtd. in Knight, 1867).

Abreham de Bruyn Mask from Wikipedia Commons

Abreham de Bruyn Mask from Wikipedia Commons

These facial coverings were generally constructed from leather, silk, satin, velvet, and feathers. Although masks varied slightly in shape, they were generally flat and only covered the upper part of the face with holes cut out for the eyes, a nose case, and a slit for the mouth.   The mask would be held in place by the person biting down on a bead attached to the inside of the mask.* While wearing the mask a person could not speak, eat, or drink.

These ornaments survived fashion trends throughout succeeding centuries mostly to hide the identity of the wearers at social events, a function for which many people enjoy wearing a mask even today. One celebrity famous for throwing an annual Halloween masquerade party is Heidi Klum, who celebrated this year by attending as the fictional character of Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Many of Klum’s costumes over the years have done a wonderful job of obscuring her identity—something that must be hard for a celebrity in this day and age—and this year’s mask will be difficult to top.

Jessica Rabbit Mask Being Applied From @heidiklum

Jessica Rabbit Mask Being Applied From @heidiklum

There are other traditions associated with masks and Halloween, including the Gaelic festival of Samhain, a celebration that honors the end of summer and the beginning of the coldness and darkness of winter. But these traditions have drifted from their original purpose: masks once worn to scare away evil spirits and prevent them from entering homes are now worn to entertain or to allow children to wander the streets anonymously and collect treats. According to Jordhan Briggs (2015), Americans will have spent more than 2 ½ billion dollars this year on costumes for Halloween and another 2 ½ billion dollars on Halloween candy.   These figures do not include the cost of decorations or the costs of hosting any Halloween-themed parties.

By wearing masks on Halloween, modern Americans are following in the footsteps of both Italian courtesans and Elizabethan English ladies and gentlemen of distinction.** We are hiding our identities not to scare away evil sprits, but to allow facelessness while celebrating in excess.  A few years ago over 250 trick-or-treaters visited my house, and I enjoyed seeing each and every one.*** I enjoyed giving them chocolate and other goodies. I am sure that a few neighborhood kids visited more than once, but since they took the trouble to change their costumes between visits, it seems like they had fully embraced the idea about Halloween masks, anonymity, and excess.

*Those cheap, elastic strings that hold on modern Halloween masks don’t seem so bad when you consider the alternative.

**I am sure this happens more often than people realize.

***Yes we counted.


Briggs, J. (2015). The cost of Halloween. Retrieved from

Hinds, A. (Ed.). (1909). Calendar of state papers, Venetian V15. London: Longman, Green.

Knight, C. (Ed.). (1867). The pictorial edition of the works of Shakespeare. NY, NY: George Routledge & Sons. Retrieved from


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