Masks and Masquerades

Masked Identities


Identities: revealing or deceiving.

The term ‘appearance’ represents in all its senses to which extent what we see is a truthful mirror of the inner self of a person. Oscar Wilde is well known for the aesthetic young man and dandy he was, but in contrast with the shallowness of this persona, he saw that one ought to live according to the categories one sets, rather than those set by others and denied the masked self that covers the true self. In his essay “The Truth about Mask” he highlights the contrasting functions of the mask for revealing and concealing, with his famous quote below.


Mystical Essence

This double faced function serving to contrast the identity with its disguise provokes many thoughts about the mask, its meaning and its utilization. The mask owes its mystical essence for being a complement of the face. That’s because this specific part of the body is the most revealing and identifying of an individual. It tells about the person, the emotions, and maybe a glimpse of one’s course of life. By masking this part of our anatomy, we are driven to experience of our senses in a different way, which is behind the mystical aspect of masks. This particular function made the use of masks very popular in the public space of the theater, where fleeting expressions can mislead the viewer. Hiding the actors expressions functions just perfectly to tell more substantial and enduring truths in the performance.

Universal Symbolism of Masks

The term “mask” originates from the mid 16th century influenced by masḵharah from Arabic, which means buffoon. It has been postulated as the source of Italian maschera or mascara, from which to the French masque. Its phantasmic reference could have a medieval origin from the Latin term masca referring to a witch, spectre or nightmare. The English derivative masquerade, relates very closely to the term mask and refers to masked ball. It was borrowed from the French mascarade interestingly, with the French spelling “masque” kept integrated in it.

Beyond the purely literal context, it is probably not a coincidence that prosõpon in Greek refers to both the face and the mask. When the mask covers the face, it becomes a representation of this significant human feature where four of the five senses are centered.

Those distinguished traces of the term “mask”, through their diversity seem to be in agreement about its connotations: The mask evokes amusement, fanciness, dissimulation and even hypocrisy. Moreover, each and every culture has seen a unique significance behind the  simple alteration of the appearance. Many other features of the masks were seen and consequently widened the purposes of its use. The covering the face produces non ending senses and are also known to be practiced for protection, make-believe, social acceptance, disguise, entertainment, religious devotion and more.

Carnival Masks and Masquerades

The image that our mind constructs when we think of masquerades is an operatic ball within the upper class. Masquerades were indeed prodigious masked and costumed assemblies held during special events mostly popular in the second and third decades of the eighteenth century. They are yet another version, a second hand imitation of popular European carnivals of the era, mostly Italian ones.


The carnival concept debuted notably in Venice, and in no time shifted from being a public parade to a more sensual festive life brought into home. Following such unaccepted social behavior with the use of masks, the Venetian government established restricting rules including prohibiting people from wearing masks outside the period of Carnival or in places of worship. But the practice of costumed assemblies and balls or masquerades had already been exported to England as many other European nations before it started to be contained.

In England, popular masquerades turned into an exaggerated social practice where designs of fancy costumes and fashionable masks became an important articles of supply. Those social events were top stories that figured in the newspapers and their prominence was seen to be influential in politics as much as in society.

The sensuality of the disguise created a duplicity of the self: a presentation and a concealment. Masquerades invoked a problematic notion of the self and identity, the new body impersonated the old one and the true self eluded out of reach. The phenomenon created an inverted world, a reversal of the ordinary sexual, social and metaphysical hierarchies.

Masquerades were eventually targeted by criticism, civil and religious censure until they gradually disappeared by the early beginning of the nineteenth century, marking the end of the periphery of life it brought to the society then.

Note: This post is part of an original essay in which I explored how masks are seen as an example of style and appearance, in terms of culture and scene.


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