The eighteenth-century masquerade was inextricably linked to an erotic atmosphere. Issues of gender, sexuality and role-reversal were all tangled up within the confines of the ballroom. The activity at masquerades included the touching and fondling of strangers, and propelled a highly sexual energy among guests. The donning of masks brought an inevitable sexual tension prevalent among masquerade-goers. This tension is the subject of much scrutiny.

Because the masquerade focused on the disguise of identity, the face was often hidden and the body emphasized [1]. Sexuality took on a whole new freedom at the masquerade ball. For the English masquerade participant, modesty was redefined. One did not need to follow the usual restraints of everyday life. Masks were particularly significant as aphrodisiacs: " conventional wisdom held that someone donning a mask, especially a woman, experienced an abrupt loss of sexual inhibition" [2]. Since a mask provided detachment from identity, it provided a sort of detachment from traditional morality, as well. Prostitutes were common at masquerades, and contributed to the sexually charged atmosphere. Promiscuity among women at masquerades was common [3], even if the sexual activity was not taking place at the ball, it was certainly exacerbated by the atmosphere and the aura of the masquerade. Women normally had to conform to very strict societal rules regarding sex and sexuality, but at masquerades, some of these rules were stripped away. For example, the masquerade was the only place, other than church, that a woman could go unattended [4]. Thus, some observers argue that the masquerade was a liberating force for women, providing them a sense of freedom they had never experienced before. Furthermore, since women could, under her disguise, act "aggressive, domineering, and controlling" [5], she was able to assume an identity that was definitely more traditionally "male" in nature. This maleness, some say, afforded her a certain amount of power and liberty. Women could also dress as traditionally powerful female figures such as Greek goddesses. In the space of the masquerade, women could carve out identities that they were not supposed to live in their real lives [6]. The woman that did exercise the sexual freedom she experienced at a masquerade would, of course, have to pay stronger consequences than a man if something went wrong [7]. Dress certainly contributed to the sense of sexuality at the ball: "prudish" dress probably heightened a sense of mystery [8], while certain overly revealing costumes (such as Elizabeth Chudleigh's portrayal of Iphigenia) shocked observers and contributed to an air of sexual explicitness [9].

Thus, while it can be argued that the masquerade was liberating for women, some critics suggest that it was actually a step backwards in their emancipation. Catherine Craft-Fairchild argues that the masquerade actually did not "alter women's status" [10]. The facial mask that hid the eyes and thus the soul transformed a woman into a mere sexual object [11]. And since the focus of masquerades was the symbiotic sense of voyeurism and self-display, Craft-Fairchild wonders who did the gazing in the eighteenth-century masquerade. Her answer is found in a play by William Wycherley, where he writes, "A Woman mask'd is like a cover'd dish, giv[ing] a Man curiosity, and appetite" [12]. Craft-Fairchild concludes that when the woman becomes the spectacle, she does not obtain a higher sense of freedom; rather her status as a subject for man's pleasure lowers her freedom even more [13].

Cross-dressing was a common form of disguise at masquerades [14]. This crossing of gender lines in dress was almost always a catalyst for sexual symbolism and questioning. Men were able to dress as women and thus identify themselves in a way that would have otherwise been taboo; women could do the same. Gender roles could be reversed as easily as class roles. Closely linked to this topic, the issue of homosexuality was also one that appeared at masquerades. The masquerade provided an "unusual opportunity for erotic experimentation and release" [15]. The masculine appropriation of female traits at the masquerade served to contribute to an aura of traditional sexual inversion and practice.


1. Castle, Terry. Masquerade and Civilization: the Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century
     English Culture and Fiction
. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1986, 38.
2. Castle, 39.
3. Castle, 41.
4. Schofield, Mary Anne. Masking and Unmasking the Female Mind: Disguising Romance
     in Feminine Fiction 1713 to 1799
. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1990, 26.
5. Schofield, 36.
6. Munns, Jessica. The Clothes That Wear Us: Essays on Dressing and Transgressing In
     Eighteenth-Century Culture
. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1999, 160.
7. Castle, 44.
8. Castle, 40.
9. Ribiero, Aileen. The Dress Worn at Masquerades in England 1730 to 1790. New York, NY:
     Garland Published, 1984, 32.
10. Craft-Fairchild, Catherine. Masquerade and Gender: Disguise and Female Identity in
     Eighteenth Century Fictions by Women
. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University
     Press, 1993, 53.
11. Munns, 147.
12. Wycherley, William. The Complete plays of William Wycherly. Ed. Gerald Weales.
     New York, 1966.
13. Craft-Fairchild, 53.
14. Munns, 179.
15. Castle, 41.