Vizards & Invisories:
Ladies' Masks in the 16th & 17th Centuries

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References to, and a few examples of, a style of mask worn by fashionable European women in the 16th and 17th centuries.

See also A 16th Century “Visard” Mask.

For more on the masks worn in the 17th century, often by women at plays – both by performers on the stage and by the women attending the performance in the galleries – see Will Prichard’s “The Playhouse: Women in the Audience” in Outward Appearances: The Female Exterior in Restoration London, or Masks and Faces: Female Legibility in the Restoration Era.

(Some of the 17th century references to the vizard are metonymic references to prostitutes who wore such masks.)

  • The Daventry Mask, a mask found in a 16th century wall near Daventry in Northamptonshire. “The mask, which was found folded in half lengthways and placed within a small rectangular niche behind the face of the wall, would have almost certainly have been worn by a gentlewoman to protect her face from the sun … The outer fabric of the mask is black velvet and the lining is silk. The inside is strengthened by a pressed-paper inner with the three layers stitched together by a black cotton thread. On the silk lining, just below the centre of the mouth, is a loose thread of white cotton which would have held a black glass bead (found in association with the mask). With a lack of holes to allow string or elastic to be put around the head, the mask would have instead been held in place by the wearer holding the black bead in her mouth.”
  • A horseman with his wife in the saddle behind him, Habits de France, 1581
  • “In this fashion noble women either ride or walk up and down,” from Omnium Poene Gentium Habitus by Abraham de Bruyn, 1581
  • From Phillip Stubbes’ Anatomie of Abuses, 1583: “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.”
  • From “A Glasse to Viewe the Pride of Vaineglorious Women: A plesant invective against the fantastical forreigne toyes dayly used in womens apparel” in Pleasant Quippes for Upstart Newfangled Gentlewomen, 1596:

    Weare masks for vailes to hide and holde,
        as Christians did, and as Turkes do use,
    To hide the face from wantons bolde,
        small cause then were at them to muse;
            But barring onely wind and sun,
            Of verie pride they were begun.

    But on each wight now are they seene,
        the tallow-pale, the browning-bay,
    The swarthy-blacke, the grassie-greene,
        the pudding red, the dapple graie;
            So might we judge them toyes aright
            to keepe sweet beautie still in plight.

    What els do maskes but maskers show,
        and maskers can both daunce and play:
    Our masking dames can sport, you knowe,
        sometime by night, sometime by day:
            Can you hit it is oft their daunce,
            Deuse-ace fals stil to be their chance.
  • Traveling ladies on fols. 9 and 22, Discours à Lesdiguiàres (British Library Harley 5256, fol. 22), 1597
  • From “The Scovrge of Villanie” by John Marston, 1598:

    Her maske so hinders mee
    I cannot see her beauties deitie.
    Now that is off, shee is so vizarded,
    So steep'd in Lemons-iuyce, so surphuled
    I cannot see her face, vnder one hood
    Too faces, but I neuer vnderstood
    Or saw, one face vnder two hoods till now,
    Tis the right semblance of old Ianus brow.
    Her mask, her vizard, her loose-hanging gowne
    For her loose lying body, her bright spangled crown
    Her long slit sleeue, stiffe busk, puffe verdingall,
    Is all that makes her thus angelicall.
  • The Vanity of Women: Masks and Bustles, c. 1600
  • From the Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday, July 12, 1663: “Here [at the Royall Theatre] I saw my Lord Falconbridge, and his Lady, my Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have known her, and well clad; but when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face. So to the Exchange, to buy things with my wife; among others, a vizard for herself.”
  • The Prologue to the Second Part of the Conquest of Granada by the Spaniards by John Dryden, 1671:

    They who write Ill, and they who ne’r durst write,
    Turn critiques out of meer Revenge and Spight:
    A Play-house gives ’em Fame; and up there starts,
    From a mean Fifth-rate Wit, a aMan of Parts.
    (So Common Faces on the Stage appear;
    We take ’em in, and they turn Beauties here.)
    Our Author fears those Critiques as his Fate;
    And those he Fears, by consequence, must Hate,
    For they the Trafficque of all Wit invade,
    as Scriv’ners draw away the Bankers Trade.
    Howe’re, the Poet’s safe enough to day;
    They cannot censure an unfinish’d Play.
    But, as when Vizard Masque appears in Pit,
    Straight every Man who thinks himself a Wit
    Perks up; and, managing his Comb with grace,
    With his white Wigg sets off his Nut-brown Face;
    That done, bears up to th’ prize, and views each Limb,
    To know her by her Rigging and her Trimm;
    Then, the whole noise of Fops to wagers go,
    Pox on her, ’t must be she; and Damm’ee no:
    Just so, I Prophecy, these Wits to-day
    Will blindly guess at our imperfect Play:
    With what new Plots our Second Part is fill’d,
    Who must be kept alive, and who be kill’d.
    And as those Vizard Masques maintain that Fashion,
    To soothe and tickle sweet Imagination;
    SWo, our dull Poet keeps you on with Masquing;
    To make you think there’s something worht your asking:
    But when ’tis shown, that which does now delight you
    Will prove a Dowdy, with a Face to fright you.
  • From The Household Account Book of Sarah Fell of Swarthmoor Hall, 1674:
    “Octo: ye 17th. By mo pd for a vizard maske for my selfe … 000 [li.] 01 [s.] 04 [d.qr]”
  • From The Country Wife by William Wycherley, 1675:

    Mr. Horner. Your reputations frightened me as much as your faces invited me.

    Lady Fidget. Our reputation! Lord, why should you not think that we women make use of our reputation, as you men of yours, only to deceive the world with less suspicion? Our virtue is like the statesman’s religion, the quaker’s word, the gamester’s oath, and the great man’s honour; but to cheat those that trust us.

    Mrs. Squeamish. And that demureness, coyness, and modesty, that you see in our faces in the boxes at plays, is as much a sign of a kind woman, as a vizard-mask in the pit.

    Mrs. Dainty Fidget. For, I assure you, women are least masked when they have the velvet vizard on.
  • From the Epilogue to The Cheats of Scapin by Thomas Otway, 1676:

    With us the kind remembrance yet remains,
    When we were entertain’d behind our scenes.
    Tho’ now, alas, we must your absence mourn,
    Whilst nought but quality will serve your turn.
    Damn’d quality! that uses poaching arts,
    And (’tis said) comes mask’d to prey on hearts.
    The proper use of vizors once was made,
    When only worn by such as own’d the trade:
    Tho’ now all mingle with ’em so together,
    That you hardly know the one from t’other.
  • Winter and The Winter habit of an Engliſh Gentlewoman by Wenceslas Hollar
  • From the Epilogue to the King and Queen at the Opening of Their Theater by John Dryden, 1683:

    There are a sort of prattlers in the pit,
    Who either have, or who pretend to wit:
    These noisy sirs so loud their parts rehearse,
    That oft the play is silenc’d by the farce.
    Let such be dumb, this penalty to shun,
    Each to be thought my lady’s eldest son.
    But stay; methinks some vizard-mask I see
    Cast out her lure from the mid gallery:
    About her all the flutt’ring sparks are rang’d;
    The noise continues, tho’ the scene is chang’d:
    Now growling, sputt’ring, wauling, such a clutter;
    ’T is just like puss defendant in a gutter.
    Fine love no doubt, but e’er two days are o’er ye,
    The surgeon will be told a woful story.
    Let vizard-mask her naked face expose,
    On pain of being thought to want a nose.
  • Lady Clapham’s Mask, made for a doll c. 1690-1700; “cardboard covered with black ribbed silk and lined with vellum, with openings for the eyes and nose. Inside a mouthpiece of twisted thread bearing a glass bead allows the mask to held in place with the teeth.”