Trussed up in feathers, flounces and furls, the masked figures at the Venice Carnival seem a world away from the uniform skirts, suits and jeans that now dominate office life. But like the mysterious Carnival figures, our true selves are often masked by the requirements of our 9-to-5 roles. Perhaps it’s only when we’re dressed up in disguise that we have the freedom to express who we really are. With these thoughts in mind, I jetted off to Venice to find out what the fascination with fancy dress is all about.
With costume hire starting from 300 Euros a day, “Carnavale” takes the notion of dressing up to an outrageous level. Masqueraders typically don their costume in the morning for a day of posing and preening in street processions and gondola battalions before bracing themselves for the hotly-contested best costume awards in St Mark’s Square.
Entranced by the flamboyant catwalk flouncing, I idly try to imagine what these colourful courtesans do for their day job, could it be possible some even work in IT? Following the announcements of the winner and more than a few ruffled feathers, the contestants prepare for the evening’s traditional masked balls – still a carnival staple since the days of live dogs being fired out of canons.
While the most exclusive balls on the Grand Canal cost from 600 to 1200 Euros a ticket and are booked up to one year in advance, cheaper options include balls in private homes for a bargain 250 Euros.
Lesser mortals are also encouraged to don masks and there’s certainly no shortage of shops to choose from. Battling an invasion of plastic imitations from China, traditional Venetian masks are still hand-crafted from papier-mache using a traditional mould. The theory goes that the more you wear the mask, the more it moulds to your face like a second skin. Whipping one on for size, a cloying cardboard clamminess descends, not helped by the miniscule nostril holes.
With a saucy wink, we’re informed by the shop owner that the masks are worn with seduction in mind, (which seems a bit ambitious bearing in mind the breathing difficulties I’m currently experiencing). Avoid full face masks at all costs – the ones below are far more practical for eating, breathing and drinking.
Stepping out in disguise that evening, I’m surprised by the liberating anonymity that the mask brings. With no fear of being judged, there’s a seductive power in being concealed and I feel a confidence and sense of ease never experienced in every day life. As I gaze wistfully at the Marie Antoinette figures on their way to a ball, I console myself with a double helping of gelato – a feat which would never have been achieved in a corset or a full face mask.
Do you have a memorable fancy dress experience? We would love to hear about it.
The Venice Carnival runs from the 27th January – 13 February 2018.