Under Cover in the Renaissance

It’s a beautiful day here in Salem, but I’m in lockdown in my study, more than halfway through the very last chapter of my book! I am taking a break to show you some early modern masks, just because they are so wonderful. There is no material culture in my book: it’s all about information culture. But some of the instructive information I am coming across refers to very mundane matters like personal and household hygiene: one of my very favorite books is all about how to remove spots and stains from both precious and mundane fabrics, with dyeing advice if they won’t come out. Out, damned spot! Out, I say! This was of course a huge problem, as I am not dealing with a disposable society. Cleanliness was increasingly important for health reasons as well: sixteenth-and seventeenth-century people were living through constant pandemics of plague and various poxes and fevers, and while they knew nothing about germ theory, they had associated disease and squalidness. When they went outside, into the pestilential air, they covered up for protection if they could afford to: with hats, hoods, gloves and fans and yes, even masks. Everyone is now familiar with the beaked plague masks of the later seventeenth century, but this was just one, rather dramatic, form of early modern masks, which were also worn for “disguising,” for protection against the weather, for festivity, and for fashion. The most elaborate of fashionable early modern masks for women, the vizard or visard, which covered the entire face except for the eyes, seems to have had Italian origins, like so many fashions then (and now): when they began appearing in England, many commentators, especially of the Puritan disposition, were not impressed. In his Anatomy of Abuses (1583), Phillip Stubbes wrote: When they use to ride abroad they have invisories or visors made of velvet, wherewith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them for their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that know not their guise before, should chance to meet one of them, he would think he met a monster or a devil, for he can see no face, but two broad holes against her eyes with glasses in them. Nevertheless, the household accounts of Queen Elizabeth’s reign list vizards among her purchases, and a century later, these “visors” were fashionable apparel for women of some means, who would wear them out and about, particularly when attending the theater. Samuel Pepys was so struck by one vizard-wearing lady at a performance that he went right out and bought a mask for his (long-suffering) wife. There are several digital sources for early modern apparel: I chose the images below from a late sixteenth-century album of costumes in watercolor at the Morgan Library and the “Friendship Album” (Album Amicorum) of a German Soldier in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

An Album of Costumes, Morgan Library.

Album Amicorum, LACMA.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s engravings of English women clothed for every season from the mid-seventeenth century illustrate the bit more utilitarian masks worn by women of means during the winter: many more Hollar images are at the Fisher Library at the University of Toronto and the Rijksmuseum, where I obtained these images—there is a new “Rijkstudio” where you can get creative with collection items; no time for that now, but later……..

Wenceslaus Hollar at the Rijksmusum.


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