“Veyl’d on Purpose to be Seene” Metamorphosis of the Mask in 17th and 18th Century London

“One of the basic functions of a mask are used to conceal or at least to obscure a person’s identity, to turn its wearer, at least notionally, into a stranger.”

In premodern societies the concept of privacy was literally not thought of. This type of society is described as face-to-face. Extended family, the neighbourhood, pretty much everyone, played a part in controlling the actions of everyone else. Strangers were looked down upon and were treated as outsiders or a potential menace. This is why the use of a mask, a mask that “hides” the identity of a person, made a perfect shame punishment for women in these types of societies. These masks are called scold masks or scold bridles and were fitted to the woman’s head. The masks had torturing effects like screws in the forehead, and some would temporarily blind the wearer in order to focus the wearers attention to the crowds verbal reactions. What the hell is wrong with people?

Thankfully a different kind of usage of masks developed in London. London had become the first European metropolis and the population of the city grew rapidly.  This hustle and bustle made it the norm to live an anonymous lifestyle since there were so many people and everyone became strangers. New ideas about privacy started to form. The half-mask was used by women as a winter accessory and also as a form of disguise. Later the option to wear a mask became available year round.

“A new phenomenon which could well be described as a virtual form of disguise was the incognito ritual. If you made it understood that you were incognito, people could of course still recognize you, but they were nevertheless expected to behave towards you as if you were completely disguised. ”

This was interesting to me. It’s such a playful concept. I can’t believe that people actually went along with it. In a way I wish that people would still be open to this kind of behavior. I think that most people have forgotten how to play, and in turn take things way too seriously or too personally.

Michael Jackson’s Children

Then the passage went onto saying, “This apparently bizarre but once common pattern of behavior demonstrates that the privacy of strangers or of the people who wanted to be treated as strangers had become something to be respected.”. When I read this I was immediately reminded of how Michael Jackson would use masks and veils to cover his children’s faces whenever they were in a public place. He wanted to protect his children by masking them, and I can remember gossip television shows talking about how strange it was for them to never be caught outside without being covered. To me, him protecting his children like that was something to respect. In my opinion I think some aspects of the incognito ritual should be adopted today, especially within the world of celebrity. In a sea of paparazzi a mask would be a physical reminder of respecting that person’s privacy. Also considering how much celebrities are objectified by the public, a mask could humanize the celebrity by  allowing them to become someone else for a moment.


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