A blog about Early Modern literature, history and culture

Masque Costume, ‘A la nimphale’

My gravatar image is taken from the Woburn portrait of Lucy, Countess of Bedford wearing her  sumptuous costume for Jonson’s 1606 masque Hymenaei. What is so interesting about her costume here is the ways in which it departs from Jonson’s description of the masquers’ costumes, indicating that she adapted the standard costume in the interests of modesty and to reflect her aristocratic status. Evidence suggests that other masquers, for example, wore much shorter skirts for the performance at Whitehall on January 5th 1606. The basic style of masque costume was established in the earliest Italian entertainments, and was referred to as a la nimphale: short skirts and mantles were layered over diaphanous shifts, allowing limbs to be glimpsed through the sheer fabric, with calves visible in the hiatus between buskins (dancing boots) and the hem of the shift. The costumes of these Italian masques seem to have been even more strangely exotic than the later Stuart versions, decorated with animal skins and even the stuffed carcasses of animals. Glittering jewels and flowers were added to form an eclectic and rich covering, juxtaposing strongly with the simple underskirt below. The sharp discontinuity in texture and colour presented in these costumes was continually compelling for audiences, as the French courtier Brantome observed. The opaque, heavily embellished bodice and skirt were superimposed onto the evidently physical frame glimpsed through and below the underskirt and around the lace scarves or fichus, sometimes employed to make neck lines less risque. Remembering a French court entertainment staged in the name of Diane de Poitiers for Philip II in 1548, Brantome tells us that the court, ‘Amused themselves by contemplating the beautiful calves and lovely little feet of the ladies, for, being dressed a la nimphale and therefore in short skirts, they provided the most beautiful exhibition of them, better far than their beautiful faces which one can see every day – but not their beautiful legs. Many, therefore, fell in love with these lovely legs who had not fallen victim to their lovely faces. After all, above beautiful columns one discovers fine cornices, friezes and architraves, rich capitals excellently carved and polished’. We can hear Brantome salivating through his architectural metaphors, and he reminds us that court masques were sensual, exciting and taboo breaking events.

For more on masque costume see my essay, ‘Glorious Spangs and Rich Embroidery: Costume in The Masque of Blackness and Hymenaei’, Studies in the Literary Imagination, vol. 36, No. 2, 2003, pp. 41-59


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