Almost no one gets to don elaborate costumes as much as they should, so it's always fun when you're invited to an event where masquerade dresses are requested. While they can be expensive to buy or rent and are time-consuming to make, there is no doubt that they are worth the effort.
Styles of Masquerade Dresses
Many modern masked balls, such as those thrown as charitable events, expect attendees to wear modern formal wear and the masks can just be the cheap kind picked up at a drugstore. But if the event is an actual masquerade, there will be nothing modern about it.
Masquerade balls date back to 15th-century Italy. They quickly spread through the continent and hit their heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries. Even the famously prudish Queen Victoria liked a good costume party, although of course any hint of sensuality was forbidden. Both men's and women's costumes were as wildly inventive as one's imagination and sewing expert could achieve. Hosts struggled to outdo each other in décor and grandeur. The parties became the stuff of legend.
As such, it's not surprising that the most popular masquerade dresses today are cut in the style of 17th and 18th-century costume. It's a way of channeling the time when the balls were a regular part of life for the wealthy. It also allows for a rich array of elaborate gowns and accessories.
Earlier time periods can also be evoked in masquerade dresses, such as the Italian Renaissance or the Elizabethan era, both of which also allow for grand dress. Even medieval costumes can be seen, especially when they are most evocative of fictionalized versions of King Arthur's day.
Gothic costuming is also popular and usually specified on the invitation. Many Cosplay masquerades will have a Gothic theme.
Acquiring Your Masquerade Costume
Renting or buying masquerade dresses can be a costly procedure. You want to look fabulous, of course, but unless you're going to attend such events regularly or are part of a costume or historical reenactment society, you probably don't want to spend a lot of money. Depending upon what sort of look you are trying to achieve, you can easily keep costs down.
Renting is always going to be less expensive than buying. If you are renting a costume any time that isn't Halloween or Christmas, prices will be lower because business is slower. And if you are renting as a couple or a group, you will probably be able to negotiate an even better deal.
In addition to costume stores, you might try asking your local theatre company if they have appropriate masquerade dresses. Theatre companies are always short of money, and many are happy to rent costumes, often at lower prices than the store.
If you're trying to create a more custom look but have only minimal sewing skills or time, you have a few options. You can go to that same theatre company and commission a dress, provided they are not currently costuming a new production. Or you can visit a consignment shop. Many vintage evening and wedding dresses can lend themselves to a look appropriate for several hundred years ago. Once you've found the base, all you need is some imagination and a trip to the fabric store. If you are going to a Gothic party, for example, you might look for a dress that can either be dyed black or covered in a black overlay. Trim it with some black lace and design a mask to match and you're set. If you want a more thematic costume, you can do a lot with fabric paint and glue. However, be sure to plan the look carefully before you start working with the actual dress.
As wonderful as your dress turns out, be sure to pay attention to the look of the mask as well. This will add to the period look and the fun!