Saturday 6 March 2021

Vizards and Masks

Vizards, also known as masks, were worn by gentlewomen in the sixteenth through the seventeenth and possibly into the eighteenth centuries. They could also sometimes be worn by men, as in a quote from a translation of Stefano Guazzo’s work, “There are certaine glorious fellowes, who at shrovetide goe with Maskes on their face”, (1) and nearly a century later Stanley wrote, “Some wild young men.., lay in wait for him, attired like furies, with vizards and torches.” (2) The terms seem to be used fairly interchangeably. Stubbes uses both terms “When they [ladies] ride abroad, they have invisories, or masks, visors made of velvet, wherewith they cover all their faces.” (3)

Figure 1. Detail from Hollar showing how a half mask is fastened


In the sixteenth century, in England, they are used a lot in plays and revels; Elizabeth I even had her own vizard maker, John Owgle, and payment is made for example for a “dozen of viserdes with shorte berdes.” (4) One of their main uses seems to have been to preserve the complexion from sun or wind.  Holme describes a mask as “a thing that in former times gentlewomen used to put over their faces when they travel to keep them from sun burning.” (5) They became fashionable wear, both as a protection and simply to hide the face. Their use by criminal elements is shown in a 1657 record where, William Pearce taylor and John Kent barber where taken by the watch “in the company of others as daungerous and suspitious persons”, they having “having severall disguises about them as vizors, perriwigs and some kinde of womens apparell .” (6) Their use was of course, associated by many with vanity, as can be seen in a detail from the Maerten de Vos, print of c.1600 ‘The Vanity of Women: Masks and Bustles’ (Figure 2) 

Figure 2. Detail from Maerten de Vos "The Vanity of Women" Metropolitan Museum, New York

Styles of vizard.

Vizards or masks come in two types one that covers the full face, and a half mask covering just the eyes and nose. When masks are purchased, the style is often not indicated. Half masks were fastened with ties around the back of the head, and sometimes over the top, as can be clearly seen in the detail of a Hollar plate from Ornatus (Figure 1). A full face vizard which survives was found during the renovation of a stone building in Northamptonshire (Figure 3). It weighs about an ounce (30 grams), the outer fabric is black velvet, the lining is silk, and in between is pressed-paper, the three layers then being stitched together.  It fits perfectly with the description written by Randle Holme (1627-1699), ‘[It] covers the whole face [...] holes for the eyes, a case for the nose and a slit for the mouth [...] this kind of Mask is taken off and put[on] in a moment of time, being only held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastened on the inside [...] against the mouth.’ (5) Another survival from the end of the seventeenth century is the miniature mask made for the doll, Lady Clapham, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The inner surface of this is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 3. Surviving mask found in Northamptonshire

The costs and who purchases them

The accounts for the Marquis of Hertford’s family in 1641 have ‘for three maskes for the three ladies 4s 6d,’ which would make them 1s 6d each. (7) Slightly cheaper examples were available, the Howards of Naworth purchased several between 1619 and 1624, in both velvet and satin, for prices between fourteen and twenty two pence. (8)

It would seem that this was an accessory that was adopted by the emerging middle classes, as several tradesmen have them in stock. John Uttinge, a chapman of Great Yarmouth, had six silk masks valued at 2s 6d in 1628, another chapman William Mackerell of Newcastle had four masks valued at 2s 4d in 1642. (9) In the 1660s both Ralph Eyton, a clothier of Bristol and Benjamin Marshall, a mercer of Lincoln, had masks in stock, while the 1679 probate inventory of Henry Mitchell, a haberdasher of Lincoln, recorded vizards in stock at 1s each. (10) (11)

When in 1669 Giles Moore, rector of a Sussex parish, took his niece, who was probably around 14 years old, to London with him, the purchased a considerable amount of clothing for her including a mask. (12) They seem to have been worn fairly commonly in London. Pepys comments on them several times, noting that “Lady Mary Cromwell, who looks as well as I have known her, and well clad; but when the House began to fill she put on her vizard, and so kept it on all the play; which of late is become a great fashion among the ladies, which hides their whole face.” (13) He then goes out the same day and purchases one for his wife at the Exchange.

Figure 4. Interior of Lady Clapham mask, Victoria and Albert Museum


While the survival and most images seem to show black masks, they could come in several colours, Gosson has “the tallow-pale, the browning -bay, the swarthy-blacke, the grassie greene, the pudding-red, the dapple-graie,” (14) and the Coke family archives have green masks being purchased for the children. (15)


1. Guazzo, Stafano. The civil conversation, translated out of French by George Pettie. London : Richard Watkins, 1581.

2. Stanley, Thomas. History of Philosophy. London: : Mosley and Dring, 1655.

3. Stubbes, Philip. Anatomie of Abuses. London : Richard Jones, 1583.

4. Feuillerat, Albert. Documents relating to the office of the revels in the time of Queen Elizabeth. Louvain : Uystpruyst, 1908.

5. Holme, Randle. The academy of armory. Chester : The Author, 1688.

6. Middlesex Sessions Rolls: 1657. In: Middlesex County Records: Volume 3, 1625-67. Originally published London: Middlesex County Record Society, 1888. . [Online] [Cited: 6 March 2021.]

7. Private Purse Accounts of the Marquis of Hertford, Michaelmas 1641-2. Morgan, F. C. 1945, Antiquaries Journal, Vol. 25, pp. 12-42.

8. Selections from the household books of the Lord William Howard of Naworth castle. Ornsby, George. Durham : Publications of the Surtees Society, 1878, Vol. 68.

9. Spufford, Margaret. The great reclothing of rural England: petty chapman and their wares in the seventeenth century. London : Hambledon Press, 1984.

10. George, E. and George, S. Bristol probate inventories, Part 2: 1657-1689. Bristol : Bristol Records Society publication 57, 2005.

11. Johnston, J. A. Probate inventories of Lincoln citizens 1661-1714. Woodbridge : Boydell, for the Lincoln Record Society, 1991.

12. Tankard, Danae. Clothing in 17th century provincial England. London : Bloomsbury, 2020.

13. Pepys, Samuel. Diary, Friday 13th June 1663. [Online] [Cited: 5 March 2021.]

14. Gosson, Stephen. Pleasant Quippes For Upstart Newfangled Gentlewomen. London : s.n., 1595.

15. Cunnington, C. Willett and Cunnington, Phillis. Handbook of English costume in the 17th century. 3rd ed. London : Faber, 1972.

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