Above all I love a masquerade; because a female can never enjoy the same liberty anywhere else. It is delightful to me to be able to wander about in a crowd, making my observations, and conversing with whomsoever I please without being liable to be stared at or remarked upon, and to speak to whom I please, and run away from them the moment I have discovered their stupidity.
These words of the renowned Regency courtesan Harriette Wilson sum up the excitement and informality of the Regency masquerade. In her memoirs she devotes several pages to that famous masquerade which was given by the members of Wattier's club, to all the nobility in England, in honour of peace between Great Britain and France, which occurred prior to my leaving England. It was the most brilliant assemblage I had ever witnessed.
Not only nobility were present. The three Wilson sisters, Harriette, Amy and Fanny Dubouchat, all fashionable impures, were invited but their friend and rival, Julia Johnstone, who together with Harriette and Fanny made up the notorious ‘Three Graces’, had to beg for an entrance ticket. Finally Lord Hertford offered her one provided she went in boy’s clothes. Harriette continues: Julia was very shy and did not like boy's clothes; but Julia's legs were perhaps the handsomest in Europe, and then Julia knew there was no remedy.
No expense was spared on the costumes, which were made by the fashionable Stultz of Clifford Street, tailor to the Prince Regent and Beau Brummell. We asked Stultze's advice about a modest disguise for Julia, and he referred us to a book full of drawings therein exhibited, the dress of an Italian or Austrian peasant-boy and girl, I forget which; but I remember that Julia wore black satin small-clothes, plaited very full, round the waist, a la Cossaque, fastened tight at the knee, with a smart bow, fine, black, transparent silk stockings, black satin shoes, cut very short in the quarters, and tied with a large red rosette, a French cambric shirt, with beautifully small plaited sleeves, a bright blue, rich silk jacket without sleeves, trimmed, very thick, with curiously wrought silver bell-buttons, and a plain, round black hat, with a red silk band and bow.
I, as Julia's fair companion, was to wear a bright, red, thick silk petticoat, with a black satin jacket, the form of which was very peculiar and most advantageous to the shape. The sleeves were tight, and it came rather high upon the breast. It was very full-trimmed, with a double row of the same buttons Julia wore. My shoes were black satin, turned over with red morocco; my stockings were of fine blue silk, with small red clocks; my hat was small, round, and almost flat, the crown being merely the height of a full puffing of rich pea-green satin ribbon. The hat was covered with satin of the same colour, and placed on one side at the back of the head. The hair was to fall over the neck and face in a profusion of careless ringlets, and, inside my vest, an Indian amber-coloured hankerchief.
Stultze brought home our dresses himself in his tilbury, on the morning of the masquerade, being anxious that we should do him credit. Everything fitted us to a hair. The crowd was expected to be immense, and we were advised to get into our carriage at five in the afternoon, as, by so doing, we should stand a chance of arriving between nine and ten o'clock, at which hour the rooms were expected to be quite full. Fanny chose the character of a country house-maid. She wore short sleeves to show her pretty arms, an Indian, glazed, open, coloured gown, neatly tucked up behind, a white muslin apron, coloured hankerchief, pink glazed petticoat, and smart, little, high, muslin cap. What character in the name of wonder did Amy choose? That of a nun, forsooth!
Harriette estimated that about five thousand people attended the masquerade. Byron’s friend Hobhouse who went in Albanian dress puts the number at seventeen hundred which seems more likely. Is that a boy, or a girl, think you?" was the question from every mouth, as Julia and I passed them. "The leg is a boy's, the finest I ever saw," said one; "but then that foot, where shall we find a boy with such delicate feet and hands?" Still it remained a puzzle, and everybody seemed undecided as to the sex of Julia. I waltzed and danced quadrilles with half the young ladies and gentlemen in the room.
Later she has an intriguing encounter with A gentleman, in a rich white satin, Spanish dress, and a very magnificent plume of white ostrich-feathers in his hat………..I liked his voice, and there was something romantic throughout this little adventure which pleased me. I was in high spirits, and the mask's beautiful dress was set off by a very fine person: and so, when he again insisted on more kisses, I candidly confess I never once dreamed of calling out murder.
After supper, she tells us, I was in my glory, and determined to enjoy myself in perfect freedom. I chatted with everybody who addressed me, just long enough to ascertain that they were uninteresting people. At last I found myself in the still quiet room I have before described. It was entirely deserted, save by one solitary individual. He was habited in a dark brown flowing robe, which was confined round the waist by a leathern belt, and fell in ample folds to the ground.
The solitary individual was Lord Byron and after a high-flown exchange, she asks "Do you wish to leave me now, then?"
"Thank you for being candid, and God bless you, dear Lord Byron," said I, this time raising up my mask, that I might press his hand to my lips.
"Amuse toi, bien, mon enfant" said Lord Byron, drawing away his hand from my mouth, to give me an affectionate kiss.
Byron, according to his own account, had a less pleasant encounter with Lady Caroline Lamb, feeling obliged to talk to her, for she laid hold of Hobhouse, and passed before where another person and myself were discussing points of Platonism; so frequently and remarkably, as to make us anticipate a scene ; and as she was masked, and dominoed, and it was daylight, there could be little harm, and there was at least a probability of more quiet. Not all I could say could prevent her from displaying her green pantaloons every now and then; though I scolded like her grandfather upon these very uncalled for, and unnecessary gesticulations.”
Harriette ends the evening with the wealthy MP Richard Meyler who had pestered her sister all evening to point out Harriette. At last he finds her. Meyler examined my hand and nails attentively, and then called me by my name. "I could swear to this hand anywhere; but how you have tormented me to-night," said Meyler. The novelty of my dress seemed to make the impression on Meyler, which a new woman might be expected to make on a man, who, like him, was so fond of variety. He was quite in raptures, and refused to leave my side an instant during the remainder of the evening, lest any famous knight-errant should carry me off in a balloon.
At eight o'clock in the morning an excellent breakfast was served. It consisted of coffee, tea and chocolate; and, when I returned home at half-past nine o'clock, I heartily wished that the whole fete would begin again.
Sources: The Memoirs of Harriette Wilson, Written By Herself, 1825
Recollections of a Long Life John Cam Hobhouse 1909/11
Lord Byron’s letter of 2 July 1814 to Lady Melbourne.
Above: Masquerade. Tom and Bob keeping it up in real character from REal Life In London 1821