Minuets and Make-believe

On Wednesday January 23rd  1782 the Morning Herald & Daily Advertiser announced:

At the King’s Theatre, in the Hay-market, TOMORROW there will be at this theatre, A GRAND MASQUED BALL,

With Minuets and Quadrilles, composed by Monsieur NOVERRE, By Monsieur Gardel, Madame Simonet……

Public assemblies such as masked balls provided much needed extra revenue for the theatre, and the presence of star dancers, as well as the great Noverre himself would have provided a significant draw.

In England, public masked balls and masquerades brought about a mixing of the social classes, and the anonymity, if desired to experiment with identity and gender. Theatres profited from these events both as venues, and as the purveyors of costume.

A masked ball presented opportunities to use dress to cross boundaries, subvert, and challenge the sense of cultural order, and as such was often denounced in social commentaries. However, it also allowed for the ‘safe’ display of foreignness, the chance to experience a frisson of difference, by wearing oriental dress; a way of domesticating the exotic, a site for controlled experimentation.

Dress was as crucial to the masked ball as dance, and the form endured for a century as a popular leisure activity in England. This paper will explore the role of various costumes and choice of dress, in allowing people the freedom to experiment, as part of this popular leisure activity.


Joanna Jarvis trained in Theatre Design and lectures on the Theatre Performance & Event Design course within the Birmingham Institute of Art & Design at Birmingham City University. She is currently studying for a PhD looking at the relationship between fashion and dance costume in the eighteenth century. Joanna is also a freelance costume designer and maker, specialising in period costume; her long association with Mary Collins has led to a particular interest in period dance and how the cut of clothes affects movement.



Joanna Jarvis
Symposium Title: 
Dancing for Anniversaries and Occasions: Chamber, Court, Theatre & Assembly 2015
Author affiliation: 
Birmingham City University