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When High-Class Ladies Wore Masks That Made It Impossible to Speak

In the 16th century, avoiding a sunburn meant being mute and looking super creepy.

A 1581 depiction of a man and his wife, who is sporting a visard.
A 1581 depiction of a man and his wife, who is sporting a visard. Habits de France/Public Domain

For refined, upper-class ladies in 16th-century Europe, getting a tan, especially on your face, was not a good look.

The implication of such coloring was that one must work outside, and thus, quite possibly be poor (cue gasps and swooning faints). So to make sure they didn’t get burned, some 16th-century ladies wore face masks called visards (or vizards) that covered their delicate visages. Unfortunately, the masks also made it so they couldn’t speak. And, look as if they belonged to an evil cult.

The visard was a very simple mask that nonetheless made quite an impression. Only a handful of surviving visards have ever been found. Luckily, the most intact specimen, the “Daventry Mask,” gives a clear picture of a visard’s construction. Found tucked away in the wall of a 16th-century stone building near the town of Daventry in Northamptonshire, the mask consists of an outer layer of black velvet, followed by layers of pressed paper, with a lining of silk on the inside. The oval face covering extends out to accommodate the nose, and there are small holes for eyeholes and an opening for the mouth. 

The Daventry Mask in all its glory.
The Daventry Mask in all its glory. Scott/CC BY-SA 3.0

Along with the mask, a small glass bead was discovered that would have been attached to a string behind the visard’s mouth hole. This bead (sometimes a button) was how the visard was kept on the face. As opposed to unseemly head straps, a lady sporting a visard would hold the bead between her teeth to keep the mask in place. If she wanted to talk, she’d have to remove the mask. This had the side effect of essentially silencing the wearer. In the Elizabethan era, when visards were at their pinnacle of popularity, this silence was generally viewed as adding mystery to a lady’s character.         

One of the earliest references to such masks comes from a 16th century text by William Harrison called Description of England. The author describes the wearing of masks coming to England from a trend that started in France. For a time after the trend caught on, the visard was a high fashion item among the rich and socially active. In fact, one of the only other surviving examples of a visard is an accessory for a doll, rather than a full-size mask. The visard had apparently become so popular that even children’s toys were incorporating them. But the inherent creepiness of a blank, black face mask was apparently not lost on everyone.

Even in white, the visard is pretty creepy.
Even in white, the visard is pretty creepy. Abraham de Bruyn/Public Domain

In 1583, the Christian polemicist Phillip Stubbes released a pamphlet called The Anatomy of Abuses. Among various other screeds (one chapter is titled “On the evils and punishment of whoredom”), Stubbes describes what he sees as the horrors of the visard, writing:

When they use to ride abrod they have invisories, or visors made of velvet, wherwith they cover all their faces, having holes made in them against their eyes, whereout they look. So that if a man, that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meet one of them, hee would think hee met a monster or a devil, for face hee can see none, but two brode holes against her eyes with glasses in them.

Despite their unsettling and silencing influence, visards are believed to have remained in vogue until at least the 17th century before fading into historical obscurity. Similar masks can be seen in paintings as late the 18th century. Today’s fashion trends will no doubt look strange or creepy in a few centuries, but even in that far future, visards will still be high on the list of history’s most terrifying fashion moments.

Correction: This post previously referred to a book called Description of England in Shakespeare’s Youth, which was the incorrect title.