A 16th Century “Visard” Mask
Visard mask in the style of those worn in 16th Century Western Europe - a foundation of buckram covered with black velvet on the outside and pig leather on the inside.
Masks have been used all over the world since the times of antiquity. Their function has varied greatly. Examples include funeral masks, masks worn for religious ceremonies, masks for theater, masks for social occasions, etc.
The wearing of masks as a fashion accessory in Western Europe seems to have started in the 1500’s. William Harrison, in his Description of England in Shakespeare’s Youth published in 1575, records that “Women’s Buskes, Mufs, Fanns, Perewigs, and Bodkins, were first devised and used in Italy by Curtezans, and from thence brought into France and there received the best sort of gallant ornaments, & from thence came into England about the time of the Massacar in Paris”. The later is a reference to the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, which took place on August 24, 1572 during the Wars of Religion under the reign of Charles IX.
Phillip Stubbes, a puritan social reformer, published a book in 1583 called Anatomie of Abuses. In this book he denounced, among other things, the fashions worn by men and women at the time. This is what he has to say in regards to masks: “When thei use to ride abroade, thei have visors made ov Velvet . . . wherewith thei cover all their faces, havying holes made in them against their eyes, Whereout they look So that if a man that knew not their guise before, should chaunce to meete one of them he would think he met a Monster or a Devil: for face he can see none, but two broade holes aginst her eyes, with glasses in them.”
Randle Holme, a 17th Century scholar, noted that, “A mask . . . This is a thing that in former times Gentlewomen used to put over their Faces when they travel to keep them from Sun burning. It covered only the Brow Eyes and Nose, through the holes they saw their way; the rest of the face was covered with a Chin-cloth. Of these masks they used them either square with a flat and even top, or else the top cut with an half round; they were generally made of black velvet. The second form of Mask is the Visard Mask, which covers the whole face, having holes for the eyes, a case for the nose, and a slit for the mouth, and to speak through; this kind of Mask is taken off and put in a moment of time, being only held in the Teeth by means of a round bead fastned on the inside over against the mouth.”
These are not the only references to the fashion of wearing masks. Emmanuel Van Meteren, a merchant of Antwerp, settled in London and lived there throughout Elizabeth’s reign, serving as Dutch consul in England from 1583 to 1612. He noted in 1575 that “Ladies of distinction have lately learned to cover their faces with silken masks or vizards and feathers.” Apparently the Queen’s [Elizabeth] masks might be lined with perfumed leather. A warrant dated April 19, 1602 states: “Item to Raffe Abnett . . . for one dozin of sweet skynnes to lyne maskes.”
Peter Erondell’s book of French/English dialogue, “The French Garden: For English Ladyes, and Gentlewomen to walke in . . .Being an instruction for the attaining of the French Tongue,” published in 1605, describes a Lady Ri-Mellaine getting dressed in the morning, assisted by Prudence, the chamber-maid, and Jolye, the waiting gentlewoman. Said account describes that “The final touches are given by neckwear, purse, clean hadkerchiev, gloves (it is too warm for a muff), mask, fan, ‘Chayne of pearls’, and girdle with these times in a case hanging from it: scissors, pincers, pen-knife, a knife to close letters, bodkin, ear-picker, and seal.” The book was dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Barkley, the only child of Gorge Carey, Baron Hundson and godchild of Queen Elizabeth. Muriel St. Claire Byrne suggests that the character of Lady Ri-Mellaine is based on that of Lady Elizabeth Barkley.
It appears that while wearing these particular masks was certainly a fashion statement, their main purpose was to protect the skin against the effects of the elements outdoors, as opposed to masks worn in masque balls and other social occasions. Although no extant examples of 16th Century masks exist today, some images survive, as well as a miniature 17th Century mask belonging to a doll called Lady Clapman. This doll currently belongs to the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
The first image is a print of the French School, circa 1580, entitled “A Horseman with his Wife in the Saddle behind him,” which currently resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris. This engraving shows a masked woman in an enormous ruff, a black hood, and a bell-shaped skirt with a farthingale. (Figure No. 1)
Another example is a print from the ‘Omnium Poene Gentium Habitus’ by Abraham de Bruyn, published in 1581: “in this fashion noble women either ride or walk up and down.” The image depicts a lady wearing a mask with holes cut for the eyes. (Figure No. 2)
However, the closest thing to an extant example of this type of artifact is the miniature mask featured in the wardrobe of Lady Clapman, a 17th Century doll that has been preserved with her entire wardrobe at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Although the doll and the wardrobe were constructed out of period, this little mask corresponds to 16th Century descriptions, down to the button in the mouth for the wearer to bite and keep the mask in place. If one compares the little toy mask with the aforementioned prints, there is no doubt that we are talking about the same type of mask. This may mean that the fashion of wearing masks could have survived all the way to the 1600’s with very little change to their design. This mask is made out of cardboard, covered in hand-sewn silk, lined in vellum, and has a wooden bead located at the mouth. (Figures No. 3 and 4).
Figure No. 3
(Picture copyright Victoria and Albert Museum)
Figure No. 4
(Picture copyright Victoria and Albert Museum)
Design and Materials
The design is that of a full-face mask, with holes for the eyes and mouth, and a bead to bite and hold it in place, as per the descriptions in the prior section and after the little toy mask in the Victoria and Albert Museum. The elements of the mask are an outside cover, a foundation, and a lining.
For the covering I picked black cotton velvet. In period, the velvet would have been silk, but the “silk” velvet that is being sold today is mostly acetate and polyester. Cotton velvet is made mostly from natural fibers and is a more appropriate substitution than man-made fabric.
Choosing materials and techniques for a foundation proved a little trickier. While there are period description on what would have been used to cover and line masks (velvet and “sweet” or perfumed leathers), I have yet to find descriptions of actual foundations. Therefore, I had to do some detective work on available period materials that would be light enough and malleable enough to serve my purpose. I came up with three choices: Papier maché, cardboard, and buckram.
There is a reference in the Histoire des Jouets et Jeux D’enfants by Fournier where it is mentioned that from the time of Francis I of France (around 1540), dollmakers used a mixture of clays, paper, and plaster called carton-pierre (literally stone pasteboard). This mixture was worked together and pressed into molds, backed by coarse paper and dried by steam. The resulting effect is similar to papier-mache.
The second option was cardboard. After all, that is what the foundation of Lady Clapman’s mask is actually made of. Also, cardboard has been available since the 15th Century, particularly for the design manufacture of gobelins.
The third option was buckram, a material widely used during the 16th Century to stiffen all types of garments and accessories, as well as for millinery. Buckram is a very malleable material, readily available, light, and it is still used today in the manufacture of masks for theatrical purposes.
My theory is that any of those three materials and techniques could very well have been used as foundations for masks. What you need in a foundation is something that is both lightweight and malleable, especially since these masks were held only by the wearer’s teeth. Any of these materials meet the criteria. I felt that I was in good shape no matter which one I picked.
In the end, I decided to go for buckram. I already had a nice piece at home, which I had purchased for millinery use, and I was itching to experiment with it.
Next, I needed to find a suitable lining for my mask. As we saw in the previous section, “sweet skynnes” (perfumed leather) were used to “lyne maskes.” Therefore, what I was looking for was leather. In this case I needed fine leather, preferably one ounce in weight, to keep my mask as light as possible and supple enough that it would not feel rough against the wearer’s skin.
Extant examples of various types of garments and accessories, from gloves to jerkins, suggest that the most common types of leather used for these purposes were lamb, kid, and doeskin. One of the problems that one runs into these days when looking for quality leathers is that many tanneries are closing or moving outside the U.S. because of the new EPA laws. Moreover, most of the fine leathers are going directly to the automotive industry. This limits the choices commercially available to the individual artisan. The kidskin, lambskin, and doeskin that one can find nowadays are often not nearly as fine as what one would need for a reproduction. That is why, for this case, I chose pigskin.
Pigskin, tanned in the period fashion, would not have been suitable for this type of project. It is not that pigskin was not available at the time. Pigs were ubiquitous in Western Europe. However, pigskin was usually coarse and of a lower quality, not suitable for a fine “sweetened” lining. Nevertheless, modern tanning techniques have made it possible for pigskin to be soft enough and light enough for the finest work. If I could not get my fine kid, lamb, or doeskin in the necessary weight, I would have to use the material that would closest resemble it. In this case, ultra-light, very fine pigskin.
For the mouth fastener, I used a wood pony bead that I picked up at a local craft store, and used hemp cord to attach it to the mask. I chose hemp cord because:
a) It was available in period;
b) It tasted better than leather cord; and
c) If I am going to put something in my mouth, let it be something that doesn’t taste or feel awful.
I also decided against “sweetening” the leather since I cannot stand any strong smells, let alone against my face. Besides, with modern tanning techniques there is very little smell to the leather, making the need for masking that smell with perfume really pointless.
Finally, I used Sobo glue to stiffen my mask and to glue the cover and the lining to the foundation. I have the theory that something like rabbit-skin glue would have been used in period for this purpose (and I have read that these days they are using French rabbits for this purpose). Regrettably, they had run out of rabbit-skin glue at my local craft store so I picked up the Sobo glue instead. I am still planning on experimenting more with masks and I will probably use the rabbit-skin glue on a future project.
For fitting my mask I used a beautician’s foam head to create my mold (See figure 5). I named her Lucy.
The foam head was first covered with tin foil, in order to smooth the features and then duct taped to finish the smoothing process (see figure 6). I then dampened my buckram in water, which made it soft and malleable, stretched it over the face of the foam head, and allowed it to dry for a several hours (see figure 7).
Once the buckram was dry, I cut it down to size and this time I did try it on directly on my face until I found it comfortable. After that, I applied the Sobo glue to the top surface, and allowed it to dry again letting it rest gently on the duct-taped foam face. The duct tape prevented it from being glued to the foam face.
After the glue dried, I tried it again and made more adjustments. Since buckram is sort of translucent – and the Sobo glue does not make it more opaque – I was able to pencil in the lines for where the eyes and mouth would be cut by wearing it while marking it. I then took it off, and cut the holes out with a pair of scissors. (See figures 8 and 9.)
Next step was gluing the cover, which I did by using the Sobo glue and carefully stretching the black velvet over the mask. (See Figure 10.)
Once it dried, I cut the velvet open where the eyes and mouth would be, folded the tabs around the edges of the oblong holes to the inside of the mask, glued them in place, and allowed them to dry.
The following step was to attach the mouthpiece with the pony bead. For that, I threaded the hemp cord and knotted it until reaching the desired length, and glued the two “tails” to the upper and lower ends of the mouth slot, taping them with a little bit of masking tape so they would not move. Once the bead was secured, I glued the leather to the inside of the mask in the same way I had attached the velvet to the outside. I then cut the eye and mouth slots to size.
And presto!, now I have a mask!
What I Have Learned:
Buckram is a wonderful media for a foundation. The fact that it doesn’t lose its elasticity during the process helps putting all the pieces together without puckers or creases. I think that next time I will affix the cord and bead for the mouth only to the bottom part, as I have realized that a lower bite helps better to keep the mask in place and the eye slots where they are supposed to be.
Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds.
Blum, André, The Last Valois 1515-90, George G. Harrap & Co, LTD. London, England
Fleming, Juliet, The French Garden: An Introduction to Women's French, ELH, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring, 1989)
The Papier Mache Resource Page
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Mistress Isobel Beddingfield, who referred me to the dolls section of the Victoria and Albert Museum webpage while discussing period dolls construction. This lead me to the discovery of Mrs. Clapman's mask while researching her wardrobe. Also, thank you for suggesting the use of a foam head. This has been a wonderful solution for shaping the mask. (Not having to apply wet buckram to my face is a wonderful thing, although Lucy might disagree with me.)
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p.12
 Blum, André, The Last Valois 1515-90, George G. Harrap & Co, LTD. London, England. p. 17.
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p.203
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p. 237. Note 333 on the section of The Queen’s Artificer’s: Stubbes, 1583 edn, p. 42v. Holme, Academy, III, p.13.
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p.12.
 Fleming, Juliet, The French Garden: An Introduction to Women's French, ELH, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Spring, 1989), pp. 19-51 doi:10.2307/2873122
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p.p. 110-111.
 Blum, André, The Last Valois 1515-90, George G. Harrap & Co, LTD. London, England. PLATE 43, p. 23.
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p.p. 202.
 The Papier Mache Resource Page
 Arnold, Janet, Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlock’d, 1988, Great Britain, W.S. Maney & Son, LTD, Hudson Road, Leeds. p. 361.
 Cardone, Jon, A Milliner’s Approach to Maskmaking – Part I. Technical Brief No. 1264. Department of Design and Production, Yale School of Drama (October 1994).