Every year from February-March, Venice is transformed into a fairytale 18th century city, as the magical carnival or ‘Mardi Gras’ takes over. Dating back to the 12th century, revellers wore masks to hide any form of identity behind social classes, and came to together for grand feasts, parades and parties in costume, with an atmosphere of mischief and freedom permeating the whole city.
Today 30,000 visitors from around the world come to Venice to soak up the Carnival spirit, donning masks and outlandish costumes and joining the locals for grand balls, historical re-enactments, parades and an electrifying atmosphere.
This year the theme is “Ottocento-da Senso a Sissi – the city of women”, a celebration of the unification of Italy, and women, as the last day of the festivities ends on March 8th, International Women’s Day. The carnival is named after ‘Sissi’ or Elisabeth of Bavaria – the Empress of Austria under which Italy became an independent nation.
With such an empowering theme, ladies will be looking to the courtesans, duchesses and noblewomen of Venice for their costume inspiration. But we think any heroic or brave woman would make the perfect base for a carnival costume. So if you’re going to Carnival (or have a costume party to dress up for) here are our favourite heroines, and the accessories to complete the look. Masks at the ready…
Elisabeth of Bavaria
The lady: The symbol of this year’s carnival, there will doubtless be a lot of ‘Sissis’ on show this year. The Empress of Austria, Queen Consort of Hungary and the spouse of Franz Joseph I, Elisabeth was a fashion icon during the 19th century, famed for her beauty, strict diet, love of travel, and decision to flout the conventions of the Hapsburg court. A tragic figure, she was assassinated and lost many of her children – and her life has inspired many films and novels.
The look: Elisabeth famously had a 20-inch waist, so you’ll need a super strong corset or a waist-cinching belt. Pile your hair high or wear long in romantic flowing waves, and wear huge, billowing skirts for swishing around a nineteenth century court.
Accessorize…with statement jewelry fit for an Empress. Huge pearl earrings, plumes in your hair, diamond necklaces and as many rings as you can fit on your finger. Make sure your mask glitters!
Lady of Elche
The lady: The Lady of Elche is actually a stone bust that was discovered by chance in 1897 near Valencia in Spain. Believed to be a piece of Iberian sculpture from the 4th century BC, it depicts a strong, regal looking woman decked out in jewelry.
The look: Ancient splendor – the lady is festooned with Mayan style jewelry, with a huge headpiece, long earrings, a cape, and necklaces draped over her chest. Make sure whatever you wear is gold or brightly colored.
Accessorize with… a gold painted mask, beaded headbands, oversized gold earrings, and chunky, tribal style necklaces.
The lady: ‘Saint Joan’ is considered the patron saint and a national heroine of France. A peasant girl who claimed Divine guidance, she was key in leading the French army to victory during the hundred years war, but was captured, sold to the English and burned at the stake for treason when she was nineteen years old. Pronounced innocent by the Pope twenty five years later, she became a martyr famed for her bravery.
The look: Marvellously medieval. Joan is either depicted brave and ready for battle in a suit of armour and long flowing skirts, or a damsel in distress about to be burned at the stake – with long flowing hair and a floaty white dress – take your pick!
Accessorize with…anything metallic and tough – think chainmail, a metallic headpiece, or oversized statement necklaces that are like armour.
The lady: Immortalized in Sophia Coppola’s eponymous film, Marie Antoinette was an Archduchess of Austria and the Queen of France and of Navarre. A different kind of French heroine to Joan D’Arc, Marie was loved by the French for her style and charm, and then despised as a symbol of the aristocracy they wished to overthrow. She lived a life of unbelievable wealth at Versailles, but certainly showed bravery when she was taken to the guillotine, and it was claimed (wrongly) she declared ‘Let them eat cake’.
The look: Rococo splendour – think huge skirts, piled high and powdered wigs, beauty spots, little kid gloves, corsets, and buckled and bejewelled shoes.
Accessorize with…cake, of course! And huge gems, pearls, and anything that sparkles.
Queen Elizabeth 1:
The lady: The first ruling queen of England and Ireland, ‘Good Queen Bess’ was the last of the Tudor dynasty and celebrated as the ruler of the ‘Golden Age’ of Britain – seeing over the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the flourishing of English Drama with Shakespeare, and the discovery of new worlds by Sir Francis Drake.
The look: Tudor opulence – a high collared coat or ‘ruff’, flaming red hair, terrible teeth (you don’t need to copy this one!), bejewelled coats, bell sleeves, and a square neckline. Oh, and a crown.
Accessorize with…velvet, faux fur, pearls, rubies, and huge gold crucifixes.