A very small exhibition, ‘Victorian Masquerade’, in the National Portrait Gallery explores the Victorian middle- and upper-class interest in fancy dress. Dressing up was popular for balls and parties among the well-to-do, particularly on a historical theme (thus perhaps offering people the chance to show off their knowledge as well as their wealth), and, as this exhibition shows, alongside this interest in masquerades grew the concept of the ‘fancy portrait’, paintings or photographs which show the sitter in costume, perhaps with suitable props and against an appropriate backdrop. After all, if you’re going to go to all that trouble, one might as well record it for posterity. For example, the image on the left, from the NPG collection, shows Queen Victoria (yes, it really is) in the 1840s, in the dress of the eighteenth-century French court.
The display discusses the case of Victoria and Albert first, looking at the way they used fancy dress to ‘adopt an alternative persona’ and ‘experiment with their royal identity’ when dressed as Queen Philippa of Hainault and Edward III. (I love that these costumes were modelled on tomb effigies, but include a nod to Victorian corsetry!) The medievalism so beloved of the Victorians is here, as well as the sense of continuity in the royal line. It all makes sense and is, if a little staid, quite appealing. The craziness comes later: I really want to understand and appreciate, seriously, the portraits by David Wilkie Wynfield of John Everett Millais as Dante, and Holman Hunt in medieval dress, likewise Emery Walker’s photograph of Walter Crane as Cimabue. These medieval, idealised, literary characters are bound to appeal to such eminent Victorians, and yet I find it hard to take them seriously, all the more because the expressions on their faces suggest that they take it very seriously indeed. And in my mind, fancy dress is not something to be done with a straight face, but perhaps it was different then.