Once in a while it’s time to do one of those “once in a lifetime” things that’s well overdue. One of those things on my to do list (I hate the term ‘bucket list’) is something I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid: travel to Venice and experience the legendary carnival first hand.
I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw pictures of the wonderful costumes against the dramatic backdrop of Venice’s beautiful architecture. But I do remember very clearly the magical impression those pictures left on me: the many bridges and tiny streets, labyrinthine and mysterious, begging to be explored. The silent masked strangers, adding an air of melancholy to a city that’s dying a slow theatrical death, disappearing into the sea like a modern day Atlantis. Such wonderful drama …
One night in October last year I serendipitously stumbled over this documentary:
It rekindled my curiosity about going to Venice, and only an hour after watching the programme, I had spontaneously booked a hotel room for carnival. Oops. I blame second screen viewing and the ease of online shopping. 😉
Of course one doesn’t just travel to the Venice carnival with a suitcase full of ordinary clothes and a little “made in China” mask. No, if one was to go there for carnival, one would have to go totally in the spirit of the thing and make an effort. All or nothing: traditional costume or no trip to Venice. Basta! And so one started looking into costume options. Weeks of obsessive research began.
But where does one even begin? I was amazed to find very little in the way of specific Venice focused costume tutorials online. Sure, tutorials for all kinds of cloaks and hats are out there, even for masks and Baroque dresses, but nothing much exists that puts it all together into a handy guide to building a coherent Venetian carnival look. Very odd.
This short documentary provides some insights, but is by no means a tutorial:
I also had no idea how hard it would be to find a more or less unique dress on which to build my costume. My sewing skills are basic to say the least, so making a dress from scratch wasn’t going to be an option for me. Browsing online and offline costume shops was uninspiring, even depressing. Heaps and heaps of mass-produced Chinese imports made from nasty thin fabrics. Ugh! But I persevered and finally found a medieval style dress on Amazon Germany that didn’t look naff, didn’t seem to exist on every other costume site but also didn’t cost the moon on a silver platter. It all seemed so perfect…
Traditionally, so I found out after I had already ordered the dress, carnival pros usually start by choosing the mask, then build the costume around its expression and colour scheme. Oops, n00b error. Having chosen the dress before everything else set me on a mad chase of trying to track down suitable fabrics for accessories. Oh the hours and money wasted on this impossible odyssey! And I hadn’t even thought about a mask yet.
I was obsessed with getting the costume exactly right. I spent hour upon hour watching every possible carnival video on YouTube. I left no Flickr album unseen.
The most gorgeous costumes had one or two focus colours around which the entire outfit was put together. Aiming for that perfect blend meant I would have to find a matching blue fabric to go with my lovely German dress and its totally impossible shade of cobalt blue velvet. Oh my! This truly turned into mission impossible. I visited countless fabric shops in and around London, ordered a zillion material samples from eBay. Nada. Nothing even came close to the particular shade of blue I needed. It was very frustrating. On the plus side, I guess at least my dress seems to be truly unique.
A month of searching had gone by and it became clear that I had to abandon the idea of making matching blue accessories. Considering my colour alternatives, I eventually decided to riff on the small silver trim on the dress and soon enough found some beautiful material on eBay that fitted the bill. Costume making finally began for real at the beginning of December:
Although I had bought a standard white tricorn hat from a costume store, I soon decided that it wasn’t going to give me the design freedom I wanted. Instead I went back to a costume sewing pattern I had used in the past for another costume, and made the hat from scratch.
. . . .
The hat evolved alongside the other accessories. Fortunately, Christmas shops provided a rich variety of packaging ribbons and sparkly bits, which all came in very handy indeed and spawned new arrangements all the time.
My Christmas break was almost entirely devoted to mask making. Like with every other detail I also obsessively researched the Venetian mask making process. Traditionally, masks are made with “carta lana”, but as I’d already spent so much money on miscellaneous fabrics, I made do with ordinary paper. Over all, I found this video quite useful:
Now, I’ve never made a mask from scratch, especially not one made from an actual plaster cast. But as the saying goes, who dares wins, and so I smothered my face in Vaseline one afternoon and got properly plastered. Surprisingly, the whole process was a lot easier and less messy than I had expected (I used plaster bandages from Hobbycraft).
Once dry, I coated the fragile cast in two layers of white acrylic paint inside and out. The paint serves two purposes: dry paint makes the cast a lot more sturdy and also prevents the plaster from absorbing moisture from the papier-mâché. Making the actual masks (I made three) took more than a couple of days due to drying times between steps:
- 2 layers of papier-mâché
- drying time
- adding one layer of gesso paint
- drying time
- fixing imperfections with polyfiller
- drying time
- sanding the polyfiller to blend smoothly
- another layer of gesso
- drying time
- 2 layers of white acrylic paint
- final drying time
The mask that emerged at the end was so damn perfect that I couldn’t bring myself to paint it as planned: what if I screwed it up?
I wasn’t prepared to take the risk. Too much time and work had gone into this already.
. . .
Anyone who thinks that true Venetian masks are expensive should make their own from scratch: even at minimum wage per hour and undecorated, my mask would cost over £60. – Talking of value, I dread to think what my costume would cost in real terms, i.e. factoring in not only materials but also labour time. I didn’t watch the clock, but I’m guessing roughly 100 hours of work have gone into this project.
I soon found another solution to my mask decoration quandary: one of those lace-style masks you can get on eBay for £1. At least if I messed that up, it wouldn’t be so hard to replace. Also, I had seen several photos of people wearing eye masks on top of their full face masks. Double masking seems to be an actual thing, so I won’t look too out of place with my version.
Once the lace mask arrived, I decorated it with little sparkly gems, on the one hand to make it stand out more, and on the other to blend it in with similar sparkles on my hat. That process took another whole evening – ’twas rather fiddlier than I had hoped.
I forgot to mention that somewhere in all of this I also found time to make a little dolly bag for the outfit.
Out of all the tasks, that one was probably the easiest bit of the whole costume.
The only real challenge I had with making the cape was that the silver material was very very slippery. Lining the cloak properly was a total nightmare and time sink because the layers kept slipping in different directions (pulled down by the weight of the rest of the fabric). Like I said before, sewing isn’t particularly my speciality, and I do it so rarely that I lack much necessary experience and sewing machine practice. I’m also incredibly impatient with myself, yet fussy about the smallest details. Not the greatest combo for a project like this.
I could waffle on much longer about the mission for the perfect white gloves, the correct dalmatian fur trim to match the one on the dress, the big blue statement ring, the key accessory (A hand mirror? A flower? A feather? A glass sphere? A fan? Something entirely different?). All these minute decisions took hours, sometimes days. And let’s not even talk about the price of feathers! (tl;dr: “HOW MUCH?!”)
On a different note, I cannot stress enough how useful my knowledge of German and Italian were in researching bits and pieces for this. Germany has a huge carnival tradition itself, and it’s easy to find reasonably priced quality supplies if you know what you’re looking for. A lovely side effect of all this was that watching umpteen tutorial videos has helped me brush up on my ropey Italian. Handy!
Making this costume has been quite a journey, and to be honest, with only one weekend of tinker time to go, I am so glad it’s pretty much finished. Now I can only hope that my luggage doesn’t go missing en route and that the carnival doesn’t drown in acqua alta. Fingers crossed.
See more photos on Flickr