Often considered one of the strangest accessories, masks had both practical and decorative uses among European women. Masks were first worn during the sixteenth century to provide protection from the sun and other elements while women were outside or riding horses, thus preserving the pale complexion that was in fashion. This practical usage of masks continued through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and such masks covered either the full face or just the nose and eyes. Full face masks were made of fine stiffened white cloth with holes for the eyes and mouth. They were held to the head with ties or, in a strange arrangement, with a button that was clenched between the front teeth.
Fashionable half-masks were most popular during the seventeenth century. These masks covered the area around the nose and eyes, and were either held to the head with ties or fastened to a small stick, which required that women hold the mask up to the face in order to remain concealed. Such masks allowed women to conceal their identity while attending the many theater performances that were prohibited for respectable women, or simply to maintain an air of mystery at a party or ball. They were either black or white and were made of silk, satin, velvet, or some other soft material. By the nineteenth century masks had gone out of fashion and were only worn by bandits and people attending masquerades, or costume balls.
Bigelow, Marybelle S. Fashion in History: Apparel in the Western World. Minneapolis, MN: Burgess Publishing, 1970.
Cassin-Scott, Jack. Costume and Fashion in Colour, 1550–1760. Introduction by Ruth M. Green. Dorset, England: Blandford Press, 1975.