Venice Carnival Costumes are not necessarily what you imagine them to be. If you think every masked dame is dressed in a period gown adorned with brocade and lace, then you’re far from the truth. The reality is that la Carnevale di Venezia is an indulgence of transgression, hidden identity and transformation that is open to all – not just to those who can afford the tickets to the extravagant balls. The jaw dropping professional costumes might be the stars of the show, but it’s the huge cast of extras – made up of people like us – who really turn the city into a fabulous, ridiculous, wondrous and glittering stage.
Venice Carnival Costumes – from the Lush and Expensive to the Cheap and Homemade
Venice Carnival Costumes can cost anywhere upwards from €300 to hire for a day, and rightly so. You’re talking about months of work by the world’s best ateliers. Their costumes integrate traditional craftsmanship with state of the art techniches, exquisite fabrics and trimmings with artistic vision and ambition. The results are a glorious spectacle, perfectly set against the world’s most extravagant backdrop: the city of Venice.
These Venice Carnival Costumes are like exotic birds or wild creatures. You stop and stare, overcome by their beauty and discomforting silence. Their lives are short – Carnival runs for a month – and the objective of their brief existance is to be seen, to be photographed, to be immortalised as an image. But that’s not entirely fair. Through activating the Wow neurons, they inspire the creatives: the seamstresses and tailors, the fashion and costume designers, the visionaries behind screen and stage. In all of us they inspire a respect for fine craftsmanship and artistry, and in an age of mass-prodcuction and disposable objects, this is a blessing.
But the category of Venice Carnival Costumes which don’t get Pinned, which don’t make it into Google’s Search Engine for Images, inspire us on a whole different level. They’re the costumes of ordinary people who just want to dress up and dive into the spirit of the event, to spend a couple of days in a generous exchange of laughter and lighthearted playfulness. Within this group, anything goes, and the wonder lies in the handmade and humble. One of the best costumes I saw this year was a hairy-legged bearded chap who’d pulled on some stockings, donned a dowdy frock and cut out a couple of eye holes from a Queen Elizabeth cardboard mask. Laugh? Oh, we did, my friend!
Venice Carnival Costumes 2017
Merlin was divine, with his two-handed staff and precious stones. Priceless, the hilarity of discovering Midas’s mermaid bride was a bloke in disguise. Perfect, the Headless Man. Fabulous, on the steps of the Rialto Bridge, to find a black knight on horseback.
I didn’t get a chance to take a shot of the Vikings engrossed in some ritualistic rite in the middle of a narrow calle. Nor did I capture the beautifully simple Japanese woman in a slinky red dress with a red plumed owl mask. I saw an entire family dressed as eccentric, futuristic scientists. There was the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and a wonderful group of women whose costumes were all about being pinned and tucked, clipped and sucked into the perfect form. And no Venetian Carnival would be complete without a group of enthusiastic young things dressed up as priests, monks and nuns.
Venice Carnival Collisions
The Venice Carnival is full of wondrous juxtapositions, and I love this because I imagine it’s always been so. Masks, back in the days, meant that Doges and Princes could wander the streets unidentified. During Carnival, there was no distinguishing count from servant, man from woman, spy from ordinary citizen. And so today, the rich and the not-so-wealthy co-inhabit the squares and the streets, united in a spirit of good fun. Whilst attendance at the balls require pre-purchased tickets and period dress, on the streets it’s a different affair. Homemade costumes that flaunt originality and humour may well draw bigger crowds than the glorious, but solemn, professional costumes.
In Venice, history and tradition rub shoulders with the 21st century. On the weekends during Carnival, from the top of the Campanile to the Main Stage, amidst the sounding of the midday bells, one can ooh and ah as a gorgeous designer-dressed Italian model floats down on a flying fox. Depending on which weekend you partecipate in, she’ll be representing the Angel, the Eagle or the Lion. We were witness to the Eagle, who was dressed in a denim and tulle gown which had been designed by Diesel, and sewn by the Atelier Pietro Longhi. (Not so different from my own costume, said one of my friends, which was also made from strips of tulle. All I was missing was the denim jacket. ? )
To get a good view of this spectacle (and have room to breathe), you’ll need to arrive early. We waited for a good hour so as to be close to the front when they opened the gates to the space before the catwalk and the stage. From there, you can admire close-up the 17th and 18th century costumes worn by members of the Venetian Cultural Organisations as they meander and make chitchat before taking their places for court dances. I’m sure there’s a logic and complexity to these socialite games, but to me the choreography seems staid.
Out in the square, there’s little to be serious about. Only the traditional Venice Carnival Costumes are mute and sombre. For everyone else, it’s a party. Even those sporting traditional 17th century garb (look at the shoes!) will have an aspect, an accessory, an attitude, which is exaggerated and a little debauched.
Homemade Venice Carnival Costume for Under €100
My Carnival started the moment I decided to go. I spent some time on my costume, and compared to what I saw around, it was very homemade. But it was fun and inexpensive. It added colour and spirit to the city and to our day. It was gaudy and bright, comfortable and – importantly for a winter festival – it was warm.
My costume consisted of:
- a €20 mask, and a €20 cape, both bought at Venice the week before.
- a tulle-and-ribbon no-sew skirt using 4 meters of tulle, €8, which I made following these instructions from Ashley Living Easy.
- a maxi-dress made of 2 Ikea polar-fleece blankets, €4 each, which I made following this post from It’s Always Autumn, more or less.
- gloves, €10, onto which I sewed the dismantled sections of an earring bought from the market, €1. ( I lost the glove with the big jewel! Hard to take photos and be in costume at the same time!)
- a hat, which I made from 60 cm of purple fabric, lace and brocade, about €6 in all.
- a stretch top from the market, €3, to whose neckline I sewed another made-in-China jewel, €1.
- a belt, made from another stretch top, €3, cut off below the armpits
- 3 x strings of made-in-China pearls, €3
So, for under €100 euro I had a Venice Carnivale Costume which fit the scene. I enjoyed myself making it, and I can continue working on and embellishing my look for next year’s Carnival.
Share the Joy
The day before Venice, I got dressed up and drove over to the Rehabilatation Centre to suprise Lina and all the aged folk there. There we are in the photo below, with my in-laws, Fiorenzo’s brother, Siro, and his wife, Rosalia. It was delightful, they were so pleased – especially as some of the ladies had given me advice on how to sew my cap. It was such a great way to spend the afternoon, and the nurses appreciated it as much as the oldies.
My friend, Donata, did Carnival in a less complicated way. With a white top hat and matching feather boa, she made her mark, and proved that it doesn’t take much to get involved, to be a participant instead of a specatator.
The More We Can Buy, The Less We Can Do
That, to be honest, is my only criticism of our day at La Carnevale di Venezia this year: too many spectators, not enough participants. Whilst those who made the effort made it totally worthwhile, I would have loved to have seen an ocean of masks, a circus of costumes, an explosion of creativity. It worries me that we’re losing our ability to imagine: that all this time in front of screens is stealing away the playfulness that we’re born with. It seems true: the more we can buy, the less we can do. It’s a pity.
Don’t be a Voyeur. Dive In.
So, if you plan to visit Venice for Carnevale, I urge you to dive right in. Don’t be a spectator. Contribute to the colour. You’ll have so much more fun if you get into the spirit of things. Venice Carnival Costumes don’t need to be expensive: you can pick up a cheap cape and mask when you’re there. And book a hotel room a few months in advance, so you can enjoy the carnival after the sun goes down, when the day crowds have dispersed. Walk the dark alleys and lanes, incognito, be a little mysterious. Follow the music.
High Energy Food for the Handbag
Sometimes a lunchbox just won’t do. Here’s some ideas for when space is limited.
Fruit and Nut Bread – Paleo, Gluten Free – A couple of slices of this will keep you going for hours.
Homemade Baci – 4 Ingredient Italian Choc Hazelnut Kisses – For a delectable pick-me-up, perfect with an espresso.
Banana Bread – Paleo, Gluten Free, Nut Free – As a bread, or as muffins, this is great to have wrapped in the freezer.
Have you been to the Venice Carnival? Do you get dressed up in Costume for other occasions, maybe for Halloween? How do you do it? What’s your favourite way to transform, transgress and be wild, even if it’s just for a day? Let me know in the comments, I’m always up for inspiration!
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