Mardi Gras Masks
Mardi Gras masks are in essence Carnival masks, which means their history lies in the Venetian and French masquerade balls that were in vogue in the royal courts of Europe from the 15th century onward. In America, where Mardi Gras is probably best known (under the name "Mardi Gras," that is, and not "Carnival"), masks have a complicated, but rich history.
The French brought both the masquerade and Mardi Gras with them to North America, and initially, as in Europe, masking on Mardi Gras (and during the Carnival season) was the province of the elite. The public identities of "mystical society" and "krewe" members – the people who held Mardi Gras balls and organized the parades – were a secret, and hence the Mardi Gras masks (note: this is not uniformly true today). For the disenfranchised, both in America and in the Caribbean, masking could also gave a person the freedom to parody authority without fear of retribution.
Masking hasn't always been legal. Like Mardi Gras itself, but those in Mobile and New Orleans had been suspended from time to time, usually during wartime, but during Louisiana's period of Spanish rule, both masking and dance were prohibited (ostensibly because of violence), and not returned until well after the territory was returned to France and sold to the United States. Even today, in places like Mobile, Alabama, non-mystical society members are only allowed to mask from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Mardi Gras day, not because of Carnival-associated violence, but bad precedent for masked men and women set by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. Once the Mardi Gras mask returned in 1827, however, it marked the beginning of the golden age and modern era of Mardi Gras.
But all that aside, the most important aspect of the Mardi Gras mask might be the mask itself. The mask doesn't just hide your identity, but presents a new one. Hence the many expensive and intricate artisan-crafted masks you can find in all the places where the holiday is taken seriously, from Mobile to Venice. A mask can take any form – scary, happy, beautiful, mysterious – and that's something to consider next time you throw on a plastic party mask in a big Mardi Gras city, or balk at the seemingly outrageous prices for a "just a mask": during the festivities, at least, your Mardi Gras mask is a whole new you.