Taking part in the
1. Get a costume and bring it with you
Wondering what to wear? Have a look at the costumes that other people wear, as shown throughout this web site, and on numerous other sites (see Links page). You'll probably gasp in horror at the complexity and probable expense of making one. But don't worry - some of the people you see in the pictures dress like that for a living. Yes, that's right, some people make a living out of dressing in typical carnival costume, welcoming guests at corporate functions, posing for calendar photos, etc. For many others, it's their main hobby to spend months putting a costume together and then parade it in public. But most people dress up in order to enjoy the fun of a carnival atmosphere. The amount of time and money people spend on costumes varies widely, so just use the photos to get a flavour of the atmosphere and some ideas for a costume, and bear in mind that yours may be a lower budget version (although equally acceptable).
Before we go any further, let's do a quick check. Do you want to taste the carnival atmosphere by wearing a costume for an hour or two? If so, you can rent a period costume in Venice (though pre-booking is advisable), or you can buy an inexpensive cloak and mask quite easily. On the other hand, do you want to go all the way, by getting a good comfortable costume, and spending at least a few hours soaking up the carnival atmosphere and really being part of it? If this sounds more like you, then the information below may help you find a costume.
Finding a costume
So you're after a good costume? It might be a good idea to go to a selection of fancy dress hire shops (or costume hire shops) in your home town, looking for a decently- made costume that kind of looks the part.
Hire shops have the advantage that you can try on the costumes, and the costumes themselves are usually well made. Inferior hire shops and party shops often stock flimsy, mass- produced costumes that are either sealed in packets, or can only be seen in an in-store catalogue. In other words, you can't try them on first. This may be fine for that one-night party to celebrate your friend's birthday, but isn't ideal when you're in public (as any woman knows, "one size fits all" clothes don't!).
You should be able to find a good hire shop in a number of ways. In Britain, there is a professional association - the British Costume Association - and you can find a list of their members via their web site (see the Links page). Alternatively, you could also ask friends if they can make a recommendation.
If you know someone in an amateur dramatic society (or even better - someone who works in theatre or television drama), you can ask where they hire costumes from. Many of them may use a professional stage costume supplier, and these suppliers sometimes hire the same costumes to the general public (although they may not advertise). Stage costumes are usually well made, detailed and authentic to the period. They're also expensive to hire, and you can expect to be asked for a hefty deposit. So you may want to do what we did, and stick with the ordinary costume hire shop!
Whichever route you choose, make sure the costume is covered by your travel insurance. If your bags don't make the flight to Venice, and get diverted via Uzbekistan and Cuba, you'll end up returning the costume late and/or damaged. That can cost a lot of money to put right, so you'll need someone to pick up the cost if the worst happens. Ditto if you sit on some chewing gum, someone spills mulled wine over you, etc. etc. Better to be prepared!
You'll need to get a mask to go with the costume - you can't normally rent these. We added some individuality by making our own masks, and this is ideal if you've got a flair for creativity! If not, then masks are widely available to buy in Venice, are well made, and fairly cheap - and are sometimes better than the ones back home. If you're short of time, this may be one purchase that you can leave until you arrive in Venice. Oh, and get one with straps, not one that you have to hold up to your face - or else your arm will quickly get sore!
Talking of masks, the quality of the mask is important - but not for the reasons you might think! Sure, a well-made mask looks and fits better. But in the cold air, condensation tends to settle on the inside of your mask, particularly if it's one that covers your whole face. This is no different from the condensation on your car windscreen on a cold morning. But a cheap mask may start to fall apart on contact with the water droplets. So buy a decent one. Incidentally, this is another reason to take regular breaks - the condensation makes your face cold!
It's normal practice to cover your head as well as your face, so you need to think about some kind of hat. You'll also probably need some material to wrap around your face, to cover the gap between hat and mask. A pair of old net curtains can come in very handy, or alternatively most fabric shops will have plain voiles, fake fur, or other suitable material that you can buy quite cheaply. Then just cut it to size and wrap it around you - no sewing needed!
How much time and money should I spend?
It varies widely. Many people spend weeks or months making their own costume, and it shows. Others hire period costumes and spend money on accessories to turn them into carnival outfits.
We probably spent about £70 each on hire and accessories, and we think our costumes were pretty good. If you compare them to other Venice Carnival costumes, you'll see that there are plenty of people who spend far more time and money than we did. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who spend far less time and money than we did. But in the end, it's carnival time, and the only thing people are bothered about is having a good time! It's really a personal choice as to how much time and money you spend on a costume, and you'll find that you're not treated any differently.
NB: If you're going to one of the posh balls, you might feel out of place if you're not in period dress - or so we've heard. These events are quite expensive anyway (about the cost of a flight to Venice), so we haven't verified this ourselves. And we haven't had a problem at the other (slightly less posh) events we've been to. But needless to say, if you can afford to go to a posh ball, you can afford a posh costume too!
What about costume hire in Venice?
You can hire costumes in Venice, but with so many people wanting to do the same thing, you
could find your choices limited, the prices expensive, and your outfit similar to other
people's. That's not to say that you can't - lots of people do hire costumes in Venice, and
if you're looking for something very simple to wear for a couple of hours then it can be a
good thing to wait until you're there. Also, if you don't have a clue about what to wear, then
the hire shops in Venice will probably be more help than the ones back home (who, even with the
best intentions, don't always have first-hand experience of the carnival).
However, we found it much easier to hire costumes at home and bring them with us, rather than
spending half of our holiday looking for the perfect costumes!
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