Venice Carnival – Tips for the Intrepid

Venice Carnival - Tips for the Intrepid

February might not seem like the time of year you want to be heading to Italy – but trust us; it really is, because February is when Carnival rolls round. If you’re looking for ten indulgent days of colourful masked and costumed fun, just when winter is at its dullest, then join us for our tour of Carnivale de Venezia…

From the 11th to the 21st of February 2012, the streets of Venice come alive with masked revellers in the most beautiful and fantastical costumes you can imagine. Many tourists go along just for the spectacle, or buy a mask and maybe a cloak when they get there – but our top tip is, to get the best out of the Carnivale de Venezia, make a little extra effort and really join in the fun. It’s the closest thing Europe has to Mardis Gras.

The masks of Carnivale…

Masks were integral to not only the Venice Carnival, but also several other religious days in Venice, and maskmakers (mascherari) enjoyed great social privileges, with their own laws and their own guild. As you can imagine, wearing a Carnivale mask (traditionally made of leather or blown glass) disguised the wearer’s identity and social status, so that hijinks (whether criminal or passionate) could be got up to.

What do you need?

In addition to your plane tickets, you’ll need a place to stay. If in doubt, check out the apartment rentals – they can be more affordable than the hotels and give you a fantastic base right in the centre of the action. Then, once you’ve got the mundane part of things sorted, you’ll need to start thinking about… your costume.

This is where things get really fun, and you need to decide how far you want to go in terms of dressing up. The wonderful thing about Carnival is that if you’re an extrovert and love having your picture taken you can totally play up to the whole thing and have complete strangers stopping you in the street to admire your glad-rags. On the other hand, because you’re masked, it doesn’t even have to feel like it’s you who’s the centre of attention – you can completely pretend to be someone else for a few days (although if you do dress up, be warned: people will stop you to take photographs!)

Buying a Carnival mask

With it being a masked affair, it’s tempting to start your costume around a mask, but if you don’t already have a Venetian mask, don’t be tempted to buy one before you go. You can’t swing a cat in Venice without clipping at least a couple of mask shops – masks are ubiquitous, affordable and in some cases staggeringly beautiful and intricate, so if you buy a mask before you go there’s a good chance it’ll end up in a bin within an hour of getting there.

So, start with the rest of your costume. Looking online at pictures of previous years is a great way to get an idea of what to go for. Basically, you’re aiming for something evocative of some of European history’s most fabulous fashion – gowns, frock coats, cloaks and corsets are all likely to make an appearance. You might want to check out the hire shops, or you might want to do what we did and make your own from bits picked up in vintage shops, markets, and whatever you can find lying around.

Once you have the basics – whether it’s full hooped skirts, doublet and hose, tunics or corsets, or just your jeans and jumper covered up by a sweeping cloak made from your mum’s old full-length velvet curtains – it’s time to think accessories. With Venice costumes, the devil is in the detail. Not only do you need as many feathers and flounces as you can get your paws on, you’ll also need gloves, a hat of some kind, and, if you’re going the whole hog, something to wrap your head with as well. If you look at Venice costumes, they’re typically quite de-humanising (which is exactly what makes them so eye-catching and startling), with not just the face masked, but the whole head swathed in decorative hats and wrappings. Again, press anything you have lying around into service – some old net curtains dyed to match your costume colour, or some cheap voile material from the local fabric shop will make ideal drapes.

You can’t possibly over-do it

Our last tip is: when you reach the point with your costume when you think you’ve added enough flair and flounce – don’t stop! While you’re sat at home sewing fake jewels and ostrich feathers onto your hat you might feel ridiculous, but when you get there you’ll find your efforts are just a drop in the ocean compared to the lengths some people have gone to.

But – whatever you get together costume-wise – you can’t fail to have fun in the contagious atmosphere of Venice Carnival. If you can’t make it this year, why not book early for next year?

Katie Theisinger first attended Venice Carnival in 2008 in a cloak made from her mum’s old velvet curtains. She’ll be going again in 2012 in something far more fabulous. Besides attending carnivals Katie is an experienced writer, web designer, blogger and frequent contributor to fashion trends at

Photos: Viona Ielegems

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