Her Veil Was Never Your Business: Veiling and the Perception Held by Ignorant People

Veiling and the Hijab:

Veiling is the practice of covering some or most of the body with a garment. Women from all over the world and of varying religions veil. Oftentimes the term hijab is used to refer any covering of the hair, head, face or body. Muslim women typically wear hijab when in the presence of a male outside of their immediate family. Below you can see an illustration that depicts many of the types veils worn.

There are many different interpretations of the Quran which are used to debate whether or not women should be veiled and why. Many people who are not familiar with the practice of veiling believe that the primary purpose is to protect these women from the sexual desires of other people. Although this may be a small part of the practice there are many other reasons why women veil (Sylaj, 2020). After exploring some resources I discovered that some of these reasons include wanting to be valued as a human outside of their sexuality, making them feel powerful, showing cultural pride and so many more beautiful reasons. Veiling is constantly hit with criticism and has become a tradition that is oftentimes seen as controversial, when it just clothing. In this blog I will explore how veils began to overlap with fashion, how veiling fits into modern day politics, and the fetishization of veiling.

Veils as Fashion; Modernity and Turkey:

As Western development increased women began venture outside of the home to purchase goods. As this occurred veils became increasingly more visible to outsiders who may not have been so familiar with this practice (Shirazi & Mishra, 2010). Women leaving their homes to shop at department stores unaccompanied was a large part of modernization in the Middle East (Shirazi & Mishra, 2010). Quickly this lead to the shift in fashion trends especially when it came to veils. Women began to control the market more than they ever had and explore new “trendy” veils. For example, in the early 20th century as we see women adopting more form fitting clothing we see Muslim women abandoning their loose fitting veils and adopt a tighter head covering.

Oftentimes those who don’t veil perceive veiling to be a practice that goes against modernity when it comes to religious beliefs as well as fashion (Shirazi & Mishra, 2010). In reality we see that veiling is not meant to contrast or to push modernity away and instead this practice can easily be intertwined. Modernity has been very secular and it was widely understood that veiling would not be globally recognized as acceptable and that women would be expected to abandon the veil as a step towards western secularization. With this we can see that due to outsiders perception of the veil there is an expectation to abandon religious practice to fit into society.

Veils were designed to be looked at, even though the idea of veiling was to deter the gaze, because women are wearing these garments in public. Veiling in fashion became an interesting topic because the hijab was a traditionally “bland” garment and it was being combined with fashion which is known for breaking barriers and self-expression (Gokariksel, 2014). Many people couldn’t understand fashion and veils as one cohesive idea and when veiling clashes with fashion we see new patterns and exciting colors along with different fabrics and so on.

Gucci at Istanbul fashion show

Turkey is one of the many places known repurposing the veil to be included in the fashion industry. The people of Turkey began to reject the idea that veiling is a costume or ethnic attire and we see women who veil begin to portray both social and cultural significance in what they choose to wear (Gokariksel, 2014). Women begin to wear designer veils and others are judged for wearing veils that are no longer fashionable similar to the fashion scene in the United States (Gokariksel, 2014). By observing what some women are wearing we can see the struggle that many Muslim women have when trying to find the balance between fashion and modesty. Women still wanted to veil for religious reasons and stay true to their beliefs, but sometimes they got so caught up in the fashion aspect that their veils became less modest. Above, models are shown walking at a fashion show in Istanbul where modernity and high-end fashion became a large aspect of the women of Turkey’s lives. You can see the models dressed in modest yet fashionable high-end Gucci clothing. At this show the audience members were observed wearing trendy veils, expensive jewelry, and using the newest smartphones further demonstrating the modern lifestyle that was being adopted.

Veils in Modern day Politics and Religion:

Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians have been the primary targets of the U.S. government’s global War on Terror since the September 11, 2001 attacks (Cainkar & Maira, 2005). In the United States we have seen an incredible increase in Islamophobia and attacks on people who belong to these ethnic groups. After the 2005 bombing of London hate crimes against women who were veiling increased greatly (Lewis, 2007). After seeing this occur the government suggested that women stop veiling to prevent public assault (Lewis, 2007). This idea that people should completely abandon their practices so that they can avoid abuse due to their religious beliefs is not acceptable. People should be able to practice their religion without worrying about being stereotyped as a terrorist and assaulted as a result of a recent bombing that had nothing to do with them. I have seen the suppression of people who veil in my life. There have been a few bombings and attacks in my lifetime preformed by people of varying backgrounds, yet as soon as the tredgedy occurs I start to hear terrible things about what people are assuming about the event. I oftentimes hear people assuming that the bombing was done by a Muslim person, that muslim people are terrorists and so many more hurtful comments.

Many leaders and politicians have expressed negative views of veiling which practically allows citizens to carry an Islamophobic attitude instead of allowing people to practice their religion in whatever way they see fit (Shirazi & Mishra, 2010). For example, Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari, the leader of the Muslim Council of Britain explains that women should not feel the need to veil and instead should just dress modestly, which reinforces the idea that there should be restrictions on religious practice (Shirazi & Mishra, 2010). People of various countries have been told that they cannot practice veiling by their government which eliminates a right to religion and it is important that this comes to an end. Instead of forbidding religion we need those who are not tolerant of people who veil to understand it and what a hijab really means. It should not be any more threatening than what Christian nuns wear.

The cartoons above show the idea that many Western people are comfortable with nuns wearing their habit, but not comfortable with women who veil. Why are Muslim hijabs associated with terrorism and violence while Christian habits are associated with modesty and religious devotion? (Elkawa, 2019). We know that both practices are of similar intent and based on religion so why is one of them seen as threatening while the other is seen as a tradition?

Fetishization and Misunderstanding of Veiling: 

One may think that women who practice veiling would have a much lower chance of being fetishized, objectified, or harassed due to their body and desires of men, but this is often not the case. One article rejects the idea that women are hidden and the male gaze is blocked as a result of the use of veils, but instead they are not only visible, but able to see as well (Gokariksel, 2014). When women dress nicely, men stare even when women are veiled. Gökariksel and Secor explain that they spoke to women who veil and all of them expressed that the practice is not meant to bring attention to them, yet it does. When we see fashion and veiling intertwine we must discuss the gaze and what this means for women who are veiling for modesty. Women are still catcalled and harassed and the veil is actually fetishized more than you might expect. Men have been reported saying things such as “I’m interested in seeing what’s underneath” which demonstrates that they are specifically fetishizing the veil by exclaiming that they have the desire take it off of the woman and explore what he is not allowed to explore (Gokariksel, 2014). Many of the women interviewed seemed to dismiss terrible encounters like this one because they have been fairly common. The veil is not used for the pleasure of men and women should not feel uncomfortable with their religious traditions.

In 2012 artist Behnaz Babazadeh created a series of images and a short film titled Burkaphilia. The series portrays the common misconceptions of veiling, her understanding of the fetishization of the Burka and the ignorance that Western people typically hold in regards to her cultural practices (Rogers & Houghton, 2017). Babazadeh explains that when she came to the U.S from Afghanistan as a young girl she was obsessed with the candy which provided her with the content for the images (Tucker, 2016). In these images she allows candy to take the form of a burka over her body to imply the American obsession with consumption and sexualization. Her goal when creating these elaborate burkas was to challenge people’s misconceptions about veiling and make the audience truly think about what makes a burka so threatening to those who don’t practice veiling (Tucker, 2016). Is the veil still so ominous when it is made of gummy bears?

In the video Babazadeh displays herself in a latex burka. We see her fully veiled body with only her eyes showing as the camera zooms into her face, shortly after we can see a man approach her with a cake and as he cuts into the cake she reveals her mouth to take a bite, then the man begins to lick up her latex burka. By showing this series over events she expresses the idea of fetishization of women who veil and the Western obsession with consumption, food, and sex. The film “explores the cultural practice of arranged marriages, sex and taboo in ancient Middle Eastern custom through modern Western metaphors of food and fetishism” (Babazadeh, 2019). The film is linked below if you would like to view it.

Burkaphilia: Short Art Film by Behnaz Babazadeh

Concluding Remarks

Veiling is the practice of covering part or all of your body with a garment and is typically seen by Muslim women. It is a religious tradition that has oftentimes been given a negative connotation by Western people. People who veil have been classified as dangerous terrorists or their tradition is fetishized as men express the desire to see whats underneath and discover what these women are keeping private. Through educating individuals we can see that veiling is a practice that can fit into modernity if people will accept it simply as a religious tradition and as fashion. Veils are beautiful, not dangerous or ominous, and definitely not for men to fetishize.

Works Cited:

Babazadeh, B. (2019, March 7). Burkaphilia: Short Art Film. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/40595706.

Cainkar, L., & Maira, S. (2005). Targeting Arab/Muslim/South Asian Americans: Criminalization and Cultural Citizenship. Amerasia, 31(3).

Elkawa, A. (2019, October 6). Habit v. Hijab. Medium. https://medium.com/@elkawa/habit-v-hijab-e2e846020428.

Gokariksel, B. (2014). The Veil, Desire, and the Gaze: Turning the Inside Out. In 1311289662 964013388 A. Secor (Author), Signs Journal of Women in Culture and Society (1st ed., Vol. 40, pp. 177-200). Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press.

Rogers, F., & Houghton, M. (2017, August 22). Behnaz Babazadeh’s candy burqas challenge cultural stereotypes. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/behnaz-babazadeh-edible-burqa-photography/index.html.

Sylaj, H. (2020, October 15). Why do Muslim women wear hijab? Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://medium.com/interfaith-now/why-do-muslim-women-wear-hijab-8d0cd811e2b1

Shirazi, F., & Mishra, S. (2010). Young Muslim women on the FACE Veil (niqab). International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(1), 43-62. doi:10.1177/1367877909348538Lewis, R. (2007). Veils and Sales: Muslims and the spaces of Postcolonial fashion retail. Fashion Theory,11(4), 423-441. doi:10.2752/175174107×250235

Tucker, F. (2016, January 29). Burkaphilia. Actipedia. https://actipedia.org/project/burkaphilia.

Why do some women wear a hijab? (n.d.). Retrieved April 06, 2021, from https://wonderopolis.org/wonder/why-do-some-women-wear-a-hijab

A Year in Reflection with COVID-19

Rachel Mihlstin

I was in the Tampa airport in early March 2020, one of my teammates was wearing a medical-grade mask. My softball team and I were leaving Florida in fear of a travel ban that could leave us with difficulty returning home.  The threat of COVID has impacted our short-sighted view but at the time we had only thought it would last a few months. My teammate was asked why she was wearing a mask as it had not been mandated or even encouraged to wear one in public yet. She reminded us she has very bad asthma and contracting COVID could put her in critical condition. She was one of few who was wearing a mask at the time in the very large airport in a highly-populated area. I think in my head wearing a mask was frightening, it was an item associated with operating rooms and experience labs, not our everyday lives.  We had been in Florida for roughly four days during spring break before we were told to go home, and we never wore masks. Looking back at that experience it is crazy to see how everything changed so quickly and how our lives would change for at least a year.

After a month or so, I was home on Long Island with my family, and masks were now being enforced in public.  I rarely had a reason to leave my home but when I did, I wore a mask. I remember visiting my grandparents who were excited to see me since I had been away at college for several months.  I wore a mask and so did both of my grandparents during the visit. However, my grandfather who was already hard of hearing struggled, even more, to participate in conversation as he could no longer lip-read since my mouth was covered. In fact, sometimes he did not even know I was talking let alone what I was saying. This barrier was difficult for both of my grandparents as they feared getting sick and how even their lives would change.  As time went on and I continued to stay at home, only I would wear a mask when I went over my grandparents since both sides were essentially always in quarantine. 

Visiting my Grandma during the summer of 2020
My camp coworkers and I wearing masks at work

As the summer came around and COVID case numbers decreased more business and activities could open. My summer job was as an arts and crafts teacher at a summer camp.  Until then, I really had no reason to leave my house or enter the public sphere. All the employees had to wear masks at the camp while the children did not. Personally, I dreaded wearing a mask in the heat, knowing that July and August would bring 90-degree days with high humanity.  But I could not imagine not wearing a mask, not only was it heavily enforced by my superiors but the risk of contracting the virus was still very high and I did not want to put any of my family or friends in danger. 

My mother had sewn some cloth masks for me that would be good for when the mask gets dirty from sweat and dirt during the camp day and could easily be reused after a wash.  My mom had picked out a fabric with fun patterns to match my creative position. Many other camp counselors and specialists liked wearing masks with fun designs so the campers would like them and have them get used to people wearing masks. We all learned quickly that while many kids understood there was a pandemic, many of the younger could not understand why we had to wear the masks. They would often say cute sayings like “we want to see you smile.” But that would lead me or another employee to explain why the mask needed to be worn, which often was along the lines of “to protect everyone.”

Me playing softball, spring 2021

After the summer, months had gone by of people making predictions of when we would not have to wear masks anymore. I was back at college, happy to be around friends and playing sports I love. To participate in the competition, all athletes must wear a mask during practice.  However, my two months in the heat and wearing a mask did not prepare me for heavy breathing while doing sprints. The first month of the fall semester I had just been using the one-use medical masks but during the fall season of softball, I realized I needed not only a more sustainable option but a more comfortable one as well. 

A friend had recommended I looked at athletic wear retailers to see if they were selling masks and another teammate suggested Athleta. I was familiar with the brand as they are known for selling athletic clothing to women, encouraging women to pursue strong bodies instead of skinny ones.  They were selling packages of masks and so I bought a set of five, all neutral colors. However, the quality was great, and I felt like I could breathe better at practice along with less skin irritation. I specifically liked one with a light blue wash as it matched our uniforms, emphasizing school spirit.  I have used those masks mostly until the real reason came along in late February when I needed to order more because I had more practice and needed to wash the masks more often.

Athleta Brand logo
Athleta Mask Pack

Masks and Activism

Rachel Mihlstin

  In movies and pop culture, superheroes are often wearing the mask, but the fictional public has faith that the masked hero is there to protect them. However, in the real world, the public does not like anonymous figures. Masks are mostly known for covering up one’s face so that they can commit a crime, in other words, it is not a positive thing.  Marks are often dark and mysterious even if they do no harm.  On the contrary, some people who are activists that wear masks. When looking at several different activists and activist groups that wear masks, the main purposes of covering their faces are protecting their identity, making a statement with the mask and unification.  For example, the digital hacker group Anonymous are represented by the Guy Fawkes mask and that specific mask has become a symbol of activism. Other modern examples can be seen in feminist movements around the world such as the Guerilla Girls, known for wearing masks that match their name’s sake and Pussy Riots who sport balaclava masks. The last example of masks used by activist groups is the Zapatistas who stand for the face and voices of the unknown indigenous people of Mexico. Masks are used by activists for three main purposes by groups to further push their agenda despite the contrary association of anonymity with wearing a mask. 

Guy Fawkes was an Englishmen who played a major role in the Gunpowder plot, an attempt to blow up the Westminster Palace in 1605. Fawkes was recruited to help pull off the attack by Robert Catesby and his band of men. Fawkes was caught before the explosion went off and Fawkes was tortured to give the names of his conspirators (Guy Fawkes).  British graphic designer, David Lloyd, accentuated and stylized Guy Fawkes’ facial features to create the mask worn by the protagonist in the comic-turned movie V for Vendetta. The film concludes with a large crowd, unanimously donning the Fawkes mask. Since then, the mask has been used widely used to cloak the identity of protestors. Some of the larger protests include when the mask was worn by the masses was at a protest against Scientology and the Occupy Wall Street protest in New York (Waites).

Etching of Guy Fawkes
V for Vendetta Movie Poster

Another use of the Guy Fawkes mask is to symbolize the “hacktivist” group, Anonymous.  The global group is decentralized but made up of hackers to cause digital distress to those who have abused their power. For example, after the murder of George Floyd, the group is credited with flooding the Minneapolis Police Department’s website and database, rendering it unusable (Tidy, Molloy). They have done similar actions like denouncing the Ku Klux Klan and releasing personal information about members.  Another example of their work is hacking the Church of Scientology’s website. Since Anonymous, not a physical group, they only have a general goal and that is to emphasize freedom of speech, fight censorship, and other forms of government control.  The summer of 2020 saw the group’s most recent activity starting with the murder of George Floyd and then some activity threatening Donald Trump (ABC NEWS).  The anonymity of the group and its purpose of activism is an example of how lack of identity can lead to an amplified voice demanding justice as the mask not only allows those to voice their opinion but also unify as a mass. 

Protestors wearing the Guy Fawkes Mask

The artist, Banksy, is another example of how anonymity plays into activism as his identity is unknown while his art brings about controversial topics. He is a graffiti artist, an art form associated with delinquency, known for creating satirical art commenting on social and political issues. Graffiti art is also often associated with anonymity because the artists often cover their faces with a face mask to prevent them from inhaling the paint fumes and aerosol. Graffiti can be seen as one of the more popular art mediums that is used for activism.  In 2010, Time Magazine included Banksy as one of the top 100 most influential people (Ellsworth-Jones) Banksy’s persona combines the mystery and fear around anonymity with the idea of a hero, as people are not afraid of his work, they look forward to finding it on the streets of England.  People appreciate his work as it often challenged corrupt institutions. His growing success has amplified the voices of the people and their frustrations.

Banksy may be hiding his identity to protect himself from facing vandalism charges or from the public eye, but his anonymity is also hurting his art simultaneously.  Part of the Banksy ideology is against consumerism and capitalism, so it is rare for him to sell his art and merchandise with his work on it.  His art can be found on alleys and building walls in England. However, his popularity has led to many others selling merchandise with his work on it.  Banksy has taken legal action by suing those attempting to make a profit but in a turn of events, lost. The court ruled that due to his lack of identity the right of his work “are much harder to meet when they concern modern and contemporary anonymous works of art for which sufficient information that might be used to ascribe to them a chronological, cultural, or institutional context is lacking.” (Banksy Trademark) Essentially, there is not enough information known about Banksy to complete his formal, government identity.

Banksy’s Time Magazine Cover, 2010

Despite Banksy losing this case, I believe there is room for Banksy to start a new activism campaign. He could make art about the idea of identity and once again challenge the institution, in this case, copyright laws, for attempting to discriminate by conforming identity to formal and privileged aspects, such as address or background. Immigrants, homeless people, or refugees might not have all the necessary information the government requires but is that what will stop them from receiving copyright protection? There is more to one’s identity than those formal aspects. People without those formal details may feel ashamed or threatened that they do not have those credentials. Those formalities also address major societal issues like homelessness, poverty, and discrimination.  Banksy is a big enough artist to make a statement like this and claiming that his lack of identity prevents him from copyright protection seems possible to change in the future. 

Girl with Balloon, Banksy, 2006 Graffiti Art

Another example of an activist group using masks to protect their identity while unifying and making a socio-political statement is the Zapatistas. The group protests the inclusion of Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement, the NAFTA. The Zapatista Army of National Liberation is more generally against capitalism and democracy as they feel countries like the United States have their government and economy too closely intertwined without acknowledging it. The United States preaches and tries to spread the free market and total freedom ideology but in fact, the government is heavily involved in the regulation of the economy.  The indigenous people of Mexico have been greatly affected by these regulations like NAFTA.  The Zapatista Army and protestors wear masks to protect their identity but also represent the “ones without faces” or their indigenous ancestors as they were treated as insignificant to global powers like the United States.  There were major student protests after the signing of NAFTA in 1994.  Zapatista soldiers occupied 7 Mexican cities. Both parties wore balaclavas or red kerchiefs to be noticed as they felt their facial features caused them to be unnoticed (Wearing a Mask).

Zapatistas Student Protest, wearing balaclavas and red kerchiefs

Feminist groups have also used masks to protect their identity while making their statement.  The Guerilla Girls formed in 1985 to protest the lack of representation of female artists in the art world, specifically their representation in museums and galleries as well as international recognition in institutional honors (OUR STORY). The group covers their faces with gorilla masks and uses them to symbolize the group. However, they say the main reason they wear the mask is to keep the focus on the issues they are bringing awareness to (Tate).  This is a common theme with all the activist groups mentioned so far, they are not only protecting their livelihood from threats but by not having a specific identity attached to their cause, the cause is accentuated.    

Guerrilla Girls, Benvenuti alla biennale femminista! (from the series \”Guerrilla Girls Talk Back: Portfolio 2\”), 2005; Lithographic poster, 17 x 11 in.; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Steven Scott, Baltimore, in honor of Wilhelmina Cole Holladay; © Guerrilla Girls, Courtesy www.guerrillagirls.com
Pussy Riot Performance in Russia

Another feminist example of an activist using masks is Pussy Riot, the Russian punk group that demands separation of church and state. They noticed the Russian Orthodox Church carries an anti-woman and anti-LGBT attitude in their practices (Myzelev 2). Free speech is suppressed and there are unusually cruel punishments for women like labor camps. The idea of free speech is considered modern and western while Russia tries to hold on to a traditional way of life. The most notable protest by Pussy Riot was the group performing their punk songs on the stage of the highest Orthodox church in Moscow.  They wear brightly colored dresses and tights but also wear bright balaclavas to appear feminine but also rebellious.  They were only tried of hooliganism which is an example of Russia not acknowledging women as equal to men, Pussy Riot has a serious message that directly criticizes the two largest institutions of Russia and their trial was not treated as such (7). The use of masks is once again used to protect the identity of those in the group but also to have a rebellious appearance to match their seemingly rebellious agenda. 

Naomi Osaka, of Japan, wears face masks bearing the names of Black victims of police violence and racial profiling during the U.S. Open tennis tournament in New York Osaka has been selected by The Associated Press as the Female Athlete of the Year. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, top, Seth Wenig)

Even in today’s catastrophic event, the COVID-19 pandemic, most of the peoples’ faces are covered in a protective shield to slow the spread of the virus. People have taken the liberty of expressing their political and social views on the cloth mask, for example having a Black Lives Matter mask or a gender equality symbol. These masks have been worn on people often covered by the media: athletes, politicians, and celebrities along with the public (Masked Not Muzzled).  This is another example of the use of masks playing a role in activism. While people’s mouths may be covered, they are still expressing their views and making their voices known. I believe expressing their views in such a forward way will encourage others to think about their views. Also, constantly seeing a message on people’s faces, one of the most notable features of a person, will spread awareness quicker and let people know that others have a concern that they want to be shared.

The relationship between masks and activism has not been entirely for the same purpose but there is a thread between the two. Anonymity helps assist people to express their views without fear of repercussions. Most people assume that someone wearing a mask has bad intentions but often, as we have seen with Banksy and the Guy Fawkes masks, people are just trying to spread awareness of an issue or criticize corrupt institutions.  The mask can also protect minority groups like the Zapatistas, Guerilla Girls and Pussy Riot so that they can be noticed by the institutions that overlook them.  They have endless possibilities as we have seen with the Banksy court case and the new use of medical masks to spread awareness of current socio-political issues.  In all cases, the masks can unify groups representing a collective identity to emphasize their respective cause. 

Works Cited

ABC News, ABC News Network, abcnews.go.com/US/worldwide-hacker-group-anonymous/story?id=37761302.

“Banksy Trademark ‘at Risk’ after Street Artist Loses Legal Battle.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 17 Sept. 2020, www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/sep/17/banksy-trademark-risk-street-artist-loses-legal-battle-flower-thrower-graffiti#:~:text=The%20European%20Union%20Intellectual%20Property,because%20his%20identity%20remained%20hidden.

Ellsworth-Jones, Will. “The Story Behind Banksy.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Feb. 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-behind-banksy-4310304/.

“Guy Fawkes.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/biography/Guy-Fawkes.

“Masked Not Muzzled – the Art of the Political Mask.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 15 July 2020, www.theguardian.com/world/gallery/2020/jul/15/masked-not-muzzled-the-art-of-the-political-mask.

Myzelev, Alla. “Pussy Riot: Representing Russian Activism between East and West .” Comparative Media Arts Journal, 2021.

“OUR STORY.” Guerrilla Girls, www.guerrillagirls.com/about.

Tate. “Guerrilla Girls.” Tate, 1 Jan. 1989, www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/guerrilla-girls-6858.

Tidy, David Molloy & Joe. “George Floyd: Anonymous Hackers Re-Emerge amid US Unrest.” BBC News, BBC, 1 June 2020, www.bbc.com/news/technology-52879000.

Waites, Rosie. “V For Vendetta Masks: Who’s behind Them?” BBC News, BBC, 20 Oct. 2011, www.bbc.com/news/magazine-15359735.

“Wearing a Mask Is a Way the Zapatistas Invite Everyone into the Struggle.” Netpol, 11 Nov. 2015, netpol.org/2015/11/02/ezln-masks/.

Masks in Japanese Theatre

Grace Tinklepaugh 
Dr. Alla Myzelev 
ARTH 300: Fashion, Art, and Politics 
Spring 2021

Noh theatre is a form of Japanese drama that has been around since the early 1300s. It is well-known for its glamorous and intricate costumes and masks.

Noh theatre is known for the over the top and gorgeous styling, acting, costume, masks and artwork.

Noh masks are often used to represent the supernatural or animals in theatre. Noh theatre is a drama formulated around song and dance. This type of Japanese drama is well known for the elaborate costume, makeup, wings, and masks which add to the elements of the performance and the attributes of the characters. Noh Theatre is known for its extravagant music, dance and drama and themes of dreams, supernatural, and spirits. The masks are made of wood and hand painted using a style that date back thousands of years. These masks are often hundreds of years old and passed down to others. There are many different types of Noh masks that are used for specific plays and performances. The masks are used to amplify the drama of Noh theatre, and often represent spiritual beings and animals. The masks are hand painted and known for being gorgeous and detailed. Noh theatre and masks influenced future Japanese traditions in the arts.

Noh masks are recognized for their extremely detailed artwork.

In Japan masks were very popular and common both in the arts and society. From surgical masks to fashion to art, masks have been incorporated in many aspects of Japanese life. Deriving from historic religious rituals, masks have been a major part of Japanese culture since the beginning. In Japanese theatre there are multiple types of Noh masks. In the past, there used to be up to 60 different types of Noh masks used in theatre. Currently now, there are over 200 types of Japanese Noh masks used in theatre, all stemming from the traditional Noh masks of the early 1300s. The masks represent animals, specific characters, non-human characters, and the supernatural.

Noh masks are not always human, they are often animals as well. Pictured above is a fox Noh mask.

Noh theatre masks are made of a lightweight wood, for actors to wear for long periods of time. They are decorated with natural pigment using seashells and glue, along with paint. The masks are made to be worn during long periods of time and can handle a range of actions that the actor might be performing.

Japanese Noh masks are considered a part of Japanese traditional art. The art skill used for traditional Noh masks have been practiced for thousands of years.

Noh theatre is a very popular form of Japanese theatre representing dance, drama, glamorous costumes, and elaborate makeup and masks. This form of theatre is an all-male performance that was founded in the early 1300s. This classical theatre is well known for its extravagant costume and masks, that are essential to the characters identity and plot of the theatre.

Photo above represents the intricate makeup, masks, costume, and style used in Noh theatre.

Noh theatre inspired many traditions and trends later on in Japanese culture and society. This genre of theatre is often very dramatic and extravagant, in both its content and costume. The costumes are extremely luxurious and typically very vibrant with color and patterns. It is very common in Noh costume and masks to have bright vibrant colors. The colors often have a deeper meaning in this style of theatre. For positive traits and characters, the costume and masks include the colors: red and purple. Whereas the negative and villainous characters are represented by the colors: blue, black, and green.

Pictured above is a full Noh costume with mask.

One of the most popular and notable Noh masks is called the Hannya. The Hannya represents an evil female demon that has horns, sharp teeth, and metallic eyes. The mask represents jealousy and traditional bridal headwear. In Noh theatre all of the actors are male, which is why the masks are often used to portray female characters. In Japanese theatre, the main character often wears the Noh mask, along with the accompanying character (usually playing as a female character). Not only do Noh masks represent a specific character, they also represent emotions. The emotions often represented on Noh masks are sadness, anger, and happiness. Another popular character depicted by Noh masks is Oni. Oni is a red-faced demon and was worn by parents to remind their children of the dangers of demons. Children would throw beans at this mask to cast away the demon. Other notable characters depicted by specific masks were Tengu (a birdman who scared away bad spirits), Shinto (a magical shape shifting fox), and Hyottoko (a clown).

Noh character masks are still very popular and can be purchased online. They are still hand painted and crafted in intricate detail, resembling original Noh masks.

Masks are an essential part of Noh theatre. The masks play an important role in the theatre, the main character and accompanying character(s) almost always wear masks. However, the narrator in Noh theatre never wears a mask. The masks have set roles in Noh theatre and only specific characters can wear them. There are many different types of masks in Noh theatre categorized in a few basic ways. Some of the categories used to organize Noh masks are: otoko (human male), jo (elderly), onna (woman), uba (old woman), chigo (children), jinki (the supernatural), kijin (demons), and animals. Not only were masks used in plays, they were often depicted in Japanese artwork as well. Japanese artist frequently liked to paint and depict Noh masks on Japanese prints. Noh themes, scenes, and masks were popularly portrayed on Japanese art prints during the late 18th and 19th century. Noh masks have been appreciated and admired continuously since the early 14th century into the present. Japanese prints depicting Noh masks are still being sold and created in the present. Masks have been extremely influential in Japanese tradition, culture, and art. The masks are well respected and appreciated as an art form in multiple ways. Noh masks have also inspired makeup and art among common people. The art form has been extremely influential in society, even among common people. The continuous popularity shows how rich in culture and tradition Japanese art is. Noh was not exclusively for any group of people and was often very popular among commoners. Noh theatre is often described as the “people’s dramatic art”.

Antique Japanese Noh Masks are still sold in antique fairs to this day, which can range from low to very high prices.

Noh theatre has changed a lot throughout history, but the main principles and characteristics of this art form remain and are still appreciated to this day. Noh masks are an essential part of Japanese theatre and culture. These intricate and gorgeous masks represent tradition, culture, art, and history. Noh drama and theatre masks represent a variety of characters that were not only important in theatre, but in traditional stories shared and passed down within families. Noh masks were influential to later artistic developments in Japan, like Japanese art prints.

A Japanese print depicting a demon Noh mask.

Japanese masks are still purchased and appreciated to this day. These masks are still very popular in Japanese culture as they are still remembered through childhood tales, theatre, and art.

Traditional Japanese Noh theatre mask, hand painted traditional folk art.

Works Cited

“Back Matter.” Asian Theatre Journal, vol. 20, no. 1, 2003. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1124065. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.

“Japanese Masks in Noh Theater and Kabuki.” Artelino, www.artelino.com/articles/japanese-masks.asp. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.

“Masks.” Traditional Kyoto, traditionalkyoto.com/culture/masks/. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.

“Noh Masks.” Kabuki Mask, kabukimask.com/. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.

“Noh Theatre.” Japan-Guide.com, www.japan-guide.com/e/e2091.html. Accessed 28 Apr. 2021.

Pronko, Leonard C. “Kabuki Today and Tomorrow.” Comparative Drama, vol. 6, no. 2, 1972, pp. 103–114. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41152579. Accessed 7 Apr. 2021.

Scott, Adolphe Clarence. The Kabuki Theatre of Japan. E-book.

Stewart, Elizabeth. “Unmasking the Value of a Traditional Japanese Art Form.” Elizabeth Appraisals, elizabethappraisals.com/1960s-kabuki-masks/. Accessed 14 Apr. 2021.

2020: The Year of Adaptation

A photo of me taken during the pandemic, wearing a reusable light blue cloth face mask.

Masks are a part of our daily lives and they are something that we can’t seem to stray away from, just yet. Starting at the beginning of 2020, the whole globe was struck with the Coronavirus pandemic that changed everything for every individual. It was a time of adaptation and we had to band together to do whatever it is for us to stay healthy and protect the people surrounding us, familiar and unfamiliar. Masks became a mandated matter that is supposed to be worn on the streets and when surrounded by other civilians in enclosed buildings. At the beginning of this pandemic, I first heard about masks through mass media. Broadcasted on news channels, social media platforms, and word of mouth, masks started to become the main conversation I had with anyone I conversed with during this time. Specifically, if you didn’t hear about masks during this time some might say you may just be living under a rock. Now, when it came to what I thought about masks during the beginning months of February/March, I honestly was not too thrilled about it as it was something I had to begin to get used to. I would constantly step out of my car and forget them halfway into where I was walking to and had to run back to retrieve them. Let’s just say it definitely took me some time to get used to. However, I realized how important it was to wear them to ensure safety for all.

Fig. 1 – Blue Medical Mask

 I began to wear masks right at the beginning of this pandemic, as my parents stocked up on all the necessary supplies; we had copious amounts of those blue medical masks (Fig. 1) and the N95 masks lying around the house just in case we ever ran out. I vividly remember walking into a supermarket at the beginning and being in total shock walking in seeing some people with masks and some people without. I felt so out of place as I wasn’t sure if I was the odd one out or if the people who weren’t wearing them just have not heard the news yet. However, I knew that during this time I was being a proactive citizen and was doing what was best for myself and others. Also during this time what persuaded me even further for why I wore masks was the health of my intermediate family. During this time, my grandparents had moved into my 4 person home as they moved out of their house. For them, my father began to build an extension off of our house to create a one-bedroom, one-bath, apartment. But, because of the rise of the pandemic, this project had slowed down and they lived in our backroom for a longer period of time than expected. Because of this, all 6 of us were in a smaller confined space and I was very nervous to bring this virus into my household and spread the disease to them. They are both roughly eighty years old and have been through many health complications, this virus was the last thing I wanted them to come in contact with. Likewise, both my parents have been through many health complications including a variety of cancers and kidney failures where they have been through invasive surgeries. I was in an immunocompromised household and I never wanted to be the one to mess that up. I had to wear a mask no matter where I went to ensure the ones I held closest to my heart were healthy.

Fig. 2 – Floral face mask owned by my Grandmother

Parting away from the sadness of this virus, the use of masks can have a positive outlook as it can add some spice to your everyday fashion. For the longest time, the first masks I wore were the blue medical masks as I felt they were the safest. However, as time went on, I noticed they were not sustainable and were constantly seen on the ground in parking lots or within garbages. Due to this, I switched over to reusable masks that could be washed. The first masks I bought, and the same masks I wear today were from TJ Maxx. These masks came in a pack of three different colors, pastel blue, purple, and pink. Furthermore, I loved seeing the creativity shine through individuals as I watched them promote their own creation of masks. Firstly, I remember my mom coming home with a bunch from a friend of hers who had created their own with Grateful Dead, floral (Fig. 2), and tie-dye patterns. More personal to me, a friend of mine’s sisters started her own business creating masks. Watching it be promoted on both of their social media platforms, she provided essential workers with these masks as a token of appreciation for all that they have done. Although I am not necessarily as close with my friend as I used to be, I still see her sister’s progress on her Instagram as she continues to make masks for all. In the end, masks are something that we all had to get adapted to, but they have simply become part of our everyday lives and fashion choices. For as long as we have to continue, I will wear my same pink, blue, and purple masks constantly changing which one I want for the day according to what I am wearing.

Mask Catalog

  • Object/Work: Cotton mask
  • Classification: Fashion
  • Title, or Name: Purple cloth mask
  • Creation, Name of Designer(s): N/A
  • Style, Period, Group, or Movement: 2021
  • Measurements: N/A
  • Material: 100% Cotton
  • State: How Many Were Produced? Which Collection? N/A
  • Facture (Detailed Deconstruction): Cloth mask with stretchy strings that go around the ear. Bead on a string so the mask can be easily adjustable.
  • Orientation, or Arrangement: Worn over mouth and nose.
  • Physical Description: Purple cotton mask with white beads and string.
  • Condition or Examination History: Overall great condition.
  • Subject Matter: Cotton mask
  • Context: This piece was bought for social distancing and safety purposes throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
  • Current Location: Travels with me in car 
  • Copyright Restrictions: N/A
  • Ownership History: Bought at the beginning of 2020.
  • Visual Documentation: Fig. 3, Fig. 4, Fig. 5
  • Generic Concept Authority: (Sewing, Fashion)

Progression of Head and Face-Coverings: Ancient to Contemporary Times

Masks are seen as a form of identity of an individual as they are there to conceal a person’s face and shoulders. Since the beginning of Ancient times, face and head coverings have had widespread use through all cultures including those of the Romans and Greeks. Today, the use of these coverings are still used but for slightly different purposes as we see them commonly used for martial, religious, or health purposes. Although, during Ancient times, the use of these face and head coverings had a tremendous amount of different purposes including the similar religious and marital aspects we see other uses such as purity, communication, marriage, and status. While the face and head coverings have been around for centuries, birthed during Ancient times, they have been constantly evolving in both Roman and Greek cultures. Within these cultures, there are a variety of different types of coverings that withhold different purposes that, although the purposes may differ now, carry substantial importance in our contemporary era and to an individual’s personal identity.

“Masks remain something of an enigma”

Donald Pollock
Fig. 1 – Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer (Greek) The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ancient Greek Traditions

Head and face-covering practices have a lot of common misconceptions that date back to ancient times. Commonly practiced by Hellenic women, veils were also used during this time by men when in the presence of the Gods. Dating back to 750 to 30 BCE, the Himation (Fig.1) in Greek traditions, was a mantle primarily used by men and women to act as a shawl or head covering. The himation is something that can be seen on historic Greek vases ( Fig.2) where we see this rectangular cloak wrapped around or thrown over the left shoulders of Ancient Greeks. The himation typically swings over the left shoulders of the wearer where it passes under the right arm and a bulk of the fabric is met around the back. Made out of wool fabric, the himation was used for a variety of purposes. Worn over the chiton, a long tunic, until the middle of the fifth century BCE, himations made their way to be worn alone. They were typically worn and seen as an important part of their nonverbal communication; a way to express themselves without verbally using words to convey a point. The himation often showed a sign of elite status in which it was often worn by Roman and Greek aristocrats and in women it typically was used as a veil when in contact with strangers.

“As the busybody penetrates through the door of the house he ‘unveils’ its occupants to his unwanted and shaming gaze and defiles the sanctity of privacy that a house usually offers”

Fig. 2 – Mixing bowl (volute-krater) Greek, South-Italian Late Classical Period about 365–355 B.C. Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Oftentimes, the veil during Ancient Greek times was simply just the cloak or mantle being worn and often correlated to a women’s living space. This correlation is evident as both a home and veil are seen to protect the privacy of the individual; “As the busybody penetrates through the door of the house he ‘unveils’ its occupants to his unwanted and shaming gaze and defiles the sanctity of privacy that a house usually offers”(Llewellyn-Jones 255). This analogy brings into play the ultimate desire for privacy that was trying to be achieved through these face coverings. The use of the face coverings was also primarily used to prevent what is called miasma. Miasma is the state of ritual impurity that can be described as “the lingering aura of uncleanliness” in regards to a person’s contact with the Gods. As seen in Llewellyn-Jones’ writing of Aphrodite’s Tortoise: The Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece and as a feature of Hellenism, miasma comes into play with veils as it acts as a barrier to contain the potential hazards that the female body and female sexuality are capable of. Acting as a pollutant, the use of the veil is there to ultimately help women with their lack of control over their boundaries. Men were seen as self-aware and understood their limits where a woman’s body “refused to conform or adhere to the rules of containment because it was perceived as porous and hence destructive”(Llewellyn-Jones 260). Yet, as written in Plutarch’s Saying of Spartans, it raises the question of how often a woman had to wear their veils. Writing, “When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled.” He then responds, “Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them!” This makes it interesting as it seems that a woman is then an object to the man where she is their property upon marriage and must be protected while a woman who is searching must expose her privacy.

CHARILLUS ​197 2 “When someone inquired why they took their girls into public places unveiled, but their married women veiled, he said, “Because the girls have to find husbands, and the married women have to keep to those who have them!” -Plutarch, Saying of Spartans

Fig 3. – Statue of Vestal Virgin (Roman, 2 cent. AD) Palatine Museum
Fig. 4 – Ancient Roman Coin (Stola and Palla) 271 AD

Ancient Roman Traditions

Similar to the Greeks, the Romans also had a handful of face and head covering rituals. For many, the use of covering their heads had to do mainly with religious ceremonies and maintaining the “traditional values” of the Romans. In regards to women and their face coverings, the virgin priestesses of Vesta, also known as the Vestal virgins, wore covering called a suffibulum (Fig.3). The suffibulum was a piece of square white cloth with a purple border that covered the head and sometimes shoulders that was worn prior to or during sacrifice. Similar to the suffibulum, during ceremonies such as marriage, women wore a bridal veil that was called the ricinium. The ricinium was a shaw that covered the heads and shoulders of Roman women during ancient times. However, it was until the palla came along and the ricinium seemed to have fallen out of use. Seen on Roman coins, Roman goddesses wore the palla to cover their heads to ensure modesty. This idea of pudicitia was depicted on the coins (Fig.4)with a fully clothed and veiled woman. It was regarded as a concept that regulates the sense of shame that deems a person’s behavior as acceptable.

Many Romans were expected to follow this concept of pudicitia as it was a big indicator of an individual’s morality and loyalty. Furthermore, the palla was ultimately seen as an adaptation of the Greek garment the himation (Fig.1). Worn both by men and women this piece of clothing, pallium for men (Fig.5), draped around the body and had a variety of uses. However, like the ricinium it was put to disuse by men when another piece comes along such as the toga. To women, the palla continued to be a staple garment as it suits almost all purposes and continues to be used by many cultures across the world. Pallas can be decorative with vibrant colors and patterns or a single simple color such as white or brown. In regards to men and their use of head coverings, under both Roman and Greek culture, is used to conceal feelings of shame and embarrassment. Written in Veiling among Men in Roman Corinth, “From a Roman point of view covering the head is a potential symbol of shame for a married man of non-elite status”(Massey 509).

A mask, or in this case a head covering, contains a lot of identity of an individual as they are seen as a symbol of representation. “The mask works by concealing or modifying those signs of identity which conventionally display the actor, and by representing new values that, represent the transformed person or an entirely new identity”(Pollock 585). In our contemporary society, masks are continuously being used for a wide range of martial and religious purposes. They are used in a majority of the religions globally including Catholicism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. However, there is a difference in how they used to be treated from how they are treated now. Rather than seeing a covering as a form of social status or a symbol of a woman’s purity, they are typically seen as a sign of modesty and respect in accordance to God’s will. Furthermore, no longer is the face-covering in regards to marriage seen as important as they once were during Ancient times. Today, many brides have the opportunity to choose themselves on whether or not a veil face covering is something they choose to partake in. It no longer holds the same purposes and importance that it once did before. But again, that does not mean they are in complete extinction from society. In Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, respectively, we see these coverings of veils (Fig. 6) being worn by nuns and religious sisters and a cylindrical hat and veil known as kamilavka and epanokamelavkion (Fig. 7) worn by the monks within monasteries. In regards to head coverings as a sense of personal identity, today, we see that they allow for individuals to have their own freedom of choice and expression. It is no longer held to a person on whether or not they want to wear one but if they feel they need one to feel at peace with themselves. In a New York Times article by Hanna Ingber, many Muslim women were interviewed in which some exclaimed no need for a veil because “God exists on the inside” while others felt it provided them confidence, peace, and a “material expression of solidarity”.

Fig. 6 – Veils worn by Roman Catholic Nuns
Fig. 7 – Monk wearing both kamilavka and epanokamelavkio

For centuries, the umbrella of head coverings has been used widely in Ancient Roman and Greek times for an array of purposes. Today, although similar purposes, these coverings have a more lenient use as there is more of a choice to the individual in whether they choose to participate in wearing them. From the beginning of times, in Ancient Roman and Greek cultures, we see the use of these coverings for nonverbal communication, a sense of purity of a woman from her husband, a man’s social status, and as a form of privacy and protection of a woman’s body. In contemporary times, we see these specific purposes declining but more of a sense of modesty and dedication to one’s faith. In the end, the use of these facial coverings has provided individuals with a sense of personal identity and will continue to be used upon a person’s personal preference.


Ingber, Hanna. “Muslim Women on the Veil.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 May 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/05/28/world/muslim-women-on-the-veil.html. 

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. “House and Veil in Ancient Greece.” British School at Athens Studies, vol. 15, 2007, pp. 251–258. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40960594. Accessed 27 Apr. 2021.

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. Aphrodite’s Tortoise: the Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece. The Classical Press of Wales, 2010. 

Marlowe, Michael. “Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World An Illustrated Survey.” Headcovering Customs of the Ancient World, www.bible-researcher.com/headcoverings3.html. 

Massey, Preston T. Veiling among Men in Roman Corinth. Indiana Wesleyan University, 2018. 

Plutarch. “Sayings of Spartans.” Plutarch • Sayings of Spartans – 208B‑236E, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/plutarch/moralia/sayings_of_spartans/main.html.Pollock, Donald. “Masks and the Semiotics of Identity.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 1, no. 3, 1995, pp. 581–597. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3034576. Accessed 29 Apr. 2021.

Masks and Fantasy: A Look Into the Influence of Masks in Pop Culture and Fashion

“In storytelling, masks typically have the dual nature of indicating ‘the sacred’ and ‘the profane.'”

– Lynley

Masks have existed since the Stone Age and are used to serve a variety of purposes through concealing its wearer. Masks are often worn with costumes, sometimes to conceal the entire body of its wearer in an effort to obscure their recognizable features. Masks often give the appearance of a completely new identity and usually tradition prescribes its appearance and construction along with how it is interpreted by viewers (Wingert 2020). They are often best understood as a unit with the performance they are presented in. In storytelling, masks typically have the dual nature of indicating “the sacred” and “the profane” (Lynley 2018). Initially believed to be a way of getting closer to the gods through performance, masks in storytelling have adapted to many genres while typically referring to any kind of deception or inauthenticity.

Darth Vader in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

“Initially believed to be a way of getting closer to the gods through performance, masks in storytelling have adapted to many genres while typically referring to any kind of deception or inauthenticity.”

– Karen Ramudit

In the romance genre of many movies, masks can represent getting to know others identities. In the comedy genre of many movies, masks can depict how the use of another identity can lead to different conclusions. In the genre of thrillers, masks can typically present a character in certain ways and also represent the growth of a character. In horror, masks can be used so that the “true identity” of a character makes an impression on the audience or to depict a character as less than human for the purpose of unsettling audiences (Lynley 2018). Some popular examples of masked icons throughout film history include Zorro, Batman, Hannibal, Darth Vader, Micheal Myers, The Phantom of the Opera, and Spiderman (Kurten 2020.) Masks are also typically used as a means of storytelling through gaming to serve multiple purposes of deception and are used in fashion to also give audiences certain impressions of their wearer.

Masks as Storytelling

The use of masks have been used as a trope in storytelling for centuries. Micheal Hauge calls the ‘identity’ a mask that “refers to the faces people present to the world” and that their true ‘essence’ or “true self” is hidden underneath (Lynley 2018). In Japanese culture there is a distinction between the ‘omote’ and ‘ura’ or private and public faces. These words literally translate to ‘front’ and ‘behind’ (Lynley 2018). The underlying message in many of these stories is that nothing is resolved and true happiness is achieved when the mask comes off. This connects to the use of literal masks as a means of storytelling in various forms of media. Throughout various cultures the use of the literal mask has been to obscure the face for many reasons ranging from the Victorian masks representing death and were designed to remind people of their loved ones, Italian masks were worn for entertainment, and English masks were also worn for performance purposes. Masks today also exist in many forms and all have the common trait of deception when they are used for their specific purposes. 

In many cases the person who wears the mask is considered to be associated with the mask’s spirit force and exposed to “personal danger of being affected” by the mask’s power  (Wingert 2020). For the sake of “protection” the wearer follows certain procedures in using the mask and in many cases the wearer plays the part of an actor in “cooperation or collaboration” with the mask (Wingert 2020). The real importance of the mask is its ability to conceal the wearers identity and its ability to give the wearer a new one. Typically, after wearing the mask the wearer assumes the spirit character depicted by the mask. The wearer becomes the “partner” of the character he is impersonating and brings the masks to life as they psychologically become one and the character comes to life (Wingert 2020). Often the wearer becomes subservient of the persona of the masks itself. This association between the mask and the wearer is made more evident by the spectators as many initially understand the mask’s identity before that of its wearer. The importance of the masks lies in its ability to be understood by everyone and its integral role is to give a sense of continuity “between the present and beginning of time” which is a sense of importance for the “integration into culture” (Wingert 2020).

Spectators become linked to the mask through its power and depending on the representation which affects how the wearer reacts as they may eventually become absorbed by the mask’s identity or reject it completely. The ‘being’ that is presented through the mask is met with familiarity by others which leads to catharsis for the wearer and the spectators. Even if the mask is depicted with malignant potential the spirit of it is recognized by others. Those that represent more harmful spirits are used as a way to keep a “balance of power” in the traditional social and political relationship of “inherited positions” in a culture (Wingert 2020). The characters depicted are created from tradition and fulfill roles to achieve the desired ends. These cultural beliefs on the power of masks have entered our media and are often depicted through characters in movies, gaming, and fashion. Many iconic film characters are shown wearing masks for their own gain and for the purposes of telling stories to audiences.

Masks in Movies and Their Genres

When thinking of the use of masks to obscure one’s identity and create a new one it is hard to not think of a specific character in film that does this. Many film genres have used this trope to fulfill a purpose from action to horror. Hidden identities have become a staple in our movie culture as misleading the viewer has been used for good and evil motives as a means of deception or camouflage. Heroes are typically depicted as wearing masks for these reasons and because it provides them a form of protection. Many of the most famous male superheroes are seen donning masks from the initial Spiderman (2002), to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy (2005-2012), to Iron Man (2008) which are all blockbuster movies and universally recognized characters. In each of these movies the importance of the mask is stressed as the identity of it provides different forms of responsibility which is stressed heavily in the Spiderman tagline that “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In many of these movies they also reference Wingerts assertion that it is often easy to become consumed by the masks identity and become one with it as in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)one important line said in the movie is that Bruce Wayne (the wearer of the mask) is now the alter ego or hidden face of the true identity of Batman himself although Batman is the one who wears the mask. His hidden identity lies in others seeing him in one way and the other identity, his true identity, lies in not being recognized by others. He gains power when he is not recognized compared to his now alter ego of being associated with his family name and given identity not chosen one.

A tweet depicting how Bruce Wayne sees both his identities from The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

Masks are also used by villains for the same means but they are known to use their deception for their own personal gain, not often prohibited by a restrictive moral code guided towards helping the public that many superheroes have. One notable villain in superhero themed movies is Bane from the Batman Trilogy (2005-2012). He is known for being the masked antithesis of Batman himself and aspires to do everything he can to make others suffer just as he did. This is very distinctive from Batman’s main goal of doing everything he can to help others not suffer as he did. One of the most iconic lines said by Bane during The Dark Knight Rises (2012) in which he claims that “no one cared until he put on the mask.” Like Batman, Bane has embodied his other ‘face’ through wearing the mask and believes that it is part of his true identity now just as Wingert references. The villain of the Spiderman (2002) movie is also one who dons a mask just as the hero does and becomes consumed by its power as they fully transition into the Green Goblin. In Iron Man (2008) the rise of the Iron Man character also prompted the rise of his antithesis character Iron Monger who is also set on destroying the ideals of the protagonary hero. The rise of villains and heroes resulting in a rise of other villains and heroes using similar means of adapting to new identity through masks relates to Wingert’s idea of “balance of power” in the social and political relationship of “inherited positions” as both masks characters assume different positions in a culture (Wingert 2020). The characters also both created their alter egos with masks as a means of fulfilling roles to achieve their own desired ends.

Bane and Batman fighting in The Dark Knight Rises (2012)

“The rise of villains and heroes resulting in a rise of other villains and heroes using similar means of adapting to new identity through masks relates to Wingert’s idea of ‘balance of power’ in the social and political relationship of ‘inherited positions’ as both masks characters assume different positions in a culture.”

– Karen Ramudit

It is not fair to discuss masks in superhero movies without discussing one of the most iconic masked characters of all time, Darth Vader from Star Wars (1977). This film and the rest of the movies are not typically classified under superhero films but under drama and science fiction fantasy. Yet, the character of Darth Vader is universally well known because of what his mask represents as his name literally translates to “father of darkness” in German. Darth Vader’s character is an example of a hero turn villain as his initial identity of Anakin Skywalker was a young man who wanted to do right in the galaxy with his power much like the character of Spiderman but through the corruption of others that he faces he assumes a new identity through his mask. He becomes the ultimate villain in the sense that he rises to power and desires nothing else besides gaining absolute control over the entire galaxy and stops at nothing in his pursuits. His dastardly nature as the villain is emphasized as he is one with no moral code and appears to kill anyone who gets in his way in cold blood. This lack of humanity combined with the fact that we never see his true face ever again due to it being burned beyond recognition in the films when he turns, pushes the idea that he has become one with the mask’s identity. This identity being associated with inhumanity within the mask is carried into every form of the Star Wars franchise as it is seen as a driving symbol in the newer film, The Force Awakens (2015), where the new villain keeps Darth Vader’s mask and helmet in a concealed case and stares at it while planning new schemes of taking over the galaxy. The fact that this new villain, Kylo Ren, is also the grandson of Darth Vader himself adds to Wingert’s idea that even with the malignant spirit of masks presented its power is still recognized by others and that this “inherited position” comes from the culture of those who see the mask in this way much like Kylo Ren inherited the power of Darth Vader’s mask and creates his own masked persona in a way to achieve the desired ends of his grandfather.

Kylo Ren looking at a disheveled Darth Vader mask in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

“The fact that this new villain, Kylo Ren, is also the grandson of Darth Vader himself adds to Wingert’s idea that even with the malignant spirit of masks presented its power is still recognized by others and that this “inherited position” comes from the culture of those who see the mask in this way much like Kylo Ren inherited the power of Darth Vader’s mask and creates his own masked persona in a way to achieve the desired ends of his grandfather.”

– Karen Ramudit

Antiheroes are also commonly depicted as being mask wearers who use their hidden identity for their own gain just as Darth Vader chose to. Many of these anti heroes align with villains in the sense that they wear their masks according to a moral code but do not have a super hero to balance out their power. One very popular example of an antihero with a moral code who wears a mask is the character V from the film V for Vendetta (2005). V is an anarchist freedom fighter who believes in the power of the people over the oppressive government that is prevalent in his world and uses these moral codes to justify his destructive behaviors such as fighting and killing those who oppress others and destroying symbols of oppression created by the government. V wears a Guy Fawkes mask, which references the actual Guy Fawkes fight for a Catholic rebellion in England and planned an event in which explosives would be used to blow up Westminster palace but was caught and hanged for his extreme beliefs, according to Wikipedia. Zorro from the film The Legend of Zorro (2005), is another anti hero who wears a mask and lives according to his own beliefs and kills those he believes deserves death but also reaches trouble because of his actions. Donnie Darko from the film Donnie Darko (2001), is another example of an antihero that where’s a mask but he does not live by a moral code. This movie is more a thriller and time traveling film and while Donnie himself is of questionable character, the bunny mask that one of the characters wears and designs himself has been an icon of the film and its nihilistic themes. 

The horror genre of film is also well known for producing various villains and antiheroes who wear masks as a means of deception and creating a new identity for those who see them. Many of these characters use masks as a means of deception and to unsettle their victims. Many iconic horror characters also use this deception for their own gain such as Stu and Billy assuming the shared identity of Ghostface to terrorize their friend as an attempt at revenge in the movie Scream (1996). In many of these films the characters that wear masks are depicted as less than human as exemplified in Halloween (1978) in which the character of Michael Myers is depicted as less than human in his pursuits of murdering sexually active teenagers. This character is even officially named “the shape” as it has no true form other than the mask and jumpsuit that it wears (Phillips 2020). It can not be connected to the human form aside from these characteristics as its lack of humanity, speed, and strength are not traits of a real human. The same can be said about the predator character from the film Predator (1987) as a humanoid creature attacks people based on their heat signatures and it is seen as human shaped but still another creature through the use of its mask and costume. The same argument can also be made about the characters of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980) and Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs (1991). Both characters are given human names and origins but are transformed into something less than human through their overt lack of humanity and excessive violence towards others, therefore making them more monsters than human as they assume their new identities through wearing masks and become new creatures. The obstruction of their faces through their masks depicts that they can no longer be considered human anymore (Scott 2020).

“The obstruction of their faces through their masks depicts that they can no longer be considered human anymore.”

– Shannon Scott
Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Romance in film has also integrated a few instances to the difference between the identity behind the mask and when the mask is worn. This is notable in the small scenes of The Dark Knight Rises (2012) depicting the relationships between Selina Kyle (Catwoman) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) as their identities and those of the ones they assume through their masks interfere with their romantic relationship. This romantic aspect is also used in Spiderman (2002) where the hero Peter Parker kisses his love interest, Mary Jane, under the guise of Spiderman in the masks and creates a rift in his actual relationship with Mary Jane or with the Peter she knows of. This genre expands into the antihero trope through the film The Phantom of the Opera (2004), in which the illusive “phantom” who enacts his revenge on a society that abused him as a child by murdering citizens who attend the opera in Paris, falls in love with a young woman and tries to change his motives to aid her in her rise to fame. He uses the identity of the “phantom” to conceal his disfigurement and convince her to fall in love with him until she sees his true identity after his mask is removed and she understands his story (Madison 2016). The comedy genre also overlaps with this theme of morally ambiguous characters and romance as The Mask (1994) gives us a timid and soft spoken man who uses the power of a green mask to transform himself into a antihero who uses comedy and violence against evil doers while also romancing a woman that his initial identity did not have enough confidence to do.

Unification through the masks is also a common trope that we see utilized in film as many movies depicting a war or battle often present groups wearing similar masks and costumes. This is exemplified in 300 (2006) when the Spartans use their helmets with built in masks as a way of unifying their tribe before going into battle with the nearby civilization. This is also exemplified on a smaller scale in the Disney film Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) where a group of archeologists find the lost city of Atlantis and encounter the Atlantean tribe who wear giant tribal style masks as a form of protection for their identities and bodies. This leads into our assessment of masks worn by women in film, as there are not many examples of this occurrence. The character of Kida from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) initially wears her mask but quickly takes it off to greet the explorers and welcome them and her true identity is present through the rest of the film. Every other notable example of a woman wearing a mask in film follows the same situation as the mask is hardly worn by females. In The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Selina Kyle is more prominently shown compared to her Catwoman counterpart who appears for a short amount of time in the film. The female character of Yennefer from The Witcher (2019) wears a lace mask for her introduction to the show’s titular character but is never seen hiding behind a mask again, and even in this case her mask is mostly transparent and does not obscure her true identity.

Selina Kyle (Catwoman) from The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Yennefer from The Witcher (2019)

Masks in Gaming

Masks in gaming follows similar tropes to those presented in films. One of the most popular games ever made is the Persona Series (1996-2020) in which characters in the game combine their multiple identities and gain powers. Similarly to the super hero trope the characters in these games have alter egos when they use their powers and one of the most notable images from the game is the main character, Joker, wearing his white masquerade inspired mask. Many other games have characters wear masks to depict the type of setting their story is in such as Dishonored 2 (2012) in which characters wear masks and face coverings because of the plague ridden city that they live in or Payday 2 (2011) in which you play as characters involved in a scheme of multiple heists and cannot remove your masks (Nurcahyanto 2021). For many games the characters who wear masks have them as part of their style or gimmicks as exemplified in Mortal Kombat (1992-2019), Borderlands (2009-2019), Street Fighter (1987-2020), and the Mario Series (1985-2021). Many of the characters in games used their hidden identities and deception to their advantage just as those in film do (Gill 2019). 

“Many of the characters in games used their hidden identities and deception to their advantage just as those in film do”

– Jeremy Gill
Joker from the Persona Series (1996-2020)
Emily Kaldwin and Corvo Attano from Dishonored 2 (2012)
Playable characters from Payday 2 (2011)
Sub-Zero and Scorpion from Mortal Kombat (1992-2019)

Masks in Fashion

Masks in fashion can be dated from centuries ago and take inspiration from a variety of cultures. Masks are created from many different types of material including wood, cloth, vegetable fiber, paint, metal, clay, feathers, beads, bark, cloth, and plastic (Smith 2021). While masks have the ability to alter one’s appearance and identity, it can also be used for protection and anonymity. For the purpose of performance we can focus on masquerade balls as they include masks along with costumes to reach their full effect. The masquerade ball is considered a less formal costume party that stemmed from various traditions of wearing extravagant costumes for events from the past. According to Wikipedia, they were initially a feature of the Carnival season during the 15th century and were included in events like royal parties, pageants, weddings, and other celebrations celebrating life accomplishments. Masquerade balls were extended into the public festivities during the 16th century during the Italian Renaissance and were part of the Venitian Carnival until the 18th century. Nonetheless the masquerade ball was popularized throughout Europe and continues to be popular in modern times as exemplified in the multiple events that occur in New York City that include a masquerade element such as The Black and White Ball of 1966.

“Masks in fashion can be dated from centuries ago and take inspiration from a variety of cultures.”

– Karen Ramudit
Modern day depictions of Venetian masks inspired by the 16th century Italian Renaissance presented at The Venice Carnival in Italy during the 20th century
A depiction of the popular Masquerade balls held in the 18th century
The Black and White Ball of New York City in 1966.

Use of Masks in Fashion Today

Between entertainment and storytelling it is simple to see why masks have continued to be an accessory in today’s fashion. In the new age of Coronavirus many companies have seized their opportunities to create unique face masks given the need to add this item to our daily wardrobe now. Fast fashion companies such as Pretty Little Thing and Fashion Nova have begun selling masks individually or built into their clothing. Departments stores, like Target, have also begun manufacturing and selling their own masks as well in different sizes for everyone. Even In 2020’s Paris Fashion Week, many designers chose to display the theme of the year as they included masks as part of their looks. The importance of designers adding masks to their styles helps the idea of wearing masks for everyone seem more appealing and designers recognize the power that they hold in doing this. They encouraged healthy and sanitary habits with masks that had prints to match runway looks. Christian Siriano’s Spring 2021 collection combined new looks that combined style and aesthetics through clothing and matching masks on the models. Other designers such as Marine Serre and Paco Rabanne took the pandemic very seriously and provided their models with full coverage of couture which added practicality to couture in regards to how the world is today (Magrini 2020). It is enlightening to see how many films, games, and fashion statements incorporate masks into their looks in ways that appeal to everyone. By viewing these forms of media, many can become inspired to decorate their masks and stay safe during this time as many options are available for everyone. 

“It is enlightening to see how many films, games, and fashion statements incorporate masks into their looks in ways that appeal to everyone.”

– Karen Ramudit
An advertisement for Pretty Little Thing’s new clothing adjusted for 2020
Christian Siriano’s Spring 2021 collection debut at 2020 Paris Fashion Week
Marine Serre’s Spring 2021 collection debut at 2020 Paris Fashion Week
Paco Rabanne’s Spring 2021 collection debut at 2020 Paris Fashion Week


Gill, Jeremy. “Top 30 Video Game Masks.” LevelSkip, Maven Media, 25 July 2019,  levelskip.com/misc/best-video-game-masks. Accessed 14 April 2021.

“Guy Fawkes.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Mar. 2021,  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guy_Fawkes. Accessed 14 April 2021.

JP, Madison. “The 15 Most Iconic Movie Masks of All Time.” TVOvermind, Elite CafeMedia, 3 Mar. 2016, www.tvovermind.com/the-15-most-iconic-movie-masks-of-all-time/. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Kurten, Jochen. “How the Mask Has Played a Starring Role throughout Movie History.” DW, Deutsche Welle, 5 June 2020, dw.com/en/how-the-mask-has-played-a-starring-role-throughout-movie-history/a-53347903. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Lynley. “Masks In Storytelling.” SLAP HAPPY LARRY, WordPress, 8 Apr. 2021,  slaphappylarry.com/mask-technique-storytelling/. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Magrini, Sarah. “Face Masks and Runway Fashion: Can Face Masks Be Haute Fashion?” UDress Magazine, WordPress, 11 Nov. 2020, udressmag.com/2020/11/11/face-masks-and-runway-fashion-can-face-masks-be-haute-fashion/. Accessed 14 April 2021.

“Masquerade Ball.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 17 Mar. 2021,  en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masquerade_ball. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Nurcahyanto, Rizky. “10 Iconic Masked Characters in a Game Whose Face Is Still a Mystery.” Dunia Games, Dunia Games, 5 Apr. 2021, duniagames.co.id/discover/article/10-karakter-bertopeng-paling-ikonis-dalam-game-yang-wajahnya-masih-menjadi-misteri/en. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Phillips, Maya. “Horror Masks Are Never Just About the Monster.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 23 Oct. 2020, nytimes.com/2020/10/23/movies/halloween-horror-masks.html. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Scott, Shannon. “Hidden Faces, Hidden Identities: Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces, by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.” Senses of Cinema, RMIT University, 25 July 2020,  sensesofcinema.com/2020/book-reviews/hidden-faces-hidden-identities-masks-in-horror-cinema-eyes-without-faces-by-alexandra-heller-nicholas/. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Smith, Fred T. “Masks in Fashion.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp, 2021, fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/clothing-types-styles/halloween-costume-history. Accessed 14 April 2021.

Wingert, Paul S. “The Wearing of Masks.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 10 Feb. 2020, britannica.com/art/mask-face-covering/The-wearing-of-masks. Accessed 14 April 2021.

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks

The Theatrical Origins and Language of Venetian Carnival Masks

The practice of masking during carnival celebrations dates back all the way to the fourth century BCE and was widespread throughout Europe by the fifteenth century. These colorful disguises were most popular in Southern Europe, where festivals were more common and masks were more elaborate, becoming particularly famous in Venice, Italy (Carpenter, 9). The practice of masking helped to create atmospheres of freedom and opportunity, allowing masked participants to remain anonymous and therefore drop their inhibitions and shames to let themselves have fun. Over the long history of Carnival in Venice, the decorative face masks of revelers have been both a staple of the celebration and the source of much criticism. While there were a lot of examples of objections against masking and celebrating Carnival from both religious and social standpoints, that never stopped both men and women from participating.

Masking was traditionally a man’s game. For each Carnival celebration, men would dress up and roam the streets while women played the important role of participating as spectators to their elaborate masquerade. However, by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries masking had become a unisex practice (Carpenter 10).

One of the most prominent criticisms of Carnival and masking was the opportunities for mischief that it created. Venetian Carnival masks had many designs and inspirations, with characteristics that could either construct or erase the essential aspects of a reveler’s identity. Unlike celebrations like Saturnalia, the debauchery that accompanied carnival was not rooted in any subversion of power but from the illusion of freedom and suspension of truth that the masks provided partygoers (Quinn, 74). This illusion of freedom, this distance from personal accountability, could be created using two distinct kinds of masks: those that created an elaborate false identity and those that erased individuality to make you just one of the crowd.

Traditional Carnival masks that construct false identities in order to conceal the reveler beneath often drew their inspiration from the commedia dell’arte, which was an early form of professional Italian theatre that utilized character archetypes in distinctive masks and costumes. These archetypes were static and predictable for long enough that they became staples of Italian storytelling and visual art, and many iconic carnival masks are in the style of these characters, including the Zanni, Pantalone, and Colombina masks. While these masks were used to create characterization in theatre, they were then subverted to erase identity when worn by carnival-goers in the crowd. Commedia dell’arte-inspired masks are most frequently half-mask designs since actors who wore similar masks on stage needed the lower portion of their face free to deliver their lines effectively.

The Zanni mask is one of the most distinctive of Venetian carnival masks, despite being a secondary character archetype in most traditional theatre. Zanni is the name of an overarching group of stock characters that the commedia dell’arte utilized, ascribed to clowns and stupid servants such as Harlequin. The Zanni mask is a half-mask characterized by a scrunched, low brow and a long thin nose, both of which were considered signifiers of stupidity. The lower the brow or longer the nose, the less intelligent the character being portrayed. While bumbling and crude, Zanni characters were also known for their nimbleness and were the most animated among their cast. Their lack of intelligence was sometimes a source of conflict, sometimes a source of comedic relief, but the distinctive shape of the mask helps it stand out in a crowd and makes it a favorite among modern carnival attendees.

Pantalone is another stock character that was commonly portrayed with a half-mask and exaggerated features. This mask style is most often marked by a high brow and a prominent hooked nose, paired with pronounced wrinkles and bushy eyebrows to channel the appearance of a wizened old man. In contrast to Zanni masks, these deep-set wrinkles paired with the high forehead were used to signify wisdom, and sometimes despair. The Pantalone mask is traditionally worn by men and continues to be worn to celebrations, but the sad old man archetype has seen a decline in popularity in modern carnival.

A modern Zanni mask

The Colombina mask is based on the character of Colombina in the commedia dell’arte, a well-known and well-loved young female character who was often a maid or spouse in plays. Despite deriving directly from the commedia dell’arte, the Colombina mask is a relatively modern invention. Colombina in traditional theatre was an unmasked character archetype and the actress would instead be signified by her heavy makeup and ornamentation. On occasion, the character would wear a domino mask, which has been adapted into today’s popular party mask. While the traditional form of the Colombina character wore no mask, a common story for the origin of this domino mask is that the character of Colombina was so vain that never wanted to obscure her features with a full mask. The Colombina mask is a heavily decorated half-mask, covering only the upper portion of the face and held in place by being tied by a ribbon or held in position with a baton. In modern carnival, both men and women wear the Colombina mask.

Colombina masks, more commonly known as domino masks, for sale

While these types of character masks were and are very popular, they are only one side of the coin. Where commedia dell’arte masks were constructive, establishing an expectation based on the source, other masks were subtractive and designed to completely erase individuality and identifying factors.

The bauta mask is one mask design utilized by Carnival-goers who wished to stay anonymous. These masks were a blank slate, with simple decorations or no decoration at all, a wide nose, and square jaw that extended outward instead of curling back around the face. With these exaggerated features, just about any face could fit beneath it and be perfectly concealed without discomfort. The outward flare of the bottom of the mask was specifically so that the wearer could eat, drink, and talk without needing to remove it and reveal their identity. In a crowd of masks, “the carnival bauta was nearly uniform, and as such it erased the particular identity of the wearer; it effaced not only physiognomy but often class, gender, or even race” (Quinn 74). This made it one of the best choices for both men and women who wanted to celebrate Carnival without the burden of identity. This anonymity might erase the power held by those of the ruling class or high officials, but it also erased the inherent vulnerability of their power as well as created power for those who had none.

A close up of Conversations of the Masks by Pietro Longhi, highlighing the two central figures wearing bauta masks
Portrait of a Woman with Mask by Rosalba Carriera

A mask that was more traditional for women was the moretta, which was a small oval mask, dark in color and only wide enough to cover the center of the face. Instead of straps, the moretta was held in place with a button or bit that the wearer would keep between their teeth. Because this design rendered the wearer mute, another name for it was the muta or servetta muta.

The moretta mask fell out of fashion in the late 18th century, but before that it was an integral piece in a woman’s game of seduction during the festival. By covering just a small area in black velvet, a woman’s pale skin was thrown into sharp contrast and also turned her face into a treasure to be earned. This mask design has been immortalized in artwork such as Rosalba Carriera’s Portrait of a Woman with Mask (left) or Clara the Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi (below). Pietro Longhi painted a number of Carnival scenes, including Clara the Rhinoceros who was exhibited in 1751 as a Carnival spectacle.

Clara the Rhinoceros (1751) by Pietro Longhi

Traditional bauta masks are handcrafted from paper-mache and then decorated with filigree or paint as the artist sees fit. The moretta is covered in black velvet, for the aesthetic advantages of both the dark color and the soft, expensive material.

Masks such as the bauta and the moretta were also favored by gamblers, because of their ability to render the wearer indistinguishable. In high-stakes environments, such as Venice’s most renowned gambling hall, the Ridotto, masks were part of a mandatory dress code for visitors. While this sometimes created a barrier for those who could not afford the correct costume, the casino was still open to anyone with enough money for a mask and a buy-in. This meant that anyone, of any social class or status, could end up standing next to each other to win and lose money all evening. Masks were required both by law and by the rule of the casino so that “if great gains or losses risked a sudden reversal in the social order, the mask could lessen its effects by concealing exactly who was winning and losing” (Johnson 408). Not only did they level the playing field by removing any threat of intimidation or retribution, but they also reduced class tensions and wounded pride.

Una McGowan
ARTH300: Fashion, Art, & Politics
Dr. Alla Myzelev
Spring 2021


Carpenter, Sarah. “Women and Carnival Masking.” Records of Early English Drama 21, no.2 (1996): 9-16. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43505418.

Johnson, James H. “Deceit and Sincerity in Early Modern Venice.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 38, no. 3 (2005): 399-415. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30053403.

“Making the Masks: Handcrafting Venetian Masquerade Masks.” Italy Mask: Authentic Venetian Masks. https://www.italymask.co.nz/Behind-The-Masks/Making+the+Masks.html.

Quinn, Michael L. “The Comedy of Reference: The Semiotics of Commedia Figures in Eighteenth-Century Venice.” Theatre Journal 43, no. 1 (1991): 70-92. www.jstor.org/stable/3207951.

“The Bauta: The Queen of Venetian Masks.” Ca’ Macana, www.camacana.com/en-UK/bauta-venetian-masks-history.php.

“The Moretta mask: Venetian mask of seduction.” Ca’ Macana. https://www.camacana.com/en-UK/moretta-venetian-mask.php.

More Than Meets 3/4 of the Eye: COVID Masks

By Christine Grace

As I remember, the COVID-19 pandemic really came into full effect the same week as spring break back in 2020.  At the end of March, I returned to my house in Geneseo with my sister.  My sister had been in Florida when COVID first became a threat in March and we didn’t want to risk our parents’ health, so I went with her to stay in my house on Franklin Street.  Those two weeks of quarantine were mentally strenuous.  Living in Geneseo during the pandemic was really sad because there was so little to do and not a lot of students stayed.  At this point, the masks were not mandatory.  I first heard about the mandatory mask rule from my neighbors in Geneseo at the time in April, who told me that after a certain time masks would be mandatory in New York State in public places.  I had just left Wegman’s before that went into order, and they were just coming to Wegmans at the time it started.  We passed each other in the parking lot.  Because I had entered Wegman’s and left before the time the mandate went into effect, I did not wear a mask.  My neighbors showed up after the time masks were made mandatory in New York State, so they wore bandanas around their noses and mouths.  

In February, I was in complete denial that the pandemic would come down to having mask mandates.  I was really hoping that it would really only take two weeks to flatten the curve, but of course it has taken much longer than two weeks.  The thought of having to wear masks was very unsettling to me, I felt unease by not only the threat of the virus, but also the extent that the government was becoming involved.  I feared that once masks were mandated, they would not be effective enough in slowing the spread and government officials might enforce curfews and confinement to just your home, as had been the case in places like Spain and Italy in April.  Thankfully, the kinds of curfews and confinement in the United States was not exactly as strict as it was overseas.  

In February and March, I had heard that bodegas, grocery stores, and other convenience stores in the New York City area had run out of masks completely as people were wearing them on their own accord.  I only started wearing the mask in April, after it became state mandated.  My sister and I had to fashion them ourselves at the time, my sister used a scarf and I used a bandana.  I used a red bandana that I found stuffed in my sock drawer.  It didn’t go very well in the beginning, I would clumsily tie my bandana too loose and it would slip or it would partly obstruct my vision causing me to have this weird brain-fog everytime I stepped foot in the grocery store.  It was as if I only could see out of three quarters of my eyes. Once I came home from Geneseo, my dad gave me a couple of the blue paper masks.  I used to be in denial about the whole mask situation to the point where I felt second-hand embarrassment for people with cloth masks up until May.  

Back in March, I did not think the pandemic would come to that point.  I thought mandatory masks would be really frightening, but as it turned out the toilet paper and pasta shortages were scarier than having to wear face coverings in public.  In the beginning, I tried to stay home as much as I could because I felt really disoriented having to wear a mask out. Throughout the remainder of April and May I used the blue paper masks, which are the ones for medical use.  I noticed this was generating a lot of waste because they are only good to wear a few times before they need to be discarded.  In June I started my job as a waitress where my job supplied the blue masks, so I chose to continue wearing them because it was convenient.  I really disliked working and having to wear the mask. The restaurant would get really hot and the mask was just not very breathable, so it was not comfortable running around a busy restaurant wearing one. It was also annoying having to enforce New York State restaurant mandates at the restaurant where I worked in the Adirondacks.  Many customers were indignant about the mask rule, as if it were my own idea.  I found that waitressing during the pandemic made me slightly nervous, as customers could remove their masks once seated.  Overall not pleasant at all having to enforce the mandate myself on the general public.  

The first cloth mask I got was given to me by my friend Riley in July.   The mask was an athleisure type of material from Lululemon.  I have since lost it unfortunately.  It was maroon on the outside and white on the inside with black adjustable straps for the ears.  A problem I had with this cloth mask was that it caused my skin to break out where the cloth met the strap near my cheekbones.  
Fig. 3: Me wearing my Lululemon mask in November.
The second cloth mask I got came from the guy I was dating over the past few months.  I think he gave it to me in January.  It is black with adjustable straps, and what seems to be underwire in the nose band.  I’m not sure exactly what the fabric of the mask is, but it is more breathable and does not cause “maskne.”   
Fig. 4: My second cloth mask & the one I use the most now.
My father had to buy me a cloth mask once because I forgot mine before church.  It was from the stationary store near the church in our town, and it smelled like chemicals I remember the moment I put it on.  This mask was a plain black with a rigid nose band which I have since lost as well.  
Fig. 5: Inside of mask that is from the same brand as the plain black one I lost. (This mask belongs to my Father).
The most recent mask I accumulated was through another friend of mine.  I visited Geneseo earlier this April and was given a white cloth mask with a floral print by one of my friends.  I do not know why she gave it to me or how exactly I ended up with it, but I found it in the pocket of my sweatshirt when I got back home.  I have yet to purchase a mask myself, although I seem to obtain them quite easily, so hopefully I will not need anymore masks for the rest of the pandemic.
Fig. 6: Mask I somehow ended up with from Geneseo

Never the Girl Next Door: Uncovering the Masks and Feminism Within Mid-Century American Fetishism

“I urge you all today, especially today during these times of chaos and war,to love yourself without reservations and to love each other without restraint. Unless you’re into leather.” 

-Margaret Cho
Ellen Von Unwerth (German, 1954-) Fashion and Fetish in a Female Fantasyland (2011), Photograph.

Sex, Politics, and Money: three of the major conversational faux pas within polite society. What about these three topics causes champagne to spill, and for pearls to be clutched? After all, they are all connected to the very things everyone wants: power and pleasure. What happens when one of three things are pushed to their limits? Well, usually a global outcry that ends in hysteria and shame. However, what is shameful about sex, politics, and money? Nothing, inherently, when it stays in the hands of the white man, but the subversive role of giving power and pleasure to a woman, creates an uproar. Tumultuous applause or heinous backlash: either way everyone will have an opinion on her and her body and it will surely get people talking. Through the artwork of John Willie (1902-1962), from his magazine, Bizarre (1946-1959), and other fetish magazines of the era, the ideologies of BDSM and Bondage practitioners, and the iconography of masks within the fetish and kink communities, we will uncover what it truly means to disrupt the sexist and hetero-normative social constraints of sex and power.

The sexually repressed society of mid-twentieth-century America can be traced back to the puritanical roots of the country. While the nineteenth century in Europe caused an update in the discourse on sexuality, American eroticism was shrowded in shame. The mid-twentieth century would start to subvert these troupes and open a dialog for American consumers. The conservative views on sexuality held true, however, people did pursue their fantasies and were given ample representation of sexuality within the media. Advertisers and artists, alike, have used the female, and to a lesser extent the male, body to “offer a utilitarian product to [people], assuming that attention to the ad would thereby increase.” (Jones 34) The nude body within art and media was not as perverse as people may have wanted to believe.

During the Second World War, Pin-Up, or Cheesecake photos, became a widespread phenomenon and were distributed for mass audiences during the period. Although they were considered taboo “the public enjoyment of pin-up women in movies, ads, and mysteries, however, only registered sexuality as the main signifier of the pin-up figure.” (Dietze 653) Furthering public interest in the idea of women as fetish objects. Not a decade later, Hugh Hefner (1926-2017) released the first issue of Playboy in 1953, which only got more salacious as the years drew on.

However, as time wore on and people got more comfortable with the female form in media, things started to heat up in America. This is due to the strong delineation, but also a lot of imbrication between art and pornography. What constitutes each, and who gets to decide, are the questions at the forefront of many art historians’ and American consumer’s minds. “Categories such as the erotic and the sensual play an important role as middle terms in the system-defining what can or cannot be seen, differentiating allowable and illicit representations of the female body, and categorizing respectable and nonrespectable forms of cultural consumption,” (Nead 326) in order to keep the line, unblurred and understood from all parts of society. The delineation between acceptable and unacceptable forms of the nude derives from the need for social order. Thus this difference between the two hinges on the semantics of politics and class. But what happens when someone strays outside the norm, past the point of “acceptable”? Can people be honest about their untraditional sexual desires in a society that values conformity and purity?

Owning your sexual power comes to a head within these communities that practice kink and fetish. Kink, in a sexual sense, derives from the original definition of kink meaning to twist or bend from a straight path. In this context, we can assume that kink means any form of sexual activity or fantasy that does not conform to traditional sexual behavior in relationships. Fetish, on the other hand, has a more sorted history in terms of its own etymology. The mainstays of the word, fetish, hinge on the worship of an exploited object. “Fetishism emerges as an ever-shifting memesis, an ambiguous state that demystifies and falsifies at the same time, or that reveals its own techniques of masquerade,” (Apter 14) which challenges the power play between the person and the object or person they’re objectifying.

Fetish is highly discussed in the works of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), and psychoanalytic theory derived from his writings. According to Freud, “the concept of fetishism as a redirection of heterosexual desire to object or body part… [is a] displacement explained by the fear of castration incurred by the shock of having glimpsed at the mother’s genitals” (Dietze 653) The problem with the castration theory, is that society then puts all of the power in the hands of men, and emphasis of mother and woman as object. The male view of the world then hinges on “the beauty of the woman as object… [where] she is no longer bearer of guilt, but a perfect product, whose body, stylized and fragmented… is the content of the [image] and the direct recipient of the spectators look,” (Mulvey) which does not open many doors for feminine sexuality to flourish. Kink and fetish work together to disrupt the sexual social norms of a given period.

The Man Behind the Fetish is so… Bizarre

John Willie, nee John Alexander Scott Coutts was born December 9, 1902, in Singapore, but quickly moved to Britain. With the upbringing of the upper-middle class, there are certain rules and regulations that guided how he was meant to act. Of course, these restrictions were not as harsh as those placed upon the women and girls of his class. However, he was still meant to fit into the milieu of whiteness, heteronormativity, and class-based structures that held him and his family toward the top. Willie rejected many of the social standards and “had a predilection for bondage and women’s footwear from a young age, his first contact with the fetish community appears to have occurred during a visit to Sydney, where he discovered a shoe store that had a sideline catering to those with an erotic interest in high-heeled shoes and boot.” (Pine 10) His love for the voyeuristic nature of fetish then turned into a hobby of artistry. He began creating sketches and drawings that would inspire him. “Coutts, in a large part focused upon the subject of fashion and dress as a pretext to present kink subject matter and to generate dialog,” (Pine 18) within the community, for not only circulation but also support.

“The fact that Coutts was British and had therefore been exposed to a particular visual tradition perhaps goes some distance to explain his fluency in the sexual semiotics of dress,” (Pine 11) which would help him create illustrations that were not considered pornography. Thus solidifying the idea that the delineation between pornography and art is merely semantic. His interest in eroticism and sensuality grew until he was 43, in 1945 when he decided that he wanted to start a new magazine focused on the fashion of bondage and BDSM, which catered to fetish communities.

I Read it For The Articles… Fetishistic Desires in Magazines

This magazine would go on to be called Bizarre, and the first publication was printed the following year in 1946. Willie was not only the publisher and editor of the magazine but also the illustrator and photographer behind many of the iconic images within the pages. In this magazine, Willie would go on to “champion freedom of expression and sexual tolerance and bemoaned the general state of politics and social control in midcentury America” (Pine 17) in order to disrupt the power play between societal norms and personal fantasy.  Postwar America was able to have a budding BDSM and fetishistic market due to magazines like Bizarre that “presented itself as merely a slightly saucy girly magazine dedicated to women’s fashions, fancy dress, [and] lingerie… [but ultimately] unified and codified that [fetishistic] subculture and influenced sexual styles and practices as well as the look and content of both “alternative” and popular culture and fashion.” (Pine 2) Willie would go on to be the publisher, editor, and artist of Bizarre for twenty prints of the magazine until 1956 when he sold it to R.E.B; who would have control over the publication until it fell out of print in 1959. However, Willie and his art went on to inspire many different styles of art from the “pin-up” art of Irving Klaw (1910-1966) and fetish artists like Gene Bilbrew (1923-1974) and Eric Stanton (1926-1999).

There was one problem, due to midcentury America’s disavowal of representations of sexuality, Bizarre and other magazines like it needed to follow certain rules in order to stay off the radar of censorship. Willie utilized “nuanced and doubly coded language he employed in Bizarre, he took great pains to avoid nudity, homosexuality, overt violence, or obvious depictions of things that might be read as perverse or immoral and that might rankle those parties who were capable of banning, censoring, or blocking circulation.” (Pine 15) Artists have always tried to ride the line without crossing the boundaries of scandalous topics to tantalize their audiences. “While much fetish-oriented print matter was also of sexually graphic nature and therefore “pornographic” much of it is not, functioning through innuendo and double meaning,” (Pine 8) keeping the magazine from crossing the line of unacceptable in many peoples minds. This attached to the “under the counter” nature of the magazine’s circulation lead way for a more disseminated message. (Pine 15)

Willie’s cartoonish art style was heavily influenced by “the more transgressive fin de siécle print erotica being produced in Paris, Berlin, and London,” (Pine 8) mixed with the style of fashion illustrations found in magazines such as Vogue (1892-). Although he mostly focused on erotic art and an idealized female form bound, gagged, or in another form of fetishistic fantasy within his publications, he “very rarely printed any depictions of full or even partial nudity in Bizarre, and if he did, renderings were decidedly comedic or ‘artistic’.” (Pine 18) This helped avoid the censors and conform to the idea of Bizarre as a “fashion magazine” for extreme fashions. His illusions can be seen in seam bursting corsets, high heels, thigh-high boots, leather opera gloves, lingerie and with some restraints such as a gag, blindfold, rope, or in a cage. These are all staple fashions worn by practitioners of BDSM and Bondage.

Bondage, Bondage, Bondage, Always Funny in a Rich Mans World

Bondage is just one part of the BDSM and kink communities fantasy. BDSM “represents three categories: bondage and discipline, dominance and submission, and sadism and masochism. The practice is a sexual exchange of power between consenting participants.” (Wheeler) This is a sexual practice that favors roleplay and the act of transformation and as in any act of disrobing there are “references to perceived notions of agency and change.” (Dodds 78) Within this community, there is a thought that all BDSM is about “the giving and receiving of physical or psychological pain for erotic pleasure, and its practices include “corporal punishment” activities such as spanking, caning, paddling, flogging, and whipping,…shocks (electric play) and genital piercing. However, not all activities in which pro-dommes and clients engage involve pain…Most, on the other hand, are about dominance and submission (D/S) – a term that refers to one partner assuming control while the other relinquishes his or her power. ” (Lindermann 592) Powerplay is the most important aspect of a relationship that involves BDSM.

From Lace to Leather: The Masks of BDSM (and how to be careful while in them)

Pushing the limits of sex is not the only thing that BDSM and Bondage do to create fantasy and powerplay. The fashion that surrounds the conversation helps the practitioners feel and fulfill their parts within their “playtime”. Corsets, high-heels, rope, leather, and latex are all mainstays of the community. However, those garments and materials only constrict the body, but a mask, in many different forms, given to a partner can enhance the sexual response of both practitioners. The blindfold and the gag, as seen in John Willie’s illustrations are not only meant for aesthetic purposes. The mission of the blindfold and gag is to take away at least one of the senses, most notably visual and auditory, respectively. By taking away one of the senses, the other senses become even stronger. Human touch is the most significant when having a sexual encounter, so by heightening that sensory response a person is able to derive a better sexual response. In the broader consciousness of BDSM and Bondage, pain and sensory Deprivation are mainstays of the community and they are two sides of a different coin. As described in a 1960 report done by researchers at Harvard Medical, “sensory pain characteristically accompanies an excess of stimulation, whereas the stress of sensory deprivation (lack of stimulation) and monotony (lack of change in stimulation) are associated with a dearth of stimulation.” (Petrie 80) With stimulation at the forefront of sex, there is no question as to the way power, pleasure, pain, and sex are all linked.

Regardless of the masks being used for sensory deprivation, they also have another function: to act as an entryway to transformation. Any “act of disrobing, the audience-performer interface was also marked by a distinct process of change.” (Dodds 76) Masks and veils of any kind can enhance this effect. They act as a shield of true identity. In a mask, as it is in roleplay, is a way to “put on” a new persona that is as close or separate from the wearer and practitioner as they would like. “Female masquerade in its textual and erotically challenging vacillations allows women who may feel compelled to disavow, in this case, their own desires, to locate desire differently,” (Hinton, 176) both metaphorically and physically. This can shift the way that the power play between two individuals who are participating to shift back and forth, as equally as they are comfortable with. Meaning that “the body and the self will not only be transformed by also exalted or empowered by the fetish,” (Fernbach 27) which is given light by the masks.

Gags and other BDSM masks as illustrated by John Willie

With such an intensified form of intimacy, the concept of consent and aftercare are the linchpins of a healthy BDSM relationship. Throughout the experience, “it [is] imperative that all partners feel safe and cared for, but everyone must also have a deep understanding of the other’s boundaries, comfort levels, and sexual interests” (Wheeler) and ultimately the submissive, in the dominant and submissive relationship, has the most power. They set the boundaries and the expectations that they are comfortable to consent to. This is why having a “safeword”, a word that communicates stop, redirect, or pause within the confines of sex, is so important to communicate within not only the world of BDSM but in any partner anyone has.

Consent during sexual activity is not the only conversation that needs to be continually had. After a sexual encounter is finished, there is an important step that many people forget about and that is aftercare. Aftercare can be defined as “Cuddling, Holding, Pillow-Talk, Sensual Touch, Laughter, Taking Care of Your Partners’ Physical and/or Emotional Well-Being, Discussing Things That Went Well (Giving Positive Reinforcement)”, (Atwood) in the hopes of making sure that your partner is continually safe and in a good headspace. This practice originated in the BDSM community but can help form a more intimate relationship between any partners, regardless of practices. Neglecting this step can lead to partners feeling used, unloved, unimportant, and ultimately not taking care of a submissive partner can lead to abusive use of power that should not be present in the community.

A Woman Can Have It All, Can’t She?

Within the community of BDSM and Bondage, the power of who sees and gets to see is highly important in the powerplay between individuals. Although submissives are able to have control of their experience, the in-between is dictated by the dominant. This makes for a perfect territory for women to play with power and control. “Ideologically, the hedonism central to the Playboy [and Bizarre] lifestyle would not have been possible without women free to live and love as they like,” (Pitzulo 260) meaning that women are able to choose which role they play. Women, in this sense, get to experience the ideas of power and control that are often stripped from them in a society that still does not have equality between sexes. This is supplemented by the idea that all art that Willie created depicting a couple was a female-female relationship. This not only took away the sexual politics and power dynamic that surrounds a heterosexual couple but is a way for both women and men to find their fantasy in the dominant and submissive relationship.

Willie’s artistic style then brings into question the ideologies of the male versus the female gaze. While “the gaze is used to help explain the hierarchical power relations between two or more groups, or alternatively between a group and an “object,” (Manlove 84) there is always room for troupes and stereotypes to be subverted. Bizarre did not bring light into a darker, more maligned condition of sexual behavior, it also created discourse on female sexuality. In her 1975 work, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey notes that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” (Mulvey) Due to the lack of male figures, there is no active male participant, except for the spectator. However, because they are drawings and not photographs they do not carry the same ramifications that a centerfold or pin-up would.

“Woman displayed as a sexual object is a leitmotif of erotic spectacle… she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire.” (Mulvey) However, in a post-sexual liberated society, women are allowed to take back the power that the male gaze has held over them. This is why Bizarre and Willie’s illustrations were disruptive to the sexually repressed society. They “provide[d] the matrix upon which 1950s masculinity imprints its complex and conflicting fears and desires. At the same time, the naked beauty is a symbol of rebellion against the burden and frustration of domesticity and advocates a new, less restrained sexual economy.” (Dietze 656) In this, we are lead to assume that, the male gaze can be broken because not only men felt the trepidation and ennui with domestic life- women also felt it, and needed freedom from the confines society put them in.

John Willie’s Lasting Legacy

“I think women want to be seductive; I hope they don’t turn into nuns covered up head-to-toe. There needs to be attraction between men and women; you can’t hide from that and it must exist. We just have to be careful and what’s important is the respect…I’m not going to start taking pictures of women wearing boxy clothes looking sad or harsh. No, women want to be beautiful and I want to show that.” -Ellen Von Unwerth (Alexander)

While John Willie may have been among the prominent pioneering figures in the art of fetish and female sexuality, he is certainly not the last. Ellen Von Unwerth (1954-) is a contemporary German fashion photographer that utilizes the imagery and ideologies of Willie with a feminist lens. This subverts the narrative even more. Through this, she is able to create dreamscapes of a world that are entirely made up of women in power, who also own their sexuality.The power to choose is strong in the sentiment of Unwerth’s oeuvre. She not only knows how to respect her models and their choices, but she understands them because she herself was a model. This makes a stronger push toward fetishistic desires to become more aligned with female sexuality. For so long people have thought that kink and fetish catered only to the male gaze, and to a certain extent it does, but with photographers like Unwerth- a safer space for females is opened for women to explore their desires and push their own narratives of sexuality as Willie had intended originally.

Unwerth is not the only person in popular culture that is inspired by the fetishistic imagery of the mid-century. Violet Chachki (1992-) is an American drag performer, model, burlesque dancer, and aerial acrobat who is a self-proclaimed John Willie enthusiast. Her costumes and makeup are inspired by bondage and fetish magazines but with a sense of opulence. “Her drag aesthetic is a lesson in sartorial history. Often inspired by vintage glamour, Chachki’s drag is often inspired from Dita Von Teese, with a hint of fetishism to it—bold, but detailed with an intelligent and sophisticated understanding of fashion.” (Chaudhri) With Chachki’s references to Willie’s fetishistic glamour, she opens the conversation to the queer community. Thus even broadening the ideologies of power and pleasure to more marginalized groups of people. Willie was able to open the floodgates of sexual liberation for all types of people just because he started a magazine and talked about something he liked. The story of Willie is not a grand one, but the legacy of him and his ideologies have changed the world of sexuality forever.

Masks within the community of BDSM represent much more than just a piece of fabric. They help partners embody, transform, and experience sexual pleasure and power. Like in any performance the suspension of disbelief and liminality of transformation can create out-of-body experiences only enhanced by the sensory deprivation of masks. However, it was never about the masks, it was never about the clothing- it was about owning your sexual power. In any regard, that is the most powerful thing anyone can do, as intimacy and power walk alongside each other.  Without artists and pioneers like John Willie, marginalized people who are historically excluded from conversations of sexual agency would not be able to have sex-positive notions within the discourse of sexuality.

Photographs by Von Unwerth
Thomas Mossey
Dr. Alla Myzelev 
ARTH 300: Fashion, Art and Politics  
Spring 2021


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