Browsing through the White House’s photography archives provides a fascinating insight into President Barack Obama’s use of clothes, both on and off his body. In particular, images depicting Obama in the Oval office show the president in his home territory, … Continue reading
Visitors to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum are faced with a collection of shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz after their former owners’ were sent to their deaths (pictured above). The collection functions in part like permanent cemeteries “where … Continue reading
Guest post by Enrica Picarelli Last January, Guinness released an advertisement and a short film featuring a group of Congolese dandies called sapeurs. The campaign was shot in an unspecified South African location to document a day in the life of … Continue reading
I recently attended the Subverting Fashion conference at St. Mary’s University, and saw a brilliant and entertaining range of papers that will inform my posts for the rest of the summer. I will start with Yvonne Augustin’s discussion of clown costume, with particular emphasis … Continue reading
The pursuit of cool is one of the driving forces of fashion culture. Cool has become ‘the highest value in modern society, shaping consumption, politics and parenting’ . Cool cannot be learned. It is instinctive, even innate for some, but … Continue reading
In a recent TVAD seminar, Daniel Marques Sampaoi observed how “the body opposes power” . Although Man has developed war-machines that surpass the abilities of the human body, there is a perceived political and emotional strength in the presence of … Continue reading
Earlier this year, the FSB expelled an America diplomat on the grounds that he was spying for the CIA. Listed the alleged spy’s suspicious possessions including, rather cryptically, “means of altering appearance”. It was later revealed that this disguise kit contained a variety of wigs and sunglasses. These paraphernalia were so ill-fitting that they belonged in a comedy performance, but they provoked some serious debate.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, former CIA operative, Robert Baer, admitted that although wigs are “not common practice”, he and his colleagues had worn thick-rimmed glasses and stick-on moustaches to break up facial contours. The aim of these disguises was to make people remember “something other than the face”. The face is the focus of disguise for criminals as well as spies. With varying success, criminals mask their faces with tools ranging from typical balaclavas, to adventurous prosthetics, and ludicrous marker-pen camouflage. One of the most commonly depicted burglar’s disguises is a makeshift mask of a stocking pulled over the head, which succeeds in distorting (rather than concealing) the wearer’s features.
Identity and the Face
The face is the key in visual identification, and is a sign of self. Numerous cultural practices of representation reveal that ‘humans predominantly recognize and differentiate others by the face’. Images of the face have historically been, and continue to be, a common method of distinguishing one individual from another, and proof of individual identity. When state organisations and institutions first began to keep photographic records of populations (as when immigration services first issued passports) ‘the face… was deemed sufficiently indicative of the person’s likeness to serve as its overt sign; thus, the rest of the body could be omitted’. Along with criminal photofits, photo IDs and driving licences, these documents helped to establish national and international databases of faces. These, combined with the ubiquity of CCTV and camera phones, have greatly increased the chances of an individual being facially recognised if he or she commits an illegal or remarkable act.
As photographic images because more widespread, and the risk of recognition increased, facial disguise became more necessary. In order to reduce the effectiveness of facial disguises, authorities may produce impressions of wanted men in a variety of possible disguises. In 1944, the U.S. Office of Strategic Services manipulated photographs of Adolf Hitler, to prepare for the possibility that he may adopt a disguise. In these images, Hitler was depicted with glasses, a false beard, false hairline, and a number of other facial obstructions or distortions that would have made him less recognisable. The images had the effect of focusing viewer’s attention on the less distinct features of Hitler’s face. With the moustache and hairline concealed, viewers were forced to concentrate on the subject’s eyes, eyebrows, and nose, and hence to become familiar with these features. Repeat viewing would train viewers to associate these features with Hitler, and so be more prepared to easily identify him should he adopt almost any disguise.
In representation and in reality, the face is commonly seen as a sign not only of identity but also of personality. Physiognomy – the belief, originally derived from Aristotle and presented much later as a science by J. C. Lavater and others – that one’s character is presented in the appearance of the face, or ‘the corresponding analogy between the conformation of the features and the ruling passions of the mind’. The face is also an expressive site for our emotions and intentions. It transmits a language of social signals. It is our most expressive body part, and it is possible to read someone’s intentions and motivations through facial expression. It is for this reason that many portraits are expressive, attempting to capture the ‘character’ of the subject, and in particular why criminals may be depicted with a scowl.
Given that a person’s identity, character and intentions are apparently so bound up in the face, it is reasonable for the face to be the cornerstone of disguise. A mask, or any disguise that conceals the face, also in turn conceals identity and intentions.
Masks as Disguises
Anthropological studies suggest that the mask may represent two different approaches to identity. The first ‘assumes the authenticity of the self’. In such cases, the mask is a lie, concealing the true identity of the wearer. The second approach proposes that the mask presents an aspect of the self. To some extent, ‘the mask reveals the identity’. Identity is complex, and the mask is an ‘authentic manifestation’ of a part of that complex whole .
The criminal’s mask may fall into either of these two categories. It may allow the wearer to escape from his own moral values, or to embrace a criminal part of himself that is otherwise repressed. In the first, the mask provides a ‘shield from one’s own morality’. Chad Engelland observes how, ‘by concealing the face, the mask establishes a character who speaks with words of his own’. The mask thus removes responsibility from the wearer for the things he says and does. It removes the connection between an individual and his/her crimes, and hence provides an opportunity to distance him/herself from actions that might otherwise provoke feelings of guilt or fear. The mask becomes a vital tool in de-individuation, by ‘removing personal identification’ and consequently also removing ‘personal responsibility’. The mask is used for similar purposes elsewhere, in less sinister scenarios. In the notorious masquerade balls of the eighteenth century, the mask enabled escape from moral integrity. For children in Halloween costume, it absolves them of responsibility for their acts of vandalism.
Conversely, the mask may reveal the true nature of the wearer, allowing him or her to release the criminal tendencies that are ordinarily repressed. Like all dress, which is a ‘vehicle that announces one’s identity to others’, the mask focuses attention on one aspect of his personality. Rather than deny the identity of the wearer, the mask emphasizes his/her potential for criminality or immorality. That ‘authentic’ aspect of self is brought to the fore through the characteristics of the mask.
Incomplete Identities – The problem with Masks
The problem with the anonymity provided by masks is that it provokes curiosity. The mask is ‘known to have no inside’. It is this sense of an incomplete identity that drives audiences to seek out the secret alternative identity hidden underneath a reductionist or obvious mask, such as a balaclava. The observer knows that the mask is only a surface decoration; superficial, and not representative of a complete identity, which ‘invit[es] the audience to peer behind the mask’. The mask inevitably creates the impression that there is more to be discovered, and encourages the urge to solve that mystery.
The anonymous mask also unsettles observers, provoking an instinctive ‘fear reaction’. Tthis fear is prompted by the concealment of facial expressions, making it impossible to read the wearer’s intentions and hence ‘to predict the behaviour of the masked man or woman’. The ‘inability to predict makes us feel insecure… because we assume – often with good reason – that the masked person is disguised for nefarious purposes’. This fear ‘sharpens scrutiny’, ensuring that the wearer will attract more unwanted attention than if he or she had committed his crime unmasked.
Furthermore, the mere act of wearing an obvious mask may itself be considered morally questionable, as it is a deception of sorts. The ‘mask has come to connote something disingenuous, something false’. The mask is, ultimately, a lie. The word ‘mask’ ‘suggest[s] concealment or deceit, either of the face or person, or of emotions or intentions’. As a disguise, worn with the aim of providing anonymity to the wearer, the mask suggests a ‘sinister dimension’. ‘From medieval times onward, the prevalent interpretation of the mask focuses on its role as an evil disguise’. It has historically been believed that, in masquerade, ‘we… act disingenuously’ and in doing so ‘risk identification with the devil’. An anonymous mask therefore has the potential not only to attract unwanted attention, but also to mark the wearer out as a villain.
The Advantages of Pseudonomy over Anonymity
While many criminals seek to anonymise themselves through disguise, others turn to prosthesis to supplement one identity for another. In October 2010, an unnamed Hong Kong man illegally boarded a flight to Vancouver, wearing a prosthetic mask and carrying the passport of a 55-year old American (see fig. 3). The disguise was so convincing that the man’s true identity was only revealed when he emerged from the on-board toilet apparently 30-years younger. In the same year, a prosthetic mask was worn by a serial robber in Cincinnati, and was so effective as a disguise that police arrested a suspect who looked like the mask rather than the man who wore it. The so called, ‘Geezer Bandit’ who has robbed sixteen banks in California since 2009 was originally thought to be an elderly man. One of the FBI’s recent line of enquiries proposes that the culprit may be a much younger man or woman, wearing a silicone mask designed by SPFX, a Hollywood prosthetics company.
Unlike an obvious mask such as a balaclava, which provides anonymity to the wearer, prosthetics seem to present a genuine and complete identity. By substituting one (genuine) identity for another (false) identity, they are not easily read as disguises. Robert Barron, who spent more than 30 years as a ‘disguise specialist’ for the CIA, operated with the knowledge that the ‘lives [of CIA officers] were in jeopardy if the disguise attracted attention’. Key to its effectiveness was that the disguise did not give itself away as such. The disguise must be a simulacrum. It must reliably resemble a real face, not a mask. It must apparently present an identity that is so complete that no questions are left unanswered in its appearance.
If such a disguise is associated with a complete identity, that identity can be sustained indefinitely. It is not necessarily a quick fix for a single crime, rather a complete alternative identity and a lifestyle to match. In such incidences of sustained disguise, the second identity becomes a performance that extends beyond the mask. ‘Layers and systems of secrecy’ are constructed and performed to supplement the visual disguise. Pseudonymous disguises therefore require more than just a mask; they require additional props and performance.
Whether a mask provides anonymity or pseudonymity is not necessarily dependent on the properties of the mask itself, rather the context. A mask that is initially effective in establishing an apparently complete alternative identity may suddenly shift in its meaning when an observer identifies it as a mask. In the case of the ‘Geezer Bandit’ a silicone mask provided an alternative identity only until the FBI posed the suggestion that there may be a younger culprit hidden underneath. After this suggestion there was a significant increase in media attention as the case was elevated from crime to mystery.
As it conceals or distorts the face, a mask may be effective at concealing the wearer’s identity. Though the mask is effective at concealing identity, it also draws attention to the wearer, and arouses suspicion over his intentions. The anonymity granted by abstracted, concealed or distorted identity invites unwanted scrutiny from observers. A mask which behaves as a pseudonym, creating a complete but false alternative identity, provides the safety of concealment without inviting questions about what or who is hidden underneath.
This is an abridged version of a paper that I will be presenting at CULTHIST’13 in Istanbul, 23-25 October 2013. The full paper is entitled “‘Anything but the face’: The mask as strength and vulnerability in disguise and identity deception”, and will be available (in text and video) after the conference.
 Today, BBC Radio 4, 15 May 2013.
 ‘Burqa gang stole watches worth £1m from Selfridges,’ The Guardian [online], 8 June 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2013/jun/08/burqa-gang-watches-selfridges
 Kövecses, Z., and Koller, B., 2006. Language, Mind, And Culture: A Practical Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 10.
 Brilliant, R., 1991. Portraiture. London: Reaction Books, p.41.
 Lavater, J. C., 1826 . Physiognomy; or The Corresponding Analogy Between the Conformation of the Features and the Ruling passions of the Mind. London: T. Tegg.
 Tseelon, E., 2001. Reflections of Mask and Carnival. In: Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality and Marginality, London: Routledge, p. 25.
 South, J.B., 2005. Barbara Gordon and Moral Perfectionism. In T. Morris, and M. Morris eds. Superheroes and Philosophy. Peru, IL: Carus, p. 148
 Op Cit. .
 Davies, C., 2001. Stigma, uncertain identity and skill in disguise. In: E. Tseëlon, ed., Masquerade and Identities: Essays on Gender, Sexuality, and Marginality. London: Routledge, p.31.
 Engelland, C., 2010. Unmasking the Person. International Philosophical Quarterly 50(4), p.447.
 Op Cit. 
 Castle, T., 1986. Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction. London: Methuen, p.2.
 Miller, K., Jasper, C. R., and Hill, D. R., 1991. Costume and the Perception of Identity and Role. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 72(3), p.808.
 Jones, 1971 cited in Napier, A. D., 1986. Masks, Transformation, and Paradox. Berkley: University of California Press, p.9.
 MacInaugh, E. A., 1984. Disguise Techniques: Fool All of the People Some of the Time. Boulder, Colorado: Paladin, p. 26.
 Napier, A. D., 1986. Masks, Transformation, and Paradox. Berkley: University of California Press, p.xxiii.
 Wilsher, T., 2007. The Mask Handbook, Oxon: Routledge, p. 12.
 Napier, A. D., 1986. Masks, Transformation, and Paradox. Berkley: University of California Press, pp. 9, 15.
 CIA, 2008. The People of the CIA: Robert Barron. Central Intelligence Agency.
Lash, M., 2013. Brilliant Disguise: Masks and Other Transformations, Contemporary Arts Centre New Orleans.
Hair is both body and adornment. It’s natural presence makes it part of us, but in styling we treat it as equivalent to fashion. Hair is styled so that it has the same expressive potential as clothes (and even unstyled hair makes a statement). Some translations of the Bible describe hair as a “natural garment”. Ruth Barcan observes that hair exists in a “borderline category between flesh and clothing”, and argues that it is this difficulty of classification that makes us feel uneasy about hairy bodies. Barcan’s research shows that many women do not consider themselves fully naked until they have removed all of their unwanted hair.
The German word for pubic hair – schamhaar – translates into English as ‘shame-hair’, implying either that this hair is used to hide shameful body parts, or that the hair itself is shameful. This notion that pubic hair is considered shameful has been fostered by the laws of numerous countries, including Australia and Japan. Until 1982, Australian naturist magazines were obliged to airbrush pubic hair from their photographs. Until the 1990s, Japan’s obscenity laws banned the depiction of pubic hair with the unexpected side-effect of making the women in adult manga comics look like pre-pubescent girls .
When dealing with hair, there are contradictory rules for different parts of the body. Shaved underarms and long luxurious hair on the head conform to contemporary ideals of beauty and civility, but hairy underarms and a shaved head imply rebellious tendencies. Koppelman proposes that a shaved female head may be perceived as rebellious or threatening because female baldness is usually a sign of illness, or, historically, punishment. From the thirteenth to sixteenth century, head shaving was one of many punishments for adultery. At the end of WW2, French women had their heads shaved in punishment for conspiring with Nazis. More recently, a Japanese pop star who had spent a night with her boyfriend instead of rehearsing with the band, appeared on YouTube having shaved her head as an act of contrition. In her home country, criminals routinely have their heads shaved upon entering prison.
Advertisements highlight the constant battle that we seem to have with our hair. We seem afraid of an inability to control it. Bad hair days, or unwanted stubble, are a beauty nightmare. Whether it is styled or removed, there is an expectation that all hair is subject to some sort of control. Uncontrolled hair – grown when it should be shaved, tangled when it should be tamed – is the biggest hair taboo.
 See Barcan, Ruth, Nudity: A Cultural Anatomy, (Oxford: Berg, 2004),74.
 Ibid. 30.
 Ibid. 26.
 Schodt, Frederik L., Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga, (Stone Bridge Press, 1996), 54-55.
 Koppelman, as cited in Doan, 9.
 Virgili, Fabrice, Shorn Women: Gender and Punishment in Liberation France, (Oxford: Berg, 2002), 182.
 human Rights Watch, ‘Prison Conditions in Japan’, 12.
French conspirator: http://historicalside.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/a-french-woman-has-her-head-shaved-as.html#.UYYRro73C_E
On a deserted beach in New Zealand, I encountered a pair of shoes abandoned in the sand. The shoes were neatly arranged, as if left temporally by a swimmer who expected to collect them on his return, and yet there was no-one else in sight (neither on the beach, nor in the sea).
Abandoned clothes on beaches have connotations of suicide – real and fake. Labour minister John Stonehouse faked his death in 1974 by leaving a pile of clothes on Miami Beach. In the British TV series The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin, Reggie fakes suicide by leaving his clothes and personal effects on Brighton Beach. This scene of “psudocide” has been recreated so many times that “the British refer to it as doing a Reggie Perrin”.
Abandoned clothes attract attention because we know they are not supposed to be there. More precisely, they are not supposed to be alone. Clothes in a public space are meant to be attached to a body. What is notable, therefore, is not the clothes themselves, but the absence of a human form inside them.
The strength of this message comes across in numerous photos of the piles of clothes and shoes that were left behind at Auschwitz and Dachau. The piles of thousands of garments give us a sense of the thousands of victims who once owned them. These empty garments speak of the non-existence of people to wear them. Each pair of shoes represents a life lost.
These clothes take on additional significance because of their worn appearance. The dirt and tears are evidence of the conditions suffered by the wearers before they died. “Not only do these traces evoke the bodies of the people that are now absent, but the wear and tear of abandoned clothes and objects furthermore stir an empathetic flow between the body in the present and the body that is absent”.
In other contexts, abandoned clothes can have send less somber messages. Shoe tossing is a phenomena encountered in many urban environments, in which people tie their shoelaces together and toss them over a power-line or branch. The shoes are abandoned, out of reach, leaving evidence of the individual wearer’s presence in a shared public space. Abandoned shoes on power-lines are a kind of collaborative street art, perhaps equivalent to the palimpsests of graffiti that develop as numerous graffiti artists layer their work on top of each other over many years.
Matthew Smith observes that tossed shoe can sometimes “signify the physical boundaries of gang territory”. Elsewhere too, abandon clothes can be a temporary territorial mark. On cinema seats and restaurant chairs, coats are placeholders. There is an unwritten code, telling us that an empty seat is not really empty if there is a coat draped across it. In this environment, the coat prevents seating disputes. The same territorial behaviour occurs with tourists’ towels on sunbeds beside hotel pools.
Clothes are so regularly abandoned that various businesses have abandoned clothes policies. In most cases, there is a sense that ownership matters: the clothes are assumed to be lost or forgotten rather than discarded as trash. Efforts are made to reunite the clothes and their wearers, like reuniting two halves of a whole.
Though motives for abandoning clothes vary significantly, there is always “personal or cultural meaning” in a garment left behind. An abandoned garment sends a message, not least because we know that the wearer may now be wandering the streets partially naked. Almost always, abandoned clothes will provoke us to ask why. Were these clothes forgotten or left intentionally? If they are left intentionally, what message was intended? What has happened to the unclothed body of the person who left them behind?
 BBC [online], ‘Pseudocide: Doing a Reggie Perrin’ (14 February 2000),
 Bille, Mikkel, Hastrup, Frida, and Sorensen, Tim Flohr, An Anthropology of Absence, (London: Springer, 2010), 12-13.
 Smith, Matthew Ryan, ‘The Mysterious Phenomenon of shoe tossing and shoe posting,’ The Silo (2 April, 2013).