A 1960 Parisian Epiphany party was the scene of momentary embarrassment for the Duke of Windsor. The only monarch to voluntarily abdicate the English throne, the Duke looked pained as the moment of coronation approached for two of the bon ton revellers. Apparently oblivious to her husband’s anxiety, Duchess Wallis Simpson was acutely aware of the significance of the toy regalia; when a sequinned crown was placed upon her head, she rasped the lines of Shakespeare’s insomniac monarch, Henry IV: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.’[i]
This vignette from the diaries of Cecil Beaton reveals much about the sociological and sartorial importance of the head, not to mention the scale of the constitutional headache created by Edward VIII’s heartache. Uniquely prominent as the highest point of the human body and the receptacle of the brain, the head has long been signalled out for special treatment, for good and ill, in pleasure and in pain.[ii] With horns and haloes the head has provided the clearest means of distinguishing the damned from the divine, literally and figuratively. The same is true today, although the signifiers of good and evil are more likely to be corporate brands emblazoned across a baseball cap or embroidered on a beanie, than ossified outgrows or ethereal illuminations.
In many cultures figures of authority, from royalty to warriors, have worn distinctive head coverings to designate their singular status. For people possessing an ego disproportionate to their lesser social standing, milliners have long provided a suitable solution in the form of hats that can be as high and wide as their wearer’s improbable ambition. It is no coincidence that millinery commissions increased after the economic downturn, as people wanted to boost their confidence by enhancing their (head’s) physical size.[iii] And what holds for the lofty is also true of the low. Felons, guilty of the most heinous of crimes, were often sentenced to death by beheading, with their decapitated heads prominently displayed to deter other ne’er-do-wells (think, Game of Thrones). Certain Christian communities beheaded the bodies of suicide victims to condemn those who had renounced God’s gift of life (think, Kingdom of Heaven). Earlier this year, sectarian violence culminated in the beheading of Syrian Christians.
The Cover Story
But for all of the effort that goes into garnishing the head, human communities across the world and throughout time have probably spent more time covering it up. So vital is the head, for what it contains as much as for what it conveys through the eyes, mouth and hair (facial and cranial), that people have felt the need to conceal it; an act that makes the physical and symbolic significance of the head all the greater. One reason for concealing the head is protection, whether from bad weather and putrid smells, or from society more generally, as a mask makes its wearer anonymous through the obfuscation of their identity (think, any Marvel or DC Comics film). In pre-modern societies, Christoph Heyl has shown how masks could be a form of punishment, torturing and exposing the guilty through the metal contraption they wore (think, Man in the Iron Mask).[iv] The fact that head coverings can simultaneously hide and highlight a person’s identity means they have also been worn for pleasure. ‘By means of deliberately obscuring one’s own identity, relatively unrestrained and even new forms of social interaction [can] become possible,’ particularly in parks and theatres, ‘where unacceptable forms of behaviour were regarded as legitimate’ (think, Eyes Wide Shut).[v] The enduring appeal of the masquerade is undoubtedly linked to the enjoyment that people derive from being able to adopt a different persona when their head is partially or totally concealed.
Couturiers are increasingly cognisant of the sartorial potential of the head, or rather, are probably following in the irreverent and iconoclastic footsteps of Lee Alexander McQueen, whose sensuous severity engendered garments in which the head was frequently covered in a fencing-style mask.[vi] It is difficult to determine the significance of McQueen’s head coverings, which featured prominently in many of his collections between Spring/Summer 1995 and Autumn/Winter 2009. Sarah Burton’s current Autumn/Winter collection for Alexander McQueen, influenced by the ecclesiastical wardrobe, has continued to conjure with this sartorial topos, with the fence-style mask reincarnated in its most bejewelled form yet. Throughout his career, McQueen was intrigued by various themes that would give his head covering symbolic importance, not least death and consumerism. He was also keen to ensure that the women he dressed became ‘frightening subject[s]’, rather than ‘objects of fear’.[vii]
When you see a woman wearing McQueen, there’s a certain hardness to the clothes that makes her look powerful. It kind of fends people off.
It’s almost like putting armour on a woman. It’s a very psychological way of dressing.[viii]
The incorporation of elaborate head coverings in collctions from designers as diverse as Givenchy, Thom Browne and Gareth Pugh suggests there are general reasons for this sartorial headwind, even if McQueen’s sartorial shadow looms large.[ix]
The interest in headwear chimes with couturiers’ recent reverly in the past. Hats and face coverings were once ubiquitous and had an important role in definining people’s social position and gender, particularly in the West. The material, colour and shape of headwear, which could often be outlandish and commensurately expensive, helped to place people within social and gendered tiers. Today, the use of historic motifs to revitalise homogeneous garments is part of a wider move by consumers and couturiers to pursue individuality through acccessoring. The return of an accessory as significant as the hat would therefore be a boon to all. The hat’s association with rank and gender may also be important, and potentially reassuring, in light of the social upheaveals wrought by the economic downturn and the continued questions about the role of Man. Wearing a hat can suggest disposable income, sartorial boldness and confidence in one’s social position and gender.[x]
We could speculate at length how Lee Alexander McQueen would have responded to designers’ widespread use of headwear. It is likely that he would approve Burton’s subtle reinterpretation of his ‘fencing mask’ with pearls and embroidery in the current collection, but I wonder if he would have gone further, along the lines of Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God’?[xi] What is certain is that McQueen would have continued to reference the sociological and sartorial significance of the head in a style unimaginable to many and inimitable by all.
[i] H. Vickers, Cecil Beaton: The Authorised Biography (London, 1985), 452.
[ii] C. McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why We Dress The Way We Do (London, 2013), 52-57.
[iii] L. Foreman, ‘Head Lines’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (Saturday/Sunday, 16/17 February 2013), 4.
[iv] C. Heyl, ‘When They Are Veyl’d on Purpose to be Seene: The Metamorphosis of the Mask in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century London’, Body Dressing, ed. J. Entwistle & E. Wilson (Oxford, 2001), 122-23.
[v] Ibid., 121.
[vi] K. Knox, Alexander McQueen: Genius Of A Generation (London, 2010), 21.
[vii] C. Evans, ‘Desire and Dread: Alexander McQueen and the Contemporary Femme Fatale’, Body Dressing, 206.
[viii] A. Bolton, Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2011), 60.
[ix] Trends/Forecasts: The Headwear Issue. http://www.fashion156.com/issues/the-headwear-issue/trends/forecast-2/forecast-concealment/. Accessed: 17 August 2013.
[xi] T. Sutcliffe, ‘For the Love of God: A £50m work of art’, The Independent (Saturday, 2 June 2007), 1-2; D. Hirst, For the Love of God: The Making of The Diamond Skull (London, 2007); ‘Hirst’s Red Nose skullduggery’, Evening Standard (Friday, 22 February 2013).