If the catwalk collections for Autumn/Winter 2018 truly herald next season’s styles, we are all likely to be wearing face masks or head coverings come Christmas. In a series of shows, from Erdem and Richard Quinn, to Standish KA WA KEY, designers conjured with clothing as a form of disguise and camouflage to a degree that I have not noticed in recent years. Working on a book about the history of fancy dress costume, this theme immediately stood out and made me think: what is it about the mask that makes it seem so relevant and appropriate right now?
Much of the immediate commentary on the catwalk collections for Autumn/Winter 2018 focused on the apparent conservatism of the designers’ creativity. A convenient explanation for the (relative) lack of exuberance and joie de vivre was the pervasive feeling of ennui that we all seem to feel, as reports on conservation, humanitarian, economic and political crisis recur throughout global news cycles. In some cases, designers acknowledged the malaise and angst as a creative spur for their sartorial outlook. In his last show for Burberry, Christopher Bailey focused on ‘Time’ and heterogeneity, endeavouring to celebrate ‘a patchwork of characters and identities’. Hussein Chalayan’s menswear collection was titled ‘Périphérique’, after the highway that surrounds Paris, and focused on ‘the tensions that ensue from unintegrated immigration’.
Acknowledged or not, a sense of menace and unease seemed to darken the message of many of next season’s collections, and I think this goes a long way to explain models’ covered, or at least partly concealed, heads and faces.
The mask probably has as many meanings as it does permutations. In some cultures, masks can be transformative and change the essence of its wearer, temporarily rendering them divine. In other cultures, the mask provides its wearer with a ‘breathing space’ as they seek some form of privacy in a crowded urban environment. For many people, the mask is better known as a facilitator of fun and mischief, as it (partially) conceives its wearer and consequently permits them to break or bend accepted norms of behaviour.
The literature on the form and role of face masks and head coverings is necessarily extensive because most of the world’s cultures incorporate elements of facial concealment in their rituals and festivities, and have done from an early stage in their development. Red deer skulls, for example, carved into a human face mask, have been found in England and date from the Mesolithic period, between c.10000 and 5000 BCE (below, from Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology). Today, the most visually striking examples of face masks (for a western audience, at least) probably come from West Africa, and here the scholarly literature is particularly rich. But as Alison Kinney has shown in hood, the wearing of masks and appearance-altering headwear by groups as diverse as the Ku Klux Klan and teenagers, who conceal their identity beneath hoodies, is no less arresting in the west.
The wearing of masks – however diverse the design and context – has (at least) one common element. Across cultures, chronology and geography, masks and head coverings are typically worn during a period of that anthropologist Victor Turner would call liminal, a ‘betwixt and between’ stage when conventional patterns of human behaviour and interaction are partially suspended and possibly inversed. The donning of mask or head covering – whether worn as part of a public ceremony, or worn to scare people who are not welcome within a community, or worn to escape the pressures of one’s life for the duration of a party – commences a period of time that allows the wearer a physical and psychological space to (re)affirm or repudiate their place and role within the community.
The idea of social and political dislocation that came to be associated with the mask made it a problematic item of dress for governments and law enforcement agencies around the world. Not surprisingly, therefore, law codes from the Middle Ages to modernity frequently prohibit the wearing of ‘visors’ or ‘disguises’. In researching my book, I learned that it is against the law to wear face masks in New Orleans beyond Mardi Gras today. Consequently, I am inclined to suggest that we have become socialised to associate the wearing of a mask with times of unease and uncertainty. This, I think, explains why it appeared, talisman-like, in a number of catwalk collections earlier this year.
The connection between societal angst and aberrant and innovative fashion is, of course, not straightforward. For example, the conventionally-held view that Christian Dior’s A-line skirt of 1947 did constitute a ‘New Look’ after the Second World War is now downplayed. The silhouette of the couturier’s designs may have been more accomplished and strident than that of his peers, but he was nonetheless indebted to them for inspiration; in this sense, Dior was more ‘in step’ with contemporary designs than an outright trendsetter. Nevertheless, a number of scholars, including Francesca Granata, Adam Geczy and Viki Karaminas and Therèsa M. Winge, are increasingly inclined to view the conception, creation and consumption of (contemporary) clothing and dress accessories as a form of (critical) commentary on society and politics. Cognisant of the period in which designers, buyers, makers and models are living, these authors are more inclined to acknowledge the likelihood that incongruent forms of dress and appearance reflect social traumas or crises; Whinge, for example, argues that the ‘grotesque imagery and bodies-out-of-bounds’ aesthetic that was evident in the fashions of the 1980s was ‘influenced by feminism’s desire to open up and question gender and bodily norms … It was also tied to the AIDS epidemic.’ She suggests that ‘Experimental fashion often mediated the fears of contagion and the obsessive moral policing of bodily borders that characterised the 1980s and part of the 1990s and cannot be read separately from the powerful discourses of contagion, bodies and health surrounding the AIDS crisis’.
In a similar vein, I think the prevalence of facial masks and headwear in the Autumn/Winter 2018 catwalk collections is a response to an ill-defined but ever-present feeling of unease. The incorporation of elements of disguise in contemporary fashions is not new, so what we are witnessing is perhaps more a difference of degree than kind. I am also not inferring that all designers to feature head coverings are, or were, fully cognisant of the mask’s myriad meanings. As Anne Hollander, among others, has indicated before, this is most likely an example of the ‘zeitgeisty’ nature of fashion; its ability to convey and articulate ideas that a majority perceive, deeply but dimly. The face mask, because of it polyvalence, is perhaps an ideal fit for designers when society’s messages become muddled.
 I wrote about this theme in relation to Vivienne Westwood’s A/W 2013 collection. See, Benjamin Wild, ‘Draped in the Past’, History Today, 63:9 (September 2013), 4-5.
 Dušan Borić et al., ‘The limits of the body’, The Body In History: Europe from the Palaeolithic to the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 37 (fig. 11).
 For example, I Am Not Myself: The Art of African Masquerade, ed. Herbert M. Cole (Los Angeles: Museum of Cultural History, University of California, 1985); John W. Nunley, Moving With The Face of The Devil (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Phyllis Galembo, Maske (New York: Aperture, 2016).
 Alison, Kinney, hood (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).
 For an introduction to Turner’s work, see The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New Brunswick and London: Aldine Transaction , 2008); idem, The Anthropology of Performance (New York: PAJ Publications, 1987).
 For example, Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 11-12, 26
 Francesca Granata, Experimental Fashion: Performance Art, Carnival and the Grotesque Body (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017); Adam Geczy and Viki Karaminas, Critical Fashion Practice: From Westwood to Beirendonck (London: Bloomsbury, 2017); Therèsa M. Winge, Body Style (London: Berg, 2012).
 Whinge, Body Style, 2.