Face Off: The Provocation and Possibilities of Masks and Head Coverings

13 – 14 January 2021

Face Off: The Provocation and Possibilities of Masks and Head Coverings

An free online symposium hosted by the Manchester Fashion Institute to explore the agency of face masks and head coverings across different chronologies, cultures and geographies. We are in discussion with Palgrave about an edited volume based on symposium papers, to be published by 2021/22.

Online 13/14 January 2021

Open to all, you can participate by submitting an abstract (200 words) and bibliography (100 words) for a 20-minute talk or practice-based demonstration/discussion to Dr Benjamin Wild (b.wild@mmu.ac.uk) by Friday 20 November 2020.

Face masks and head coverings are worn on the most uppermost part of the human body. Partially or wholly, they conceal it. At once, they can obfuscate or exaggerate conventional means of personal expression. Consequently, these objects have a decisive role in shaping people’s identities and group interactions, and responses to them. Whether for reasons of Health and Safety, faith, crime, or merriment, face masks and head coverings are frequently mentioned in news reports, and often become sites of cultural controversy; for example, in 2018 Boris Johnson, then UK Foreign Minister, remarked that Muslim women wearing burkas “look like letter boxes”. Face masks and head coverings are inherently disruptive. Worn for prosaic or more overtly performative reasons, they demand attention.

And yet, before the Coronavirus pandemic face masks and head coverings are unlikely to have occupied the thoughts of (western) people for long. Required workwear, props in live performance, static objects in public displays, or forming part of the disguise of much-loved fictional characters, they were disposable and enigmatic objects, triggering mixed and momentary reactions: confusion, delight, unease, wonder. This response is reflected in academic discussions that have tended to focus on the ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘where’ of face masks and head coverings, at the expense of the ‘why’. Notable exceptions include ethnographical studies of African cultures, where face masks and head coverings retain a popular and prominent role in contemporary societies; South Asian culture, where the wearing of face coverings is normalised, and discussions of the shifting roles and meanings of women’s faith-based head coverings.

The Coronavirus pandemic has made all people engage with face masks and head coverings as never before. As objects that offer physical protection; complicate personal expression; contrast cultural traditions; provide employment and earnings; facilitate crime; raise a smile, face masks and head coverings have become the preeminent symbol of this global emergency. Singularly, they reflect how the pandemic is making people question their self- civic and social-identities, and relations.

Acknowledging the physical and psychological importance that face masks and head coverings now hold for many people around the world, this online symposium will place these objects front and centre to explore their role in shaping individual and group identities across different chronologies, cultures and geographies with a view to identifying new research avenues and appropriate methodologies.

All contributions will focus on face masks and head coverings, but across different contexts – chronologically, culturally, geographically – that can include, but are not limited, to:


links to generational attitudes and behaviours


links to social justice, civic- and community-minded thought and behaviour


links to fancy dress costume and live performance


links to ethnographic comparisons and contrasts between different peoples


links to conservation and presentation in public collections


links to narrative framing, character development and dramatic topoi


links to gendered attitudes and behaviours


links to design, creation and utility


links to humour, the galvanising and/or subversive role of ludic behaviour


links to the ‘affectiveness’ of clothing on wearers and audiences


links to questions of upcycling and repurposing