Today, the pressures of anonymity are intensified by the Internet and in the streets amid protests. This way of representing oneself has always been intriguing. People are drawn to stories of and by mysterious avatars to draw parallels with their own lives and try to guess. The Masked Singer is a new television competition hit. Anonymous art attracts connoisseurs and curious public. Who doesn’t know Banksy or Gorillaz? Fashion has been experimenting with depersonalizing models to bring clothes to the forefront. Now anonymity aesthetics are getting a post-coronavirus boost.
People whose faces are hidden are much more enigmatic to contemporary media consumers because there is no more surprise in a naked body. With nudity no longer a strict taboo, we are now more interested in what is underneath a personality. For the foreseeable future, we are all forced to hide from an invisible enemy using masks. Designers stepped up their mask creativity again and again. Some turned out to be visionaries preparing us for the future. French fashion wunderkind Marine Serre has been causing social media debates about her use of masks for over two years now. Even though it was originally a bid for eco-fashion inspired by her experience of pollution as a Parisian cyclist, the show touched a nerve in France. In 2011 it became the first European country to impose a ban on full-face coverings: a law often perceived as anti-Muslim. Serre designs now feature high-grade built-in ventilators and seem particularly relevant both in the context of Covid-19 and social justice, and high fashion.
Another cultural pivot worth mentioning is the increased focus on Muslim and Arab brands. The rising appeal of modest fashion is an integral part of globalization. Among the designers taking this ethos mainstream, Asiya Bareeva stands out for me. Her campaigns are shot without visible faces in order not to focus on them but on the beauty of the whole look. The designer herself rarely gives interviews and appears at public events. This type of “anonymity” has a long tradition in fashion, too. Some iconic designers preferred not to advertise their persona. Chief among them is Martin Margiela. Remember that famous Annie Leibovitz shoot for the American Vogue which featured the entire Maison team except for its mastermind?! He adopted the same principle at shows, covering the faces of models with hair, cloth, or masks.
Another admirer of Margiela, prolific designer Raf Simons has embraced anonymity in his work, too. In 2002 he released the collection titled Woe Onto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation ... The Wind Will Blow It Back. All models on the catwalk had obstructed faces and held torches. “Lost in translation” ahead of its time, it is now considered an iconic show. In 2011, as the creative director at Jil Sander, Simons added balaclavas to the fall-winter collection. Again in 2018, at the helm of Calvin Klein, the designer re-introduced them again. It seems the mass consumer is catching up with this trend now. Over at Gucci, Alessandro Michele also has repeatedly covered the faces of his models suggesting a parallel between the work of a plastic surgeon and a fashion designer. Both can change a person beyond recognition.
Anonymity is vital to a successful mass protest. A few years before the balaclavas went full fashion, Russian feminist group Pussy Riot made them their signature look during bold political performances. It was part of their anti-establishment aesthetic. The fans and followers of the group wore the same bright coverings as a sign of support during their much-publicized court battles. Since 2018, Pussy Riot also makes “activist clothing” and part of the proceeds go to fight for freedom of speech and the independent Russian media. Another example is the sensational success of The Handmaid's Tale. The wide-brimmed “wing” hats worn by fertile women characters in the series has become one of the most recognizable statements in the MeToo and other protest movements focused on gender equality.
However, simple masks cannot always protect a person from tracking, which is important both in fictional dystopia and in the modern world with its ubiquitous security cameras and electronic surveillance. South Korean brand 99% is changing that. The Seoul-based designer appears in a complex mask and does not invite photographers to his fashion shows. Riot and resistance are the brand’s punk DNA. "Only cover the face, not the faith." In fact, Korean brands are at the forefront of this idea: Juun.J, Post Archive Faction, JOEGUSH, and others. Given the global influence of K-pop and K-beauty, the future of anonymity in fashion is here.
In many Asian countries, wearing a basic mask is a sanitary habit already. The rest of the world is discovering the opportunity not to regard it as a limitation, but a chance to show individuality, to add mystery and to complete summer outfits with flair. It is possible that when the coronavirus pandemic retreats, the appreciation for the anonymity aesthetics and the demand for such fashion products will stay. Who would you like to be?
About the Author: Stephan Rabimov, Editor-at-Large.
Stephan Rabimov is an award-winning American journalist and fashion critic.
Images: Courtesy of Depesha