‘Anything but the face’: The mask as strength and vulnerability in disguise and identity deception

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


In May 2013, the FSB expelled an American diplomat on the grounds that he was spying for the CIA. Listed among the alleged spy’s suspicious possessions were ‘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 seemed to belong in a comedy performance, but they provoked some serious debate. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, former CIA operative, Robert Baer, described the thick-rimmed glasses and stick-on moustaches that he and his colleagues had worn to break up facial contours. The aim of these disguises was to make people remember ‘something other than the face’.

An individual’s identity is bound up in his or face more so than any other body part. Passport photographs, portraits, and other images related to personal identity, tend to feature the face. It is for this reason that criminal photo-fits tend to feature only the head, and why criminals’ disguises concentrate on concealing the face and head.
The problem with any mask or facial disguise is that it immediately marks someone out as a wrong-doer. The mere act of wearing a mask may itself be considered morally questionable, as it is a deception of sorts. The ‘mask has come to connote something disingenuous, something false’. It is overtly a disguise. David Napier observes that it is this sense of an incomplete identity that drives audiences to seek out the secret alternative identity hidden underneath. The mask is ‘known to have no inside’ and this ‘invit[es] the audience to peer behind the mask’.

This paper will explore the problem of the mask and its use in disguise. While effective disguise often necessitates the use of a mask (or other artefacts that distort or conceal the face), facial disguises often heighten the observer’s sense of curiosity about the identity beneath. Taking recent and historical examples of physical disguise, the paper will identify why the mask is the cornerstone of disguise, and simultaneously the disguise’s greatest point of vulnerability.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 25 Jul 2013
EventCULTHIST '13 Cultural History Conference - Istanbul, United Kingdom
Duration: 23 Jul 201325 Jul 2013


ConferenceCULTHIST '13 Cultural History Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom


  • disguise
  • mask
  • face
  • identity
  • deception


Dive into the research topics of '‘Anything but the face’: The mask as strength and vulnerability in disguise and identity deception'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this