• Steven Heller

When Hoods Go Bad

Hoods are by their very nature the most ominous of all pieces of wearing apparel. They are used to hide the identity of its wearers but also they are used to terrify the wearers too. There are indeed some ambiguities. Hoods have positive implications in a spiritual and religious sense, they protect the wearer from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. But they also function to elicit fear. A hood is ghostly; a hood imprisons; a hood is a blindfold; a hood is a mask. I’ve been thinking about the classic hood – not today’s hoodies – the head and face coverings designed for anonymity, used to shock and confine. Hoods can be simple bags or elaborate designs. Whatever the material, aesthetic or purpose, a hood is always evocatively eerie.


A bondage hood (also called a gimp mask or bondage mask) is a fetishistic hood. It may be made from rubber, latex, PVC, spandex, darlexx or leather. Full-faced hoods are typically used for the practice of head bondage, and to restrain and objectify the wearer through depersonalization, disorientation and/or sensory deprivation, like being in solitary confinement.



“How the Ku Klux Klan’s white hood came to be an icon of hatred is the story of image-makers: parade planners and playwrights, Hollywood and the mail-order catalog. Before they came along, though, the early Klan of the postwar South really was an “Invisible Empire,” emphasis on the invisibility: covert, decentralized, lacking hierarchy or uniforms, including the now-standard white, conical hood.” – The New Republic



Hoods have been portrayed in mythology and literature as part of the standard garb of the executioner. But alas, in truth, these gruesome servants of death, didn’t wear facial covering at all since anonymity was irrelevant. They took pride in their work as respected and well paid professionals who wielded power and commanded status in their times.



A capirote is a pointed hat of conical form that is used in Spain as part of the uniform of some brotherhoods including the Nazarenos and Fariseos during Easter observances and reenactments of Holy Week.



A balaclava is cloth or knitted headgear designed to expose only part of the face. Depending on style and how it is worn, only the eyes, mouth and nose, or just the front of the face are visible. They are commonly used by military, paramilitary and police as well as for less lethal professions.



The conspirators in the Lincoln assassination wore canvas hoods with rope ties were made for this purpose. The accused wore the hoods in their cells and on their way to trial. The court sentenced four suspects, Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, and Mary Surratt, to be hanged, and Dr. Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlin, Samuel Arnold, and Edman Spangler to prison.





In 1904 the War Department transferred to the Smithsonian the hoods, shackles, and prison keys associated with the imprisonment of Lincoln’s assassins.



“The use of hoods during torture at Abu Ghraib, the hood’s censorship and disorientation works both ways. Not only is the prisoner blinded, so, too, are the practitioners of violence and the citizens of the empire shielded. The hood depersonalizes and thus sanitizes the gruesome spectacle of public execution and torture by shielding the audience and executioners from the pain, fear, possible defiance, and humanity revealed on the prisoner’s face.” – Design and Violence, MoMA, 2015


About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →


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