A Brief History of the Guy Fawkes Mask

Getty Images
Getty Images

Over the past decade, dissidents across the globe have appropriated the visage of Guy Fawkes, the infamous insurgent who tried to blow up the British Parliament in 1605, warping the once-reviled fringe rebel into a widespread symbol of resistance.

The iconic version of the Guy Fawkes mask owes its popularity to the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta, which centers on a vigilante's efforts to destroy an authoritarian government in a dystopian future United Kingdom. Although he didn't predict the mask's role in popular protest, David Lloyd, the artist who illustrated the comic, told The New York Times, "It's a great symbol of protest for anyone who sees tyranny."

Before V for Vendetta (which was published in serial form throughout the 1980s before being made into a 2005 film), Guy Fawkes costumes and effigies were only popular in the U.K. on Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day, a November 5 celebration that, by the 20th century, had been largely divorced from Fawkes' violent plot.

But as you've likely noticed, over the past few years the stylized mask has evolved into a global symbol of dissent, employed by everyone from shadowy computer hackers to Turkish airline workers. And although the masks are often used in anti-establishment demonstrations, one of the largest media corporations in the country gains the most from the masks' rising popularity. Time Warner owns the rights to the image, and at over 100,000 masks made each year, it is by far the company's best-selling facial costume.

Here, a brief history of the mask's unlikely rise:

ANONYMOUS

The hacktivist collective Anonymous popularized these masks in 2008 when it launched Project Chanology, a movement targeting the Church of Scientology after the church tried to censor an interview with Tom Cruise on the web. Members of the collective agreed to come out from behind their computer screens to protest the Church of Scientology, but needed a way to conceal their identities. The Guy Fawkes mask was their chosen disguise. Although the collective has never officially stated the reasoning behind this choice, it's likely an homage to an eerie scene in V for Vendetta in which a group of masked protesters marches on the British Parliament. When asked why the mask was selected, one protester told The Boston Globe, "I can't say, not having contact with the inner circle—wherever they are—but I can say the image of people marching towards Parliament in the spirit of protest, that wall of masks, had a certain resonance amongst those who held negative feelings about organizations such as Scientology but also towards the government." The project grew into a national movement with demonstrations in Florida, Michigan, Boston, and Los Angeles. Since then, the masks have become a go-to symbol of the collective and anti-establishment movements worldwide.

After Anonymous' first major political demonstration in 2008, the collective began cleverly aligning itself with a variety of anti-establishment movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring. It is, in part, due to these loose affiliations that the adopted emblem of one movement evolved into a global symbol of resistance.

OCCUPY

The Occupy Movement, born out of the Zuccotti Park-based Occupy Wall Street, adopted the mask in 2011. On Guy Fawkes Day that year, a Facebook invitation urged "all OCCUPY protesters of the world to come together on November 5th to rally again for our efforts to end corruption and social injustice." From that point on, the symbolism of the mask evolved concurrently with the movement.

It's logical that OWS would appropriate the disguise of the faceless anti-establishment crusader from Lloyd's franchise. Still, the mask doesn't carry such weight for everyone who dons it. Sid Hiltunen, an unemployed stockbroker who joined the OWS movement, told The New York Times, "If you want to show your support but are afraid you'll lose your job, just wear a mask—any mask."

Protesters around the world were spotted wearing the anti-authoritarian vigilante's trademark disguise. Even Julian Assange, the man behind WikiLeaks, wore one to an Occupy rally in London.

PROTESTS IN THAILAND

This summer, another anti-government movement embraced the Guy Fawkes mask. In Thailand, protesters wore them in demonstrations against the so-called puppet administration controlled by an exiled ex-prime minister. This isn't the first time the mask has surfaced in Thailand. In 2011 a small band of protesters in Bangkok donned them the same day the "Anonymous Thailand" Facebook page launched. The masks and leaderless nature of the demonstrations are reminiscent of the global Occupy movement and the anti-establishment Anonymous message.

TURKISH AIRLINES WORKERS

In a contemporaneous movement, Turkish Airlines employees have adopted the masks to fight for their rights as workers.

THE MIDDLE EAST

The mask also played a role in the Arab Spring movements of 2011, and photos of masked protesters in Egypt also emerged this fall. The Guy Fawkes mask has become so incendiary that several Middle Eastern countries are prohibiting its import and sale. The Saudi Ministry of Interior did just that on May 30, claiming the mask "instills a culture of violence and extremism." The measure was expanded several days later to include the destruction of all masks currently in Saudi stores. In February the government in Bahrain also banned the masks.

THE NSA LEAKER'S GIRLFRIEND

The voyeuristic media coverage surrounding NSA leaker Edward Snowden's alleged girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, includes some undeniably frivolous content, but one aspect of the story is pertinent. At one point, Snowden uploaded a photo of a woman (presumably Mills) wearing a Guy Fawkes mask. As a symbol of anti-government resistance and the unofficial emblem of a pro-transparency hacktivist collective, this mask may be the most relevant piece of information surrounding her.

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The unlikely proliferation of the Guy Fawkes mask in popular protest came as a welcome surprise to its creator. Alan Moore, author of V for Vendetta, told The Guardian, "I suppose when I was writing V for Vendetta, I would in my secret heart of hearts have thought: Wouldn't it be great if these ideas actually made an impact? So when you start to see that idle fantasy intrude on the regular world … It's peculiar. It feels like a character I created 30 years ago has somehow escaped the realm of fiction."

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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The Tumultuous History of Tinsel

PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images
PoppyPixels/iStock via Getty Images

When December rolls around, we find ourselves asking the same questions: What’s in figgy pudding? Why do I need to make the Yuletide gay? And what is tinsel exactly?

That last question is only slightly less mystifying than the first two. Many of us have seen tinsel—if not in person, then in one of the countless holiday movies and television specials that air this time of year. It’s the stringy, shiny, silvery stuff that’s hung up as decoration, primarily on Christmas trees. But what is it made of? And why is it associated with the holiday season? This is where the seemingly simple decoration gets complicated.

Tinsel is one of the cheaper items used to trim trees today, but that wasn’t always the case. In 17th century Germany, the first Christmas trees were embellished with tinsel made from real silver pressed into strips. These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lit candles, and the silver combined with the flickering firelight created a twinkly effect that worked as a precursor to modern-day string lights.

Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. It was expensive, so only the wealthiest families had access to it. And those who did have enough money to own tinsel had a limited window to use it, as the metal often tarnished before December 25.

By the early 1900s, the Christmas traditions imported by German immigrants had become mainstream in the U.S. Americans were looking for affordable ways to beautify the evergreens in their living rooms, so manufacturers started making tinsel out of aluminum and copper. The updated decorations produced the same festive sparkle as the silver versions, but for a fraction of the price; also, they could be reused year after year. But they weren’t perfect: The aluminum paper in tinsel was extremely flammable, making it a disastrous choice for dry trees decorated with lights. When World War I began, copper production was funneled toward the war effort and tinsel disappeared from holiday displays.

Its absence turned out to be temporary. Despite centuries of hiccups, makers of holiday decor still believed tinsel deserved a place in modern Christmas celebrations. They just needed to come up with the right material to use, something that could be hung in every home without any backlash. In the early 20th century, the clear choice was lead.

Lead revived tinsel from obscurity, and soon it was embraced as a standard Christmas component along with ornaments and electric lights. It became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that tinsel is often thought of as a mid-century fad rather than a tradition that’s been around as long as Christmas trees themselves.

With so many synthetic decorations becoming available around Christmastime, tinsel made from metal was considered one of the safer items to have in the home. A 1959 newspaper article on holiday safety reads: “Tinsel is fairly safe, because even if kiddies decide to swallow it, it will not cause poisoning.”

As we know today, tinsel made from lead isn’t “fairly safe.” Lead that gets ingested or absorbed through the skin can cause headaches, vomiting, constipation, and in extreme cases, brain and kidney damage. Young children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government started setting limits on how much lead can be in consumer products, and in 1972, the FDA came to an agreement with tinsel manufacturers that production of the lead product would cease.

It may not be as en vogue as it was 60 years ago, but tinsel still resurfaces every holiday season. So if the tinsel we use today isn’t made from silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? The answer is polyvinyl chloride. Industrial machines shred shiny ribbons of the plastic to make the wispy strands that add a bit of glamour to Christmas trees. Plastic tinsel isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metal, and it’s lightweight, so it’s less likely to stay put after it’s hung over a pine branch. For these reasons, PVC tinsel never caught on to the degree of its predecessor, but it still succeeds in bringing vintage bling to the holidays without poisoning your family.

26 Fascinating Facts About Fossils

Mental Floss via YouTube
Mental Floss via YouTube

If you’ve never visited the Big Bone Room, you’re in luck. Check out our visit to New York City's American Museum of Natural History for a rundown on fossils, which provide invaluable insight into our understanding of history and its once-living occupants.

In this edition of "The List Show," editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy explains the ins and outs of excavation, fossil follies (extinct giants were a big miss), and the terrorizing prospect of a 3-foot-tall parrot.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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