Phillip Rhodes at MTC HQ, February 2020. Photo: Brett Walker
Phillip Rhodes at MTC HQ, February 2020. Photo: Brett Walker

Melbourne’s masked millinery moment

In the midst of the fashion capital of Australia’s mask mandate, MTC’s milliner is making some very stylish statement masks.

By Melanie Sheridan

Masks and the theatre are intrinsically related: the comedy and tragedy masks are immediately recognisable as a visual shorthand for drama. So how are Melbourne’s theatre makers capitalising on the city’s mandated mask moment? Meet MTC’s milliner Phillip Rhodes, who has spent the stage 4 lockdown creating fabulous, catwalk-ready COVID masks.

‘A mask tells us more than a face.’ So noted Oscar Wilde in his 1891 collection of essays known as Intentions. He was referring to metaphorical masks, but it’s this theatrical understanding of masks that underpins the self-expression evident as Melburnians don their mandated face coverings en masse.

While there are plenty of disposable masks visible during allowed outings, alongside the classic ‘Melbourne black’ re-usable cloth masks are an endless variety of patterned, decorated, brightly coloured or otherwise unique masks, many of them homemade or hand-sewn. In mid-August, Rhodes went one step further and posted an image of his first creation on his Instagram. He captioned it: ‘The Mask; controversial as the Fascinator to some; widely adopted as the headwear-de-jour by many. Will we seek to find self-expression in personal protection? Millinery construction methods employed for comfort and style for every-day-wearing.’

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Masks by Phillip Rhodes

Comfort and style

While this mask – as well as its follow-up, titled Kiss of the Cat Woman (a nod to MTC’s 2019 production of Kiss of the Spider Woman) – appears impressively stylish, it also looks quite comfortable, all things considered, thanks to its millinery connection: the headband component. ‘Because putting things on my head is my life, the first thing I did was think about that,’ he tells me. ‘The ear elastic thing had no appeal to me at all: sunglasses can irritate me, so I was convinced that elastics around my ears would potentially irritate me too. I didn’t know if people would think it was too invasive though, but then I realised that all the surgical ones have head ties.’

When Rhodes says putting things on his head is his life, he’s not exaggerating. The former president of the Millinery Association of Australia, he’s been MTC’s resident milliner since 2007: you’ve seen his handiwork in shows including Shakespeare in Love, Twelfth Night, An Ideal Husband, Hay Fever, Born Yesterday, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Drowsy Chaperone, The Glass Soldier, The Mad Woman of Chaillot and many more. Prior to joining the Company – where he’s colloquially known as ‘Phillip from Hats’ – he was head milliner with the Australian Ballet. He is one of the few remaining Australian milliners to have received traditional workroom training, and he’s worked extensively in theatrical millinery, both here and overseas. His hats have adorned the heads of actors in stage shows such as Les Misérables, films including Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V, and celebrities from Joan Collins to Kylie Minogue

Rhodes started making masks in lockdown ‘almost by accident’ when clients he would normally make hats for began asking for masks instead. He wasn’t too keen initially, but was convinced when it became clearer that the mask is ‘the everyday hat of 2020’. By the time they became compulsory in late July as part of stage 4 restrictions, he was making masks for clients, family and friends, with plenty of positive feedback – especially around how comfortable his masks were: in addition to their head ties they are constructed in such a way as to sit out in front of the wearer’s face, away from their nose. ‘I pride myself on the fact that you can actually stick your tongue out in mine!’ he says. ‘But I started thinking that if I’m going to do masks I need to do something a bit more. That’s when I started with the little head pieces. Then I just made those other sort of silly ones because I wanted to stand out a bit, really.’

A fashion moment

The ‘sort of silly’ masks are nevertheless ‘probably quite wearable,’ he says, ‘but I’m actually preparing to make something that’s less wearable, something impractical!’ The motivation to make an impractical mask was born out of the thought that we are in the middle of a unique fashion moment. ‘I’m wondering to what point they’ll become collectible,’ he muses. ‘Will the NGV, for instance, seek some masks to put into their permanent collection because it’s such a moment? Such an incredible fashion moment.’

The creator behind many of Melbourne’s fashionable fascinators, Rhodes has numerous concepts for impractical masks. Chief among them are racing masks: ‘the three obvious ones would be a Derby Day one in black and white with corn flowers, a Cup Day one that’s crazier, and a Ladies’ Day one.’ He’s also considered making a Here Comes the Bride mask, with a bouquet, and one that’s called Ladies’ Man, ‘which is going to have a moustache and a kiss on the cheek’. He’s also thinking about creating an Alice in Wonderland mask and a Mae West one, based on Dali’s surrealist painting of her. ‘I might do just the lips, and put a gold frame around the lips.’

Despite his grand plans to make masks that ‘can’t be ignored and won’t be ignored’, Rhodes doesn’t consider himself a creative person. ‘I feel like I get the job done,’ he explains. ‘It’s the problem solving that’s the interesting thing.’ He acknowledges that he’s enjoyed thinking about and making these ‘more extreme’ masks, however, and calls them the most artistic thing he’s ever done in that they were created 100% for himself, for fun. ‘All of a sudden I’ve been thinking about things I’d like to do,’ he says. ‘Before this, I usually was making something for a reason.’

Unexpected benefits

If the pandemic has given Rhodes the breathing space to think about making artistic fashion pieces just for fun, it’s also had an oddly beneficial effect on his mental health. Life pre-COVID for a milliner in Melbourne could get very hectic. In 2019, Rhodes was simultaneously working on Shakespeare in Love, another large non-MTC show production as well as hats for the spring racing season. ‘This is my 30th Cup season coming up, and it’s the first time I’ve ever smelled the jasmine without feeling sick,’ he says. So while acknowledging the incredible distress and suffering caused by the pandemic and societal shutdown – as well as noting the lifesaving importance of the JobKeeper payments – he also views this moment as a unique opportunity. ‘The upside of the whole thing has been to stop what I normally do. And that’s not been a terrible thing. I actually think my mental health in a better state now. I feel strangely relaxed about everything.’

Also helping with Rhodes’s mental (and financial) health during lockdown have been the Zoom millinery classes he’s leading; indeed, he’s enjoyed them so much that he plans to keep them up even after restrictions ease. ‘I couldn’t just sit around and wait for when it all goes back to normal because we don’t really know when that’s going to happen and to what extent it’s going to happen.’

The masked audience

One thing Rhodes does believe in regards to our eventual new normal is that masks will remain a part of it. Not as everyday wear, but he thinks that no one will ever again have a sniffle, or a cold, and not put one on. ‘I think people are going to look down on somebody who sits there sniffing without a mask on. It will become the norm, and I think that people will wear them in theatres voluntarily. I do.’

It wouldn’t be the first time that a utilitarian item introduced during times of disaster ended up staying with us as something far more fashionable. During WWII, British civilians were encouraged to carry gasmasks at all times, in case of chemical attack (the contemporary messaging – ‘it may be a little irksome at first, but you’ll soon get used to it’ – is equally applicable in 2020). To accommodate these awkwardly bulky full-face masks, many women swapped their fashionable clutches for larger carry cases with shoulder straps. Over time, shoulder bags too became fashionable – Rhodes notes that Vivien Leigh was an early adopter, with a ‘terribly chic’ black patent leather one.

Either way, we may just end up seeing Rhodes’s gala masks forming part of audience’s opening night outfits sometime soon.

Red-carpet gala masks from around the world

As Phillip Rhodes has noted, the mask is having a truly 2020 fashion moment. An Israeli jeweller is creating a white-gold, diamond-covered mask worth $1.5 million and on (socially distanced) red carpets, at gala awards presentations and fashion shows around the globe, designers and other creatives are showing off their most outrageous, fabulous and dramatic face-covering style. 

Ada Afoluwake Ogunkeye

At the Africa Magic Viewers’ Choice Awards in March, Nigerian radio host and presenter Ada Afoluwake Ogunkeye, aka Folu Storms, wore a gem-encrusted decorative mask and matching dress by Nonye Goodie-Obi.

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Disco Ball mask

Allison Eden is a New York-based glass mosaic artist, but she also loves fashion and created this disco-ball mosaic mask for the opening of Brooklyn Museum’s Studio 54: Night Magic exhibition. 

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Lady Gaga at the VMAs

One of the many masks donned by Lady Gaga during the 2020 Video Music Awards. Ariana Grande, also wearing a mask, joined her for a performance of Rain on Me.

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Mongolian masks

The official Twitter account of Indian Embassy in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, posted images of these embroidered Mongolian face masks in early July.

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Thai-inspired headress and mask

Fashion designer Kennedy Jhon Gasper’s Thai-inspired headdress and mask.

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The Blonds at NY Fashion Week

Getting in on the action earlier than most, models wore Pitta Masks on the runway for The Blonds during New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Gallery I at Spring Studios on 9 February 2020.

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Venice Film Festival

At the 2020 Biennale di Venezia – the first major international film festival to be physically staged since March – the stars were somewhat fashionably subdued, although Italian singer and DJ Principe Maurice turned heads on the red carpet with this show-stopping Flassy mask.

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Also walking the red-carpet at Venice was actor Tilda Swinton, with a bespoke James T Merry masquerade-style mask, designed for show rather than protection:

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Published on 4 September 2020

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