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Face Paint – Guidance

Following on from the broadcast email letter to members ‘Calling time on full face black makeup’, on 3rd July 2020, here are some of the frequently asked questions from members.

See all our Face Paint pages:

What do you mean by “full face black or other skin tone makeup”?

JMO response: “Any solid full face coloured make up which could be taken by an observer as likely to imitate or parody a skin colour different from your own.”  ‘Make up’ is used here as a general term to mean any kind of stage make up, face paint, soot, charcoal, or similar.

Although we acknowledge that our member teams are not intentionally racist, this practice has long been associated with making fun of other races, through the portrayal of memes and stereotypes.  Since these historical portrayals most often used “blacking” of various sorts, full face black make up is now irrevocably associated with these memes in the minds of many people. It does not matter that it is not meant in that way.  It is the effect on others – not the intent – which could give rise to a legal challenge for racial harassment under the Equality Act.

The key words are “solid” and “full face”. If you want black to be part of your makeup or disguise, that is fine.  If you want to use only black, including smudgy or streaky designs, that is fine too – just keep it to less than half of the visible skin on your face.  Obvious patterns and designs are also a good way of using black without the potential to cause problems.  If you want to use a mask or face covering, please make sure that it doesn’t imitate full face black or other skin tone.

We want teams to honour the spirit of the request, not to worry about the minutiae of what is and is not allowed.

In short, we are asking teams to work with us on this matter, to help protect themselves and their fellow member teams from unintended problems.”

How can we achieve the look we want without using full face black?

Seven Champions Molly by Dorset Morri'arty Photography
Seven Champions Molly by Dorset Morri’arty Photography

Think about what effect you are trying to achieve. Just disguise? Looking hard or tough? Looking fun and approachable?

You could use other colours that look bold, tough and foreboding.

Consider how the paint is applied – a sponged rough-edged look can convey a rough tough feel.

A ‘chimney sweeps’ look can look tough and dishevelled – but keep it to below half of the visible skin on your face.  Please don’t use soot or burnt cork as they may be carcinogenic.

Try applying a stripe or symbol over the main colour of paint. Two colours with a good contrast will show up well.

Blocky patterns can be an effective disguise.

But black is an effective disguise!

Alton Morris by Dorset Morri'arty Photography
Alton Morris by Dorset Morri’arty Photography

Perhaps too effective – it certainly sends a multitude of messages, not all of them perhaps being the effect you are seeking.

But there are effective alternatives. Look around, experiment, try different colours, different patterns, combinations, masks.

In some teams each person has a different design of face paint which can be interesting for the audience and a good talking point.

There are now a great range of Covid masks – could that be your inspiration? What about veils, tatters, party disguises, …

This hasn’t been an issue before, why now?

Powderkegs Border Morris by Chris Birkenshaw
Powderkegs Border Morris by Chris Birkenshaw

Because we are your friends, and you need to hear this from us rather than anyone else. It has been an issue for many years.

We first raised it formally in 2016, but it has been a topic for discussion for many years before then, as you can read in our back issues of the Newsletter.

Yes, ‘black lives matter’ has influenced our stance.  Now is the time to change and to be seen to change. We are not a political organisation, but neither are we totally removed from the society in which we live and perform.

In the last few years, several teams have moved away from full face black makeup without a negative impact on the team or audience.  Some teams have found that the conversation with the audience has moved on from asking about black face paint to asking about the dances and the music.

But it’s traditional!

Exmoor Border Morris by Dorset Morri'arty Photography
Exmoor Border Morris by Dorset Morri’arty Photography

We do not define ourselves solely by what our predecessors may or may not have done.  Teams breach “tradition” every time they devise a new dance, use a new tune or change the nature and material of their costume.

Tradition is not sacred.  The Morris Federation owes its existence to a societal shift and a breach with the previously promulgated “tradition” that only men could perform the Morris.

Tradition does not excuse offence.  What was acceptable in the past has shifted, and is no longer acceptable in our world of today.


We hope that this answers some of your questions, and will provide inspiration to teams/individuals as they navigate through a transition from full face black makeup to other alternatives.


If you have any questions, or anything at all you wish to discuss with us on this topic, or any experiences of moving away from full face black makeup, or statements from your team that you wish to share, please do email us at

We would like to hear from all member teams who may be affected by this. Please email us at

Last updated: October 2020

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