Parallels, problems and possibilities of mask-wearing in pandemics

24 July 2020

Cultural historian and fashion lecturer Dr Benjamin Wild on mandatory face coverings



by Dr Benjamin Wild, Lecturer in Contextual Studies (Fashion) at Manchester Metropolitan University

In 1918, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors ordered the city’s inhabitants to wear a face mask in public. Violators of this instruction would be punished with fines of between $5 and $100, ten days’ imprisonment, ‘or both’. The Board’s ordinance was to be ‘immediately effective’.

These measures were an attempt to curb a different pandemic but they bear the hallmarks of the British government’s injunction, which comes into force today, and threatens fines of up to £100 if people do not wear a face covering in enclosed public spaces.

The ‘Spanish Influenza’ that the San Francisco authorities were responding to, claimed the lives of 50 million people between 1918 and 1919, more than double the number of fatalities from the First World War.

The contagions, their scale, and the world they ravaged may differ, but the impact of the ‘Spanish flu’ and the current Coronavirus pandemic on people’s behaviours is remarkably consistent. This similarity is symbolised by the face mask. 

Psychological tool

Today, as in the past, the pandemic was feared because it was invisible. What is unseen, and largely unknown, is hard to fight.

In these circumstances, the face mask plays an important role. Wearing one enables people to see and feel that they are doing something purposeful to combat a phantom menace.

This is clothing as psychological salve. Anthropologist David Kertzer has written about the importance of ritual actions that reduce people’s anxiety by allowing them to believe they can control a moment within an episode over which they are otherwise powerless.

The compulsion to make the pandemic tangible, and more easily resistible, also helps to explain why many people are making their own masks, or buying them from local independents.

To purchase a mask from a local company, or an individual new to needlework who has been forced to make ends meet after being furloughed or made redundant, strengthens a sense of collective action. This is especially the case when money raised through the sale of face masks is donated to charity.

Taking comfort in group solidarity, which some commentators have compared to the experiences of the Blitz during the Second World War, has become only more important now it is known that the Coronavirus can impact anyone, even the very young.

Laughter as medicine

Making a face mask, or having one customised, is also fun. A century ago, newspapers and newsletters printed stories about the absurd and comic face masks that people wore, or wished they could, during the pandemic. One American university newspaper, in January 1919, included drawings of six imagined masks, including the ‘Professors’ Special’, a nose and mouth covering in the shape of a question mark made from purple velvet and trimmed with gold.

The compulsion to make the pandemic tangible, and more easily resistible, also helps to explain why many people are making their own masks, or buying them from local independents.

Playful and equally impractical face masks are popular – certainly prevalent – today. Artist Ýrúrarí, knits masks with exaggerated lips, wonky teeth and protruding tongues. Anne-Sophie Cochevelou customises conventionally-shaped face masks with lace butterflies, Hello Kitty figures and dolls’ limbs.

The protection these masks offer is psychological rather than physical. They are examples of what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin would call the disarming power of laughter. The ability to challenge someone or something by making it risible helps to make it resistible.

The galvanising qualities of a shared giggle are no less important in establishing compliance among a large group of people. This surely explains the comedic headwear contraptions, complete with one-metre-long foam prongs, that have been used in continental Europe to ensure people maintain social distancing.

Levity also creates opportunities for personal expression. This is no minor consideration when a face mask conceals the mouth, possibly obscures the eyes, and so renders the most prominent and communicative parts of the human body mute.

If face masks decorated with doll’s limbs are too much, myriad opportunities remain for people to express their sartorial flair. There are couture masks that sell for several hundred pounds, masks from Savile Row tailors to pair with tweed three-piece suits, and packs of masks to ensure a different colour or pattern can be modelled each day, or in sequential Zoom meetings to ensure participants are truly paying attention.

The urge to customise, to maintain our unique appearances, is all the more irresistible because the prolonged lockdown has fundamentally changed how we live and conceive of our self and group-identities.

Historic parallels

The pandemic of 1918 and 1919 sparked initiatives that promoted people's health and wellbeing. Fitness and fit bodies were valorised in the popular media and in Hollywood. In America, plans to rebuild after the War included public works programmes for the construction of holiday resorts and swimming pools. President Roosevelt thereby provided a solution to a demand he helped to stoke.

The urge to customise, to maintain our unique appearances, is all the more irresistible because the prolonged lockdown has fundamentally changed how we live and conceive of our self and group-identities.

Combined, the pursuit of health, economic prosperity, and the prospect of adventure promised by Hollywood, created new demand for sun and sea in the first half of the twentieth century, and clothing styles to match.

Similar shifts in identity and dress are discernible after earlier pandemics. The Black Death, which recurred throughout the first half of the fourteenth century, and may have killed up to 50 million people, 60 per cent of Europe’s population, had what Richard Goldthwaite has termed an ‘inheritance effect’. Focusing on Italy, he argues that a smaller group of people inheriting wealth were emboldened to spend their inflated legacies with less caution than their predecessors. This created an increased demand for luxury goods and new opportunities for distinction in dress.

Today’s pandemic may be too close at hand to make any decisive statement about its sartorial legacy. Informed guesses are possible.

Masks and the ubiquity of online meetings have emphasised people’s heads and faces and appear to have catalysed interest in ‘ugly makeup’, a coinage of 2018 that describes the creative and non-conventional use of cosmetics, and other materials, to challenge normative concepts of beauty. Lockdown life has also promoted athleisure, as people prioritise practicality over panache.

If early signs are diagnostic, the demand that our clothing should do more – in the first instance, by providing physical and psychological comfort – seems to be heralding calls for a radical shake-up in the way that fashions are conceived, created and consumed.

If these calls are heeded, it would be one of the more visible and lasting impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic.

If early signs are diagnostic, the demand that our clothing should do more – in the first instance, by providing physical and psychological comfort – seems to be heralding calls for a radical shake-up in the way that fashions are conceived, created and consumed.

In the short term, the likelihood of seismic change within the fashion industry will be informed by how committed people are to put life before looks and follow today’s injunction.

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